Why journalists sound like idiots even though they're actually smarter than you

Brad DeLong has a fine new installment from the department of "Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps" here, in which he proposes an answer for how journalism's best and brightest can day after day turn out articles which read like transcripts of competing interests' press releases (see Bumiller, Elizabeth). Or that twilight zone feeling one gets reading a news article reporting different numbers derived from the same policy proposal; one understands that proponents will spin the arithmetic, but don't journalists have calculators, too?

In addition to Brad's compelling description of the quite banal reasons that very talented reporters are unlikely to report independently on substantive questions, the interesting bit to me lies in how the public talks about these issues, particularly economics.

For a nation that is regularly lectured on how desperately it needs a massive dose of Econ 101, we sure do get into heated arguments about fairly technical economic points. Pundits you wouldn't trust to summarize a novel for you toss about theories concerning "inflation" or "flexible labor markets" as though they had just finished crunching the numbers, while all sorts of "causal" relationships are invented which somehow always manage to result in the columnist's desired political outcome.

Surely there are exceptions, and I would suggest that Paul Krugman's real popularity comes not from his take no prisoners assaults on Bush, but from the fact that he actually is a real economist, who, agree with him or not, is doing real economics in his column, as evidenced by the National Review running an entire feature with Don Luskin solely to (not) pick apart Krugman's economic commentary.

But I digress.

The reason Americans need an economic class is not for their own edification or the enrichment of the discourse, but because the popular language of economics has become a remarkably potent rhetorical tool. Politicians are not idiots. They know that regardless of their optimism, or their ideas for education, or their macho posturing on foreign policy, elections have historically been won and lost on the health of the economy. In the hands of today's great spin machines, that knowledge translates into a rich distortion of words, signifiers, and logic structures culled and repackaged from the economics discipline.

Witness the Bush camp's current campaign to promote the 'truth' of his economic 'recovery'. The argument they are asking the public to buy regarding the tax cuts is not simply, "I will give you cash", but rather a somewhat complex scenario where by producers are emboldened to create jobs by virtue of the greater capital they have acquired through tax cuts. That it is based on 'real' models of supply side economics is irrelevant. This is an argument they expect voters to respond to because they have created an economic theory with an appealing logic. Kerry's challenge is to create a contrary but similarly appealing economic story. Banking on the fact that voters' personal experience corresponds to an unfavorable view of their or their neighbors' economic situations, and that he can effectively argue this is connected to Bush's policy.

Of course, this manipulation of economics is enabled by several very frustrating facts. First, that economics as a discipline is inherently incredibly vague and inconclusive, prone to wildly different results and assumptions. Second, the complete lack of public understanding as to how much government actions, and specifically, the actions of the executive affect the economy at large. Misunderstandings in this realm are perhaps the most lucrative fodder for enterprising PR flacks.

But back to the point. The appropriation and manipulation of economics language in modern mass politics is a fascinating story, and at the root of many of the more inane, artificial debates that fill screen inches these days. Good subject for a book, anyone?


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