Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gotta Go

Andrew Ferguson writes on the national media's current "go to guy" for all things economic in a piece at Commentary called Press Man: The Prisoner of Zandi:

In a news story about Obama’s plans for a big spending bill, in December 2008, the New York Times identified him as a “Republican economist advising Democrats.” In reality, he was a Democratic economist who’d just got done advising a Republican, and “advising” is (probably) not the right word. In any case, the Times was right about one thing: Zandi was very busy advising Democrats, helping to write the stimulus bill, and Capitol Hill Democrats embraced him as warmly as reporters did. In speeches on the House and Senate floors they quoted “the noted conservative economist” and “Republican economist” saying things that any good liberal would agree with. He became a recurring character on the business and news shows on cable TV, filling the role of Reasonable Republican, identified as “an adviser to John McCain” or “an economist who has advised both Democrats and Republicans,” a real pro who had set aside partisanship to endorse President Obama’s common-sense solutions. Nancy Pelosi repeated his name as if it had the power of an incantation.

Zandi had long been an advocate of stimulus, any stimulus, whether its provenance was Republican or Democratic. When President Bush proposed a $150 billion stimulus in the summer of 2008, Zandi said it “was big enough to provide a meaningful economic boost.” In September, when Bush was lamenting he had to violate his free-market principles to save them, Zandi was much more enthusiastic: “Make no mistake: what the government has done will sew [sic] the seeds for I think a very, very sharp recovery.” (A man who says “make no mistake” is always making one.)

You will notice that these statements share two prominent features. First, they’re predictions and, second, they’re wrong. More frequently than most go-to guys, Zandi volunteers not merely subtly shaded opinions, not merely Ornsteinian “context” and Brinklean “perspective,” but bald predictions about how matters will lie a year or two or three from now. Over time, Zandi’s predictions are tested by reality. In August 2006, he told Newsweek that housing prices would bottom out in August 2007. In October 2007, he told the National Association of Home Builders that the bottom would come in late 2008. In April 2009, he told Time magazine that housing prices would bottom out by the end of the year. (“I feel very confident about this,” he said.) Three months later, he told NPR that “by this time next year, the market will have hit bottom.” The market is still looking for its bottom, and so is Zandi, with both hands.

The beauty of being one of these "go to guys" is that having a dismal track record when it comes to predictions doesn't matter. No one is ever going to go back to one of these guys with a follow up on why their projections proved so miserably wrong. As long as they say the right things (from a left-wing perspective) and can make a claim to being objective (however baseless), the media will keep beating a path to their door for their latest and greatest words of wisdom on events of the day.

A perfect example of this on the local scene is how often Larry Jacobs name comes up in media accounts of Minnesota politics. He's our own version of the "go to guy."