As both a former journalist and an analyst who has worked closely with them, I’ve long shed any illusions about the smarts, the energy, or the integrity of the vast majority of this profession’s members, and especially those that work for national, Mainstream Media outlets. Nor do I have any more doubts about the mounting danger to American democracy’s health posed by the combination of Big Journalism’s immense influence, its near perfect isolation from the lives and concerns of Main Street Americans, its fierce protectiveness of self-serving elitist groupthink, and its almost complete lack of accountability.
And for all this cynicism, I am still slackjawed over the appalling conduct of the three CNBC moderators of last night’s Republican presidential debate in Colorado. (Here’s the full transcript, if you’re a masochist.)
Make no mistake. This complaint isn’t about “tough questions” – or coddling thin-skinned politicians. This is about an unforgivably imperious effort to decree virtually an entire major political party to be devoid of presidential candidates remotely fit for office, and its rank and file to be all but subhuman in intellect. More troubling – because largely unwitting – this course reflected less deliberate partisanship than an instinctive protectiveness of the current political class and its excessive status and privileges.
If you think I’m being too harsh, consider the following questions:
For (still?) front-running businessman Donald Trump: “Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?”
For Florida Senator Marco Rubio: “You’ve been a young man in a hurry ever since you won your first election in your 20s….Why not slow down, get a few more things done first or least finish what you start?”
For former Florida Governor Jeb Bush: “Ben Bernanke, who was appointed Fed chairman by your brother, recently wrote a book in which he said he no longer considers himself a Republican because the Republican Party has given in to know- nothingism.”
For former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee: “As a preacher as well as a politician, you know that presidents need the moral authority to bring the entire country together. The leading Republican candidate, when you look at the average of national polls right now, is Donald Trump. When you look at him, do you see someone with the moral authority to unite the country?”
And then there was this question (to Trump) – less obviously insulting, but just as revealing of the “pull up the drawbridge” mentality: “I talked to economic advisers who have served presidents of both parties. They said that you have as chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms.”
Let’s leave aside how a Trump (or Ben Carson, or Democrat Bernie Sanders, for that matter) presidency would kneecap the access to power responsible for the livelihoods not only of establishment journalists but of the policy world’s politically ambitious economists. Let’s also therefore leave aside that the vast majority of the economists that national journalists would consult with are driven not only by such career considerations, but by agendas that are either hopelessly partisan or determined by the special interests that fund them.
Let’s focus instead on the operative assumption that anyone can forecast to any useful extent the impact of tax rate changes on a $16-plus trillion economy with some 142 million (nonfarm) workers, nearly 93 million working age Americans outside the workforce, 123.2 million households, and nearly 7.5 million businesses. Yes, it’s widely believed that the economics profession boasts these powers. But simply articulating this premise, as opposed to accepting it mindlessly, reveals how looney it is, even when it comes to intellectually honest analysts.
The CNBC moderators actually did ask some serious and therefore necessary questions that exposed inconsistencies, factually dubious claims, and unreasonable assumptions in some of the candidates’ proposals. But follow-up was limited – and many issues ignored completely – because it was obviously imperative to leave sufficient time for mudslinging and incitement.
Ironically, CNBC was hoping that last night’s broadcast would attract big new audiences to its daytime finance and economics coverage. If there’s any justice, most of these new viewers turned off their sets vowing, “Never again.”