2016 elections, Bryan Caplan, chattering class, China, currency manipulation, Donald Trump, echo chamber, Financial Crisis, Global Imbalances, Im-Politic, Immigration, Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Mainstream Media, Open Borders, Project Syndicate, The Atlantic, TIME, Trade, Vanity Fair, Vietnam War, Walter Cronkite
I’ve always found the role played by the Mainstream Media in setting the national policy agenda fascinating, important – and sorely neglected. As suggested in recent posts about establishment figures and organs expressing formerly taboo perspectives about U.S. involvement in the Middle East, the nation’s leading publications and news shows in particular not only actively campaign for favored policies through legitimate (e.g., their own editorials) or not-so-legitimate (biased reporting) means.
In addition, especially with opinion articles they publish and post, they exert influence more subtly – by deciding which subjects and positions are acceptable for their often highly educated and politically active readers, and of course for politicians, to raise. And as others in the media or the nation’s political classes and other elites start getting and repeating the message, powerful momentum for chosen views can be generated through what many observers have called the “echo chamber effect.”
In my lifetime, one of the clearest examples was the late CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite’s famous 1968 broadcast portraying victory in the Vietnam War had become a futile ambition for the United States. Until then, respectable opinion was split, but along the relatively narrowly drawn lines of calls for escalating America’s military involvement, and calls for (some kind of) negotiated solution to the conflict. But Cronkite’s pessimism was so complete and unexpected, and his judgment and integrity so highly regarded, that even though he endorsed more energetic diplomacy, the idea of cutting losses and simply pulling up stakes inevitably moved from the wings toward center stage.
So that’s why it’s important to spotlight examples of this agenda-setting and momentum-creation on top of those already discussed in these digital pages – especially since the two latest exemplify some troubling contemporary twists. Authors have been permitted to air path-breaking versions of preferred points of view without being required to contend with screamingly obvious objections. And these missives are appearing practically – and suspiciously – back to back. Even worse, there appears to be a blatantly political, Campaign 2016-focused objective being sought as well.
The first example concerns immigration, and my conviction that it can’t be completely coincidental that both TIME magazine and The Atlantic presented readers with articles making the case for completely open borders within three days of each other!
I’m not saying that this is not a perfectly valid opinion to hold. But in addition to the timing, what’s revealing – and in fact outrageous – is that evidently none of the editors at either publication asked the authors to deal seriously with the potential problems that relatively wealthy countries would run into if they started sending “Come one, come all” messages around the world. After all, it’s not like the chaos that’s resulted in part from the European Union’s welcoming stance regarding refugees has not been screamingly obvious for months. And imagine the possible magnet effect on Mexico if the United States explicitly dropped its immigration limits and border enforcement. (Not to mention the national security threats that could arise.)
To his credit, the author of the TIME column, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, did acknowledge such challenges. But although his answer – restrict welfare benefits for immigrants – is defensible logically, it’s absurd politically. What makes him believe that most of the pro-amnesty forces would accept this kind of compromise?
The second example of such sophisticated propagandizing concerns international trade. In this case, two other economists (and indeed, much bigger names than the above open borders champions) have argued for coddling China’s brazen violations of market-oriented commercial norms, including its currency manipulation. Again, although I strongly disagree, there’s a defensible argument for the United States to accommodate China’s rise. Ditto for believing that with enough supposed smarts in Washington, the opportunities for mutual gain should and will outweigh the temptation in both Washington and Beijing to view bilateral relations as an exclusively zero-sum proposition.
But both authors – Nobel economics laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz and superstar Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs – have ignored what happened when the United States pursued just this strategy on the economic front just a short decade ago. The resulting trade and investment imbalances arguably helped trigger the global financial crisis. It’s infuriating that neither author – both of whom are surely familiar with this contention and the impressive evidence for it – referred to this danger. And it’s appalling that none of the editors of even Vanity Fair magazine and the Project Syndicate website that showcased their work brought up the question.
Either these staffs weren’t aware of this objection, or they shunted it to the side in order to portray these theses in the best possible light. Neither explanation would reflect well on media platforms that claim to value educating the public. And let’s not forget that Stiglitz’ Vanity Fair article was posted barely a week after Sachs’ Project Syndicate column.
So it seems entirely reasonable to conclude that these four articles were published and posted specifically to start convincing the public not only to support today’s watered down versions of open borders-type immigration and trade policies. They also sought to demonstrate that the logical extremes of these policies are eminently feasible as well as desirable. And son of a gun – which front-running presidential hopeful this year has made more restrictive immigration and trade proposals his core issues?
The First Amendment properly protects the media’s right to engage in such subliminal political advertising. If only the Constitution could protect the public’s right to know when it’s being manipulated.