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The Dominant Media, “Left-Leaning” Economists and the Illusion of Consensus

A recent New York Times article falsely depicted a consensus among liberal economists opposed to Bernie Sanders’ proposals.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd of supporters in New York City on September 18, 2015. (Photo: Michael Vadon)

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“Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.”—Kurt Vonnegut, 1990

In a matter of a few days, The New York Times and a handful of liberal economists, most of them with close ties to the Democratic Party establishment, created an imaginary left-wing consensus against the most transformative Keynesian reforms in Bernie Sanders’ economic agenda. Many economists and experts have since attempted to counter this manufactured consensus, but the mainstream media have largely ignored these efforts. As this false narrative turns into conventional wisdom, prospects for much-needed and substantive changes to our economy – universal health care, access to higher education, a dignified standard of living for all – continue to dwindle.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

This development shows the power of the propaganda function of the mass media in the United States, which keeps parameters of debate limited on an extremely narrow spectrum. These parameters are largely shaped by the political parties, with the Democratic Party reflecting the liberal end of acceptable discourse in publications like The New York Times – thus far and no further. To go beyond this point will result in one being marginalized, ignored or mocked – treated as if they have taken “off from the planet,” as Noam Chomsky once described the phenomenon. Given the narrative the mainstream media have pushed in recent weeks, it appears that proposals like single-payer health care and tuition-free college go well beyond these parameters. This is not all that surprising given the Democratic Party’s financial relationship with the pharmaceutical industry and the financial services industry.

Establishment Media and Economists Attack Sanders’ Agenda

On February 15, 2016, the Times published an article called, “Left-leaning economists question costs of Sanders’ economic plans.” The article cited, interviewed or quoted five establishment (if liberal) economists (and one pundit) critiquing, attacking and at times flat-out mocking the “seriousness” and plausibility of Sanders’ economic plans for things like single-payer health care and major investments in infrastructure or higher education. The attacks were largely aimed at an analysis calculated by University of Massachusetts economist Gerald Friedman, using what Friedman and others insist is conventional economic modeling. The Times’ sources described Sanders’ plans and Friedman’s conclusions in the following ways: “puppies and rainbows”; “magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars”; “fairy tales” and “wishful thinking.”

Not a single economist who supports these plans (and many exist) was quoted in the story. Nor, for that matter, was Friedman, whose work was attacked by name. “The New York Times did not contact me [for the article],” Friedman told Truthout. “And they still haven’t contacted me.” The article also failed to mention that hundreds of economists have signed a letter expressing personal support for Sanders’ economic agenda. Former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich is among the signatories. Other signatories include Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Richard Wolff of Democracy at Work and the New School for Social Research, both of whom are more accurately reflective of “left-leaning economists,” than ones cited by the Times.

The article ignored many other important facts. It made no mention of the many studies that have been done over the years that show single-payer on a national scale to not only be viable, but also to have great benefits. Some of these studies were even written by Ken Thorpe, who was one of the critics cited in the Times article and the author of a paper written in January that suggests Sanders is underestimating the cost and overstating the benefits.

The Times’ sources described Sanders’ plans and Friedman’s conclusions as “puppies and rainbows”; “fairy tales” and “wishful thinking.”

In 2005, according to an archive complied by Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), Thorpe led a study for the National Coalition on Health Care. This study, PNHP summarizes, “found that the single-payer model would reduce costs by over $1.1 trillion over the next decade while providing comprehensive benefits to all Americans.” Many research studies been done over the last 25 years, including by the Congressional Budget Office, the Economic Policy Institute and the Government Accountability Office, concluding that single-payer health care – a cornerstone of Sanders’ economic agenda – saves money and boosts the economy.

The paper also fails to mention many other studies that analyzed statewide single-payer plans that all show great savings and economic benefits to the efficiency of single-payer. Again, Thorpe was the author of at least one such study. In 2005, he was commissioned by the Vermont Committee on Health Care Reform to assess the impacts of single-payer in Vermont. His report shows tremendous savings and benefits. The Times did not bother to mention any of these studies nor question Thorpe’s previous findings other than to point out that health-care reform efforts died in Vermont, which further implied the impossibility of single-payer.

The Times’ article blew up across social media and other media outlets. This was in part because Paul Krugman, the influential economist and Times columnist, and a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton, endorsed the absurdly one-sided article on Twitter and his blog where he dismissed Sanders’ single-payer proposal as a “magical unicorn” (again we see mockery as a way to portray supporters of Sanders as unserious, or “on another planet”). It wasn’t long before hundreds of outlets ran with the story, demonstrating the “agenda-setting” function of the Times.

The voices of those who disagree have been ignored by the mainstream media.

To further cement this narrative, two days later four former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), wrote a letter to Friedman and Sanders, saying these projections were “fantastical claims,” ran counter to the Democratic Party’s best traditions of evidence-based policy making” and “undermine the credibility of the progressive agenda.” This prompted another wave of articles further painting Sanders’ proposals as “voodoo economics,” to borrow another instance of mockery in Krugman’s writing on the issue. One Huffington Post headline discussed how Sanders’ plan was “torn apart” by former Clinton and Obama economists, reinforcing the false notion that “even the left” knows single-payer health care and tuition-free college are not serious proposals.

This blitz of criticism, made by just a handful of economists – most of them deeply entrenched in the Democratic Party establishment – was presented so uncritically in the dominant media that the casual observer of the news would have no clue that their arguments are in dispute. In a matter of a few days, the mainstream media helped the establishment turn Friedman – an accomplished economist who has done studies analyzing single-payer proposals in seven states – into someone seen as an economist who has “taken off from the planet.”

On social media, right-wing opponents of public health care are now pointing to the Times article and all of the mockery used by economists when arguing against these reforms. It is worth noting that these reforms are not radical. The United States is alone among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that doesn’t have a public, universal health-care system similar to the one proposed by Sanders. Likewise, college is tuition-free in many countries, including Brazil, Finland, Germany, France, Sweden and Norway. These facts serve to normalize rather than marginalize these policies, which is probably why they are rarely included in mainstream media reports.

Critical Responses Ignored by Dominant Media

While the dominant media have created a sense that there was great consensus on the left about these issues, this turned out not to be the case. Within a few days, counterarguments from several prominent economists and experts defended Sanders’ proposals and Friedman’s research. Many also cited flaws in the arguments made by Krugman and the former members of the Council of Economic Advisers. But the voices of those who disagree have been ignored by the mainstream media.

Perhaps the most stinging critique of the letter by the former CEA chairs came from James Galbraith, an economist from the University of Texas, who wrote a letter that sharply rebutted their statements. “It is not fair or honest to claim that Professor Friedman’s methods are extreme. On the contrary, with respect to forecasting method, they are largely mainstream,” he wrote. “Nor is it fair or honest to imply that you have given Professor Friedman’s paper a rigorous review. You have not.”

Galbraith was not alone in defending Friedman. Dean Baker accused the Times of “inventing left-wing economists” to attack Sanders’ policy proposals, suggested the flaws in Friedman’s papers were overstated and said the mainstream media applied a double standard in scrutinizing Sanders’ proposals versus the proposals of his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

“If an economist, left-leaning or otherwise, can’t find some grounds for skepticism on any of these proposals they should probably be in a different line of work,” Baker said in his Beat the Press column. “It is not good reporting to apply one standard to Senator Sanders, and even inventing credentials to press its points, and then apply lesser standards to the other candidates.”

In the Financial Times, Matthew C. Klein said Friedman’s growth projections were “not obviously wrong” nor “extreme.” Kevin Drum, at Mother Jones, originally blasted Sanders for giving credence to Friedman’s numbers. Drum, however, radically changed his tune in a follow-up. “And it turns out that … Friedman isn’t projecting anything wildly out of the ordinary after all,” Drum wrote. However, Drum has not bothered to make note of his correction in the original piece, which still soars through cyberspace thanks in part to the fact that Krugman shared the first article on Twitter and never mentioned Drum’s second article.

There are countless other examples of economists and experts countering the arguments made by the former CEA chairs and the economists cited by the Times. Economics writer John T. Harvey also defended Friedman’s projections and Sanders’ agenda at Forbes. As is often the case, the business press has wider parameters of debate, as its readership relies on the truth for investments.

Demonstrating the Times’ Double Standard

Did these arguments manage to penetrate the mainstream media? An analysis of the output of the New York Times’ news coverage (according to data from its own search engine) shows a major double standard on what economic opinions the paper considers worthy of news coverage.

The New York Times published five articles within four days about the letter from the CEA chairs criticizing Gerald Friedman by name, including two news stories and a slew of Paul Krugman columns. James Galbraith published his critique of that letter on February 18. As of the time of this writing, The New York Times has not published one solitary article about this letter. It is worth noting that the original article about “left-leaning” economists was published the day before the CEA letter, so it does not count in this metric (though its existence does further demonstrate the Times’ bias).

In late January, Thorpe released his paper claiming Sanders’ health-care plan would cost more than the Sanders campaign claims. Thorpe’s criticism has been mentioned five times since he wrote it. Yet, there are at least two easily accessible published critiques of Thorpe’s paper – one by Friedman himself and another by health policy experts and single-payer advocates Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein of Harvard Medical School. The Times did not mention either of these analyses in any of its content. The closest the Times came to acknowledging the critiques was in this sentence in a February 15 article: “Mr. Thorpe and Sanders aides and allies have been battling online.” If one clicks on the words “battling online,” the link leads to the otherwise unreferenced article by Woolhandler and Himmelstein. As Doug Henwood wrote for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “a print reader would be totally in the dark.”

These disparities, depicted in the chart below, provide a quantitative demonstration of the Times’ institutional bias and narrow parameters of debate.

2016 0225bernie2

Whose “Progressive Agenda”?

Since the former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers published their letter, many on the left have stared at the names of signatories and asked, since when do these people advocate for “the progressive agenda,” which they claim to be fighting for in their letter?

Take, for instance, Austan Goolsbee, a signatory of the letter and chair of the CEA from 2010 to 2011. Goolsbee is currently a faculty member of the economics department at the University of Chicago, considered the hub of neoclassical economics and known for producing work that his ally Krugman once called, “the product of a Dark Age of macroeconomics in which hard-won knowledge has been forgotten.”

He also spent several years working at the Progressive Policy Institute, the primary think tank that represents “New Democrats.” The institute was affiliated directly with the Democratic Leadership Council until it shuttered in 2011. It remains the most visible and powerful think tank advocating Third Way policies, which seek to shift the Democratic Party to the right on economic issues and court favor with big business. When Goolsbee was appointed to Obama’s cabinet, the Progressive Policy Institute was gleeful, penning a blog post highlighting his past work with their organization.

In an article in Slate from 2007 (where he reviews Michael Moore’s movie, Sicko), Goolsbee identifies himself as a “free market type,” and proceeds to make the case for preserving our current health-care system because “socialized medicine … costs a lot of money.” Further, he was described by The Hill as a free trader whose appointment by Obama was a move to the right that would prompt “backlash” from the left.

Indeed, Goolsbee is a curious choice of a person to tell Bernie Sanders how to protect the “progressive agenda.” But his lack of progressive credentials is not his only flaw. He has also proven he can be very wrong about very important things. In 2007, just 18 months before the economy nearly collapsed due to the housing bubble, Goolsbee wrote an article for The New York Times defending subprime mortgages as an example of how “the mortgage market has become more perfect, not more irresponsible.” It is hard to say something that is more objectively false than that. Again, this is from a guy who attacked Friedman and Sanders for “fantastical claims” that would “undermine the progressive agenda.”

People are wrong sometimes, of course. Goolsbee could not have been more wrong about the housing bubble, but it didn’t stop him from being appointed to Obama’s cabinet. Nor did it detract a group of hedge funds from hiring him as a consultant when he left the White House. Which is why the letter the CEA chairs sent wagging their fingers at Sanders and Friedman seems so over the top.

Even if one is to assume, for the sake of argument, that Friedman’s projections on the growth rate were too optimistic, we are talking about inherently subjective projections. On Friedman’s worst day, could his projections about a policy that is not going to be implemented anytime soon be any more wrong or consequential than Goolsbee’s comments about subprime mortgages, which led to the near collapse of the US economy?

Not every signatory of the CEA letter is from the Chicago School or the Progressive Policy Institute. But, they still were all appointed by presidents who never came close to proposing such transformative plans. By definition, they are products of the establishment and have been for the bulk of their professional lives. Many of them would likely be considered for positions in the White House if Hillary Clinton wins the 2016 election. This does not make them wrong, nor does it mean they are compromised, but it is reasonable to assume they have internalized establishment viewpoints (members of the presidential cabinet would tend to share that trait). It is also fair to ask if these voices are the right representatives to serve as guardians of the “progressive agenda” that they say they want to protect.

Motives, Politics and Power

While the letter from the CEA chairs no doubt benefits Hillary Clinton, without the ability to read minds, one cannot know the exact motivations for their decision to print this letter. It may have nothing to do with the presidential election, which hovers over this controversy like a rain cloud. Friedman’s motivations are similarly unknowable. His projections did provide Sanders’ campaign with data to back up its proposals, but not by request and not for pay. Friedman “took up the work out of his own curiosity,” he said.

But Paul Krugman has had no problem criticizing the motives of Friedman, which is especially hypocritical since he routinely mocks his critics for accusing him of shilling for Hillary Clinton every time he writes about the election. Yet, Krugman attacks Friedman as being motivated, not merely by politics, but by personal ambition. “Imagine an economist who has some following but is, for whatever reason, not in the nomenklatura of policy wonks who typically get called upon to advise officials, give speeches at financial conferences, whatever,” Krugman writes in his February 19 post, “Lack of Power Corrupts.” “Now imagine that our outsider encounters a situation in which another outsider, this time in the sphere of politics, has some chance of staging an upset victory,” he continues, clearly alluding to Friedman and Sanders, respectively.

“It should be obvious that our outsider economist has every personal incentive to throw his lot in with the political outsider,” he adds, because “if the outsider politician should happen to pull it off, it will give the outsider economist a seat at the table, which he won’t have otherwise.”

This backs up Galbraith’s insistence that the CEA letter served only “to light a fire under Paul Krugman, who is now using his high perch to airily dismiss the Friedman paper as ‘nonsense.'” Perhaps Krugman should read his own writings about globalization and trade during the 1990s and early 2000s, when he openly mocked “protectionists,” with a similar derision he now seemingly reserves for lower-profile economists who advocate for single-payer health care. And he no doubt has played an especially unfortunate role in helping the Times’ marginalize dissent.

Truthout reached out to every economist critiqued in this article and asked them if they wanted to respond to any criticisms. Former CEA chairs Goolsbee and Alan Krueger both replied. Responding via email, both of them stood by the letter and faulted Friedman and Sanders for using figures that were “extreme and unsupported,” said Krueger, the CEA chair from 2011 to 2013.

The goal of the letter, Goolsbee told Truthout, was “to make a plea for everyone to stay within reason.”

Both former CEA chairs were asked why no letter was written to correct the Clinton campaign when it falsely said Sanders’ health-care proposal would “dismantle” children’s health programs, among other false claims. Without addressing the specifics of this claim, Goolsbee said every candidate has an “obligation to think through their plans and to use legitimate numbers when doing so. And yes, I agree with you that Hillary Clinton should hold to that same standard as well.”

“Apples and Oranges”: State vs. National Single-Payer

Thorpe responded to criticisms that his previous studies on single-payer are undercut by his analysis of Sanders’ plan. “It’s apples and oranges,” he said in an email to Truthout, specifically comparing his analysis of Sanders’ plan to his 2005 study in Vermont. “The cost of health care compared to wages since 2005 are enormously different … Single-payer plans vary dramatically and these design differences have enormous financial implications.”

It is true that statewide plans differ substantially from national plans, although many advocates of single-payer say the reform can only truly be accomplished nationally, where it maximizes its efficiency and benefits from economies of scale. Further, contrary to what the Times suggested, the failure of Vermont’s reform is in no way an indicator that such reforms would fail nationally, argues Physicians for a National Health Program founders Woolhandler and Himmelstein, because as the reform process went along, many key provisions were removed, as were any mentions of the word “single-payer.”

Truthout also attempted to contact Paul Krugman to provide him with a chance to respond to the various criticisms made in this article. He did not respond. This courtesy was not extended to Gerald Friedman by The New York Times.

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