Why Does the Journalistic Conventional Wisdom Matter?

by Neil H. Buchanan

This is my final column of 2018, but the news this week is too overwhelming for me to try to address even a fraction of the latest welter of Trump-inspired insanity -- a possible government shutdown, the Syria withdrawal and the subsequent resignation of the last "adult in the room" (Defense Secretary Jim "Mad Dog" Mattis), as well as other disasters in the making.  Therefore, I will pull back and ask a question that is implicated in much of my writing and that mercifully sidesteps today's headlines.

When I am not writing about legal issues or economic policy questions, I spend a fair amount of time here on Dorf on Law and also occasionally on Verdict as a de facto media critic.  (See, for example, here and here.)  I use the term "conventional wisdom" frequently (most recently just last week) to deride the groupthink that all too frequently infects the minds of both news reporters (and headline writers) and especially pundits.

Of course, much of the time this herd mentality among the nation's journalists is leading the country in the wrong direction on one or more of the legal issues or economic policy questions that I care most about, and the marriage of interests is complete.  When, for example, we saw the economics reporter for The Washington Post repeating Republican spin last year about the growth-creating magical powers of tax cuts, it was nearly impossible not to break my keyboard in anger.

But does any of this matter?  After all, I have also occasionally noted the surprising lack of impact that even the most highly visible commentators can have.  It does matter, and it is important to understand how the conventional wisdom works, not only in terms of how it is formed but in its impact on real life.

The best explanation that I have read of the importance of groupthink in media coverage remains a short essay by Noam Chomsky in the October 1985 issue of The Progressive: "The Bounds of Thinkable Thought."  There, Chomsky noted that it is not only the people who agree with the conventional wisdom who keep the conversation going in the accepted direction, because the existence of a non-threatening opposition lends legitimacy to the conventional wisdom itself.  In Chomsky's words:
"If even the harshest critics tacitly adopt these premises, then, the ordinary person may ask, who am I to disagree? The more intensely the debate rages between the hawks and doves, the more firmly and effectively the doctrines of the state religion are established. It is because of their notable contribution to thought control that the critics are tolerated, indeed honored— that is, those who play by the rules."
Yet it is notable that these norms are suspended when it comes to economic policy, especially discussions of all things deficit/debt-related.  I have previously quoted an important observation that Ezra Klein offered in 2013: "For reasons I've never quite understood, the rules of reportorial neutrality don't apply when it comes to the deficit.  On this one issue, reporters are permitted to openly cheer a particular set of highly controversial policy solutions."

In other words, whereas it is generally important per Chomsky that the range of thinkable thought appear not to be too narrow, there is nearly unanimous agreement -- even among supposedly neutral reporters who claim to be imparting news and not offering commentary -- that there is no range of thinkable thought at all.  Only one idea is thinkable, and that is that anything that increases deficits (or -- and this is not the same thing -- that raises the national debt) is not merely pernicious but morally objectionable.

Except that something is missing even from that formulation, because as we have now seen again and again, Republicans are given a pass whenever they repeat their mantra that "we don't have a borrowing problem, we have a spending problem."  Everyone evidently (and wrongly) agrees that borrowing is per se bad, but somehow not all policies that increase borrowing are bad.  Only spending is bad, according to this conventional wisdom.

Let me take a moment here to say that the spending-not-borrowing rhetorical move might be the perfect distillation of the phenomenon that Chomsky described.  That is, having all agreed that there is only one acceptable thought about debt and deficits -- bad! -- what looks like a genuine debate comes down to arguing over which regressive policies will be enacted, and when.

After all, even the deficit hawks who decided not to be complete hypocrites, and who thus criticized Republicans for voting for the Trump/Ryan/McConnell regressive tax cut bill a year ago, still go along with the conventional wisdom that tax increases are off the table and that military spending is sacrosanct.  What does that leave?  Klein's "particular set of highly controversial policy solutions," of course.

Those thinkable policy solutions all involve inflicting pain on poor people (cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, early childhood support programs, and so on) or undermining the New Deal/Great Society systems that made it possible for middle class people to have at least a minimally dignified retirement.  But how to make people believe that Social Security and Medicare should be cut or privatized, when both programs are successful and popular?  The answer is simple: Spin a web of lies that sound like important, sober-minded insights.

As I argued in my column yesterday, people with interests in the mechanics of public policies are especially easy marks when it comes to the conventional wisdom's arguments about Social Security and Medicare.  Asking questions about whether Trust Funds should be "reinvested" in the private financial markets, or whether Trust Funds are even real, gets the creative juices flowing for people who surely would never imagine themselves to be captive to the conventional wisdom.  They undoubtedly view themselves as truth-tellers, fighting against the iniquities of irresponsible politicians who foolishly think that there is a free lunch.

We end up living inside an "expert conversation" in which cutting benefits (which might be done by increasing the retirement age, a current favorite idea among the captives of the conventional wisdom) for the two most successful social programs in history is simply considered to be obvious and (perhaps sadly) necessary.  And it is here that the expert conversation carries over to the even more constricted conversation among the interested lay public.

Earlier this year, I found myself at a pleasant dinner with a group of academics, and I was seated across from a professor whom I have long admired.  He is an expert on legal ethics, and it was an honor to meet him.  That he was modest and likable made the experience even more pleasant.  When he asked me what I was working on, I said simply, "Social Security."  And this led to a revealing conversation.

My dinner companion's immediate question was: "So I've been wondering, when will Social Security go bankrupt?"  I confess that I actually grew a bit testy, because there was so much wrong with that question, and I said curtly: "It won't."  He persisted, saying that he had read that the Trust Fund was supposed to go to zero, to which I replied, "That's not bankruptcy."  Unhappy with that response, he said that it was not his intention to debate the technical meaning of the word bankruptcy, because he was only interested in knowing whether he would lose his Social Security benefits.

As I regained my equanimity, I realized that this was a perfect example of the power of the conventional wisdom.  Although my interlocutor is a genuine superstar among legal academics, he knows as little about Social Security (and economic policy in general) as either one of us knows about, say, fluid dynamics or 17th Century Flemish poetry.

The difference, of course, is that this brilliant person believed that he knew something with certainty about Social Security, even though he was speaking completely outside of his area of expertise, whereas neither of us would have thought to be so bold when discussing most other topics about which we are ignorant.

Why, then, does the journalistic conventional wisdom matter?  It matters because it serves to reinforce a set of beliefs among "well informed" people, even though those people are simply swallowing and regurgitating conclusory statements that are being repeated endlessly by reporters and pundits who, in turn, actually know little or nothing about what they are saying.

This results in "everyone knowing" that Social Security and Medicare are problems that must be solved.  Sorry, non-rich people.  "We" just cannot afford this anymore.  Except that we can, if only the conventional wisdom were not so poorly informed yet sure of its righteousness.  In the end, even liberals and progressives are penned in by the nonsense.

The only positive note that I can sound here is that there are so many other, bigger problems facing us right now that Social Security and Medicare are now third-order (at most) political issues.

And with that, I hereby take this opportunity to wish all Dorf on Law readers a happy holiday season (no matter what holidays each of you might celebrate) and a new year that is at least a bit less scary than the last three have been.

Note: During the next week and a half, we will post columns on this blog on our regular schedule, including some new columns as well as some "classics."  We will be back on our usual rotation with all new content starting on January 2, 2019.