How Does the Conventional Wisdom Become Conventional?

by Neil H. Buchanan

How does everybody know what "everybody knows"?  That question has been lurking just under the surface in my writings recently, as I have been pushing back yet again against the widespread quasi-religious belief that DEBT IS HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE!  Last week, The New York Times offered a particularly silly example of the everybody-knows-the-national-debt-is-a-problem genre of news analysis -- lacking both news and analysis -- and I had a great deal of fun picking it all apart in a two-part Verdict column, followed by a complementary Dorf on Law column on Thursday.

Today, I followed up that onslaught by writing another Verdict column that was mostly dedicated to answering a question that I had raised and only partly answered in last week's writings: Why is it true (and not a problem) that the national debt only goes up and never down?  Unsurprisingly, I have written about that topic many times, including in a symposium piece ten years ago: Why We Should Never Pay Down the National Debt.

Before getting into that topic in today's column, however, I offered a theory about why The Times publishes this rubbish on such a regular basis:

I should say that the answer to the question in last week’s Verdict column—Why does The Times publish baseless anti-debt propaganda?—has a fully cynical explanation, which is that there is a market for this kind of nonsense. The Times largely sets the agenda for the rest of the American media landscape, and they know that any story about the supposedly super-scary national debt will always generate buzz. It is a topic that seems very sober and serious, it is complicated and intimidating, and it has a simplistic morality tale at its core. They publish stories about it because there is an audience.

Upon further reflection, that explanation seems true but incomplete in an important way.  Here, I want to go deeper into the question posed by the title of this column: How Does the Conventional Wisdom Become Conventional?

The scholar whose name is most associated with "conventional wisdom" is surely John Kenneth Galbraith.  He has been credited with inventing the term, although I suspect that those two words surely had appeared together at some point in the history of the English language, most likely intended to mean roughly what Galbraith meant the term to mean.  In any case, Galbraith was an acerbic observer of pretentiousness in public discussion, and he mocked the conventional wisdom mercilessly.

Galbraith did, however, understand that societies need common ground and short-hands, understandings among people that do not need to be re-argued every time a subject comes up.  The problem was that, by the time Galbraith was either coining or popularizing the term in his masterly book The Affluent Society (1958), the conventional wisdom had congealed into the market idolatry that continues to dominate discourse more than six decades later.  Markets are efficientGovernment is wasteful.  You know the drill.

So the problem is not that there is a conventional wisdom, because there has to be one.  As one reviewer of Galbraith's work summarized part of his argument, "a great stream of intellectual novelties, if all were taken seriously, would be disastrous for society."  Galbraith was not calling for everyone to question everything, at all times and in all circumstances.  He was quite specifically saying that the emerging post-WWII consensus that we now call neoliberalism was utter nonsense -- unsupported by evidence, flawed in logic, harmful in effect, ultimately disastrous for society.  (Other than that, what's not to like?)  The problem is not the existence of a conventional wisdom but of our particular conventional wisdom.

Why does a dangerous ideology continue to hold so many people in its thrall, even as its shortcomings become tragically obvious and seemingly impossible to ignore?  That is where institutions like The New York Times come in.  Although The Washington Post gives it a run for its money -- especially The Post's editorial board, which ladles out an endless supply of pudding to support the conventional wisdom -- The Times is the heavyweight champion.  And to be clear, there is a very rigid conventional wisdom on all topics of public debate, not just on the economic matters that I emphasize in my writing.  For example, the editors of The Post went out of their way to make sure that everyone thinks of adding seats to the Supreme Court as "court packing," with at most a tut-tutting mention of how the Republicans packed the current Court (but never, of course, using that dreaded phrase to describe Mitch McConnell's handiwork).

What makes The Times so problematic?  The people there never hesitate to use non-opinion pieces to advance a narrow ideological agenda.  And that is exactly what was happening with the article that I attacked so gleefully last week: Times editors had prominently placed something that superficially resembled a substantive bit of economic analysis, written by two business writers who often write straight news articles, all presented as a siren-blaring claim that somehow passing the $31 trillion mark on an inaccurate measure of federal debt signals an impending disaster.

And we must remember that the payoff at the end of all of that hand-wringing was a vague warning that financial markets "could" lose confidence, which "could" cause interest rates to rise and inflation to spiral.  What is the opposite of "oomph"?

For anything other than a piece supporting the safe conventional wisdom, however, the editors of any newspaper (most definitely including The Times) would have demanded flawless logic and thrice-checked facts.  For this drivel?  A nod and a wink.

But why?  It is not as though The Times lacks access to innovative thinkers.  For that matter, innovators need not rely on any particular newspaper -- even the world's most prominent media source -- to get out the word.  Galbraith himself was a famous professor of economics at Harvard, a veteran of the Roosevelt Administration's successful New Deal policy team, and a best-selling author.  Yet Galbraith was somehow treated as an outsider and a likable crank.

Today, economists like Joseph Stiglitz continue to offer harsh critiques of mainstream thinking.  Notably, whereas Galbraith was marginalized by his colleagues as "too squishy" (because he could write a decent English sentence and cared about policy in a non-abstract sense), Stiglitz won the faux-Nobel in his field twenty years ago (and the best-economist-under-age-40 award before that).  Even so, Stiglitz's brutal critique of the so-called Washington Consensus and global inequality (to say nothing of his work to expose the consequences of George W. Bush's warmongering) has barely mussed the hair of the conventional wisdom.

The explanation that I offered in the block quote above suggests that the incentives are even more pernicious than many people understand.  While I am always ready to savage the mindless nonsense that emanates from the halls of power in a way that at least implies a suspicion that they are acting in bad faith, it is possible that the people who run these places are trapped in their own ideological loop.  The people at The Times understand that they are important only so long as everyone else thinks that they are important, which means that seemingly powerful people become extremely risk averse and cower in fear at the possibility that they will lose their following.  They surely love the fact that, for example, within days of having published their anti-debt piece, the lesser lights of the mediaverse (including USA Today, one of whose conservative columnists all but plagiarized The Times’s piece) were validating the story, and thus proving that the big dog is still the big dog.

This suggests that the purveyors of the conventional wisdom are followers as much as they are leaders.  They rely upon and sustain the echo chamber of deficit scold groups and neoliberal think tanks, all of which are funded by billionaires who made their money by being the winners of the neoliberal game.

Nonetheless, there is also a market for what passes as boldness.  Interestingly, Stiglitz once said that "[e]conomists often like startling theorems, results which seem to run counter to conventional wisdom."  And that is true, except that it is not true enough.  Scholars and pundits alike know that they need to be seen as doing something new, but not too new.  I have often quoted Noam Chomsky's notion of "the limits of thinkable thought," which describes not only the boundaries of debate but the importance of making it appear that there is a debate at all.  In one column, after noting that "the existence of a non-threatening opposition lends legitimacy to the conventional wisdom itself," I quoted Chomsky:

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.

A reader sent me an email last week, suggesting that The Times and similar outlets do things this way because it is the best way to make money.  Noting "successes" like the oddball Jim Cramer on CNBC, he argued persuasively that what matters is not truth but provocation.  Like my suggestion that the game is to lead by following, however, that is true only up to a point.

Years ago, when Rush Limbaugh had first begun to plague the American media scene, I was talking to a middle-aged guy whose job required him to spend hours each day driving.  He had come upon Limbaugh's radio show and liked it, spending hours each day tuned in.  When I pointed out that Limbaugh was a bigoted hate-monger, the response was: "Oh, he's just being extreme for its own sake.  That's just ol' Rush stirring the pot."  Another acquaintance responded: "Well, why doesn't he 'stir the pot' by coming out in favor of Karl Marx, or Flat Earth Theory, or Pol Pot?  He's not just saying provocative things at random."

Again, if The Times decided to publish someone who disagrees with the conventional wisdom about deficits and debt, they would put that author through the ringer, forcing her to support every assertion and defend every possible implication.  Were they to read my Verdict piece today, for example, they would surely say: "What, are you saying that debt is never a problem?"  No, I am saying that it is not currently a problem, and that the recent increase in interest rates (and passing the magical $31 trillion "historic high") is not a problem.  But that would still surely be unsatisfactory to those who never bother to ask the same type of question of the debt-haters: "What, are you saying that debt is never acceptable, so we should pay it all down immediately?"

So the pot-stirring is only permitted in certain ways on certain topics, and within very carefully patrolled limits.  The game is to be provocative, but not always.  It is to be a "thought leader," but not if the thoughts are too new or too scary.  The game, though, itself is important for exactly the reason that Chomsky offered decades ago: a constrained debate looks enough like the free exchange of ideas to convince everyone that our minds are open.

How, then, does the conventional wisdom become conventional?  It must be inoffensive to powerful people, it must seem interesting-ish, and it must make us feel good about how well we understand the world -- with bonus points if what "everyone knows" leads us (reluctantly, always reluctantly) to the conclusion that the only path forward is for the have-nots to suffer at least as much as they always have, preferably more.  Anything else is unthinkable.