Press Man: The Prisoner of Zandi
I’ve spent much of my summer trying to dodge Mark Zandi. I pick up my newspaper, I turn on the TV, I tap-tap my iPad, and there he is: explaining the past, divining the future, teasing insights from the tumultuous present. It’s his job. Zandi is not a pundit, exactly. He’s an economist by trade. What he really is, is a go-to guy, one of the most successful go-to guys in journalism history. The need for go-to guys is never less than acute, but this summer, with the failing economy and the debt-ceiling debate, demand has been particularly brisk.
Here’s how the go-to guy works. Let’s say you’re a reporter on a deadline and you need a quote right this minute about how Republicans have rendered Congress dysfunctional. Well then, your go-to guy is Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Perhaps you want to give readers a little historical perspective, something eggheady about, say, how smoothly leaders of both parties used to work together before the lunatics (you know who they are) started running the asylum on Capitol Hill? Quick: get “presidential historian” Douglas Brinkley on the phone before he goes live on the NewsHour! He’ll be sure to tell you, with a wistful air, that Tip O’Neill and President Reagan were always friends after five o’clock.
If it’s the economy you’re writing about, it’s Mark Zandi. He has all the qualities that go into making a go-to guy of the very first rank. He is fluent on television and keeps his sentences short. His demeanor is pleasant. He uses the word “narrative” with abandon—“narrative” being the hottest word in journalism since “transparency”; it’s this year’s “accountability.” And he’s a liberal. All go-to guys are liberals. They can’t be identified as such, lest their authority as disinterested observers be undermined and the reader or viewer begin to get ideas. Ideological fuzziness is good; ideological hermaphroditism is better.
Ornstein, for example, is a moderate liberal, but the think tank that employs him is conservative: the politics of the one combines with the politics of the other to make a purely objective go-to guy who can offer liberal opinions without the label. Douglas Brinkley’s liberalism is deep and abiding, made explicit, to cite one instance, when he published a panting campaign biography of John Kerry in 2003. Yet he has also been chosen, inexplicably, to edit various editions of the papers of Ronald Reagan by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Reagan breeds with Kerry and Go-To Brinkley is born, a scholar who plays it straight down the middle, listing leftward.
In economics, Zandi is capable of meeting all of a reporter’s go-to-guy needs, so the trade has been careful in obscuring his liberalism. He is a registered Democrat, as he freely admits when asked. But he’s seldom asked. The key to his indispensability is that he once—once—did some work for a Republican. Early in the 2008 presidential campaign, one of John McCain’s economics advisors enlisted Zandi to file a weekly analysis of current economic data for the campaign’s use. He never advised McCain on matters of policy, he never met McCain, and he was never paid for his labor. The real payout, in fame and influence, came after the election.
That’s when President Obama, hoping to rise above petty partisanship and bring the country together, rammed through Congress an $800 billion stimulus bill without a single Republican vote. To cast these uncooperative Republicans as extremists, it was helpful to find other Republicans, outside Congress, who supported Obama’s stimulus.
This proved difficult—until reporters settled on Zandi.
In a news story about Obama’s plans for a big spending bill, in December 2008, the New York Times identified him as a “Republican economist advising Democrats.” In reality, he was a Democratic economist who’d just got done advising a Republican, and “advising” is (probably) not the right word. In any case, the Times was right about one thing: Zandi was very busy advising Democrats, helping to write the stimulus bill, and Capitol Hill Democrats embraced him as warmly as reporters did. In speeches on the House and Senate floors they quoted “the noted conservative economist” and “Republican economist” saying things that any good liberal would agree with. He became a recurring character on the business and news shows on cable TV, filling the role of Reasonable Republican, identified as “an adviser to John McCain” or “an economist who has advised both Democrats and Republicans,” a real pro who had set aside partisanship to endorse President Obama’s common-sense solutions. Nancy Pelosi repeated his name as if it had the power of an incantation.
Zandi had long been an advocate of stimulus, any stimulus, whether its provenance was Republican or Democratic. When President Bush proposed a $150 billion stimulus in the summer of 2008, Zandi said it “was big enough to provide a meaningful economic boost.” In September, when Bush was lamenting he had to violate his free-market principles to save them, Zandi was much more enthusiastic: “Make no mistake: what the government has done will sew [sic] the seeds for I think a very, very sharp recovery.” (A man who says “make no mistake” is always making one.)
You will notice that these statements share two prominent features. First, they’re predictions and, second, they’re wrong. More frequently than most go-to guys, Zandi volunteers not merely subtly shaded opinions, not merely Ornsteinian “context” and Brinklean “perspective,” but bald predictions about how matters will lie a year or two or three from now. Over time, Zandi’s predictions are tested by reality. In August 2006, he told Newsweek that housing prices would bottom out in August 2007. In October 2007, he told the National Association of Home Builders that the bottom would come in late 2008. In April 2009, he told Time magazine that housing prices would bottom out by the end of the year. (“I feel very confident about this,” he said.) Three months later, he told NPR that “by this time next year, the market will have hit bottom.” The market is still looking for its bottom, and so is Zandi, with both hands.
Zandi’s blown predictions are easily retrievable from the Web, especially now that bloggers like the economist Veronique de Rugy and the money manager Barry Ritholz (to both of whom I’m indebted) have made a sport of Zandi-watching. He’s been overtaken by events so often it’s a wonder he doesn’t have tire tracks on the back of his suit coat. The stimulus that he helped design has been, by any layman’s assessment, a spectacular failure, if only because the predictions he made for it—a housing market on the upswing, revived job creation—have failed to come true. Zandi famously defends the stimulus by asserting that it created or saved several million jobs, a claim that is impossible to falsify. But as the conservative economists John Taylor and John Cogan pointed out in these pages, Keynesian calculations like these are nearly tautological. The model used now to identify how many jobs the stimulus created is the same model used back then to predict how many jobs the stimulus would create.
All of which is boring and complicated and none of which makes it into the stories of reporters who rely on go-to guys. The job of the go-to guy transcends accuracy. It is instead to confirm the circular reasoning that underlies so much of modern liberalism. A stimulus will create jobs because that’s what a stimulus does. In a budget standoff, Republicans and not Democrats are stubborn and unyielding, because stubborn and unyielding is how Republicans are. Ask Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Ask Mark Zandi, a Republican economist. The go-to guys are here to help. Always.