Thomas Frank, of "What's The Matter With Kansas?" fame, is heading to Harper's to be a full-time columnist. Yesterday, he penned his final column for the Wall Street Journal. Titled "The Economic Crisis: Lessons Unlearned," Frank likens himself to Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater and puts just about every political institution on blast over his loudspeaker for their failure to shift away from "the farcical intellectual and political consensus of the preceding decades."
Frank heaps special scorn upon the elite media, whom he assumed would learn a lesson from the financial crisis that would lead to "a complete overturning of the comfortable assumptions of the pundit class."
Where I most expected changes, though, was in the world of professional punditry, which had largely failed to raise questions about the disaster as it loomed. Today it's two years on, and nobody has changed the water in the fish tank, as a friend of mine likes to say. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times still burbles about theories of creativity that were management clichés 10 years ago. The Washington Post prosecutes its undeclared war on Social Security by having former TARP czar Neel Kashkari explain why banks had to be bailed out but "entitlements must be cut." The need to balance the federal budget is almost universally thought to be urgent. And bipartisanship still intoxicates the pundit mind with its awesome majesty.
I can largely sympathize. It was just two weeks ago when the last round of WikiLeaks disclosures prompted the elite media to yawn and shrug and admit to the world that their long-held "conventional wisdom" was that the war in Afghanistan wasn't going well. You'd think that widespread acknowledgement that a nine-year old war was going poorly would ignite a similar sense of urgency. But soon, lawmakers were throwing more taxpayer dollars at the sinkhole and the press was dutifully submerging their "conventional wisdom" once again.
It's painfully difficult to understand this behavior, but consider this analogy. If you were to stop the movie "Inception" somewhere between its 80th and 100th minute and snap-polled the audience, you'd probably find that the "conventional wisdom" is that things aren't going that well for Leonardo DiCaprio's character. But you wouldn't find the audience riven with panic or urgency. After all, those problems are happening to other people -- characterized abstractions flickering on a screen.
That's basically how the media has behaved in the face of all of these sundry crises -- as audience members, not participants. That's how it's come to pass that the economic collapse has led to a massive unemployment crisis, and yet the only thing anyone wants to talk about is how it will impact the reelection hopes of America's lawmakers. The wreck of human lives is just a backdrop. Abandoned homes make for great B-roll. And the problem with overturning comfortable assumptions is that those assumptions are just so damned comfortable! And they fit very nicely within the bubble.
In the years since the financial crisis hit, I can state pretty confidently that the media consensus is that the most irresponsible man in America is the father of the Balloon Boy, and the most loathsome figure in our public discourse is Mel Gibson. That's literally as far as any of the people who make a career in reporting on the world we live in is willing to go in rendering judgment.
It is one sorry effing state of affairs.
The Economic Crisis: Lessons Unlearned [Wall Street Journal]