It's The Economic Ideology, Stupid: The End of Reality-Based Policymaking

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • David Sirota Newspaper columnist, radio host (AM760), bestselling author

Back in 1992, the famous campaign mantra was "it's the economy, stupid." This was the seemingly populist motto that people like Wall Street CEO Bob Rubin piggybacked on to help vault Bill Clinton into the White House, and himself into the corner suite at the Treasury Department. Today, there is a slightly amended motto operating in advance of the 2008 election: "It's the economic ideology, stupid."

The variation may appear semantic. But like the differences between the classic TV show What's Happening!! and its can't-conjure-the-old-magic update What's Happening Now!!, there is a vast chasm between the two economic campaign slogans. Whereas in the good ol' days of 1992, candidates were campaigning against the real-life consequences of a crushing recession on working folks and for concrete real-world goals to help working folks, today candidates are campaigning against even recognizing real life, and for an ideology that their own economic advisers acknowledge has no connection to actual information.

A new piece in Businessweek gives you a good idea of how this works. The article starts out exploring how a number of Wall Street CEOs are "refining" the presidential candidates' economic positions (ha! and you thought the candidates decided their own positions). We are asked to sympathize with the plight of these CEOs because the presidential campaign has gotten off to an earlier start, and they are a little behind on shaping the key positions of the candidates they finance. After the obligatory threats against candidates who dare challenge "free" trade fundamentalism, we get this nugget:

"Like most voters, Wall Streeters are also trying to size up candidates' personal qualities. At a meeting on Feb. 3 in Manhattan, bankers grilled Obama about how he makes decisions. Present were Eric Mindich of Eton Park Capital, Frank Brosens of Taconic Capital Advisors, Michael Froman of Citigroup Alternative Investments (C ), and James S. Rubin of JPMorgan Chase's (JPM ) private equity fund, among others. Obama said a President must be able to make important decisions with little information...That message 'appealed to them because it was similar to the decisions that they make every day about risk, returns, and probability of various outcomes,' says Froman, a law school classmate of Obama. Similarly, Dalio, the Bridgewater chief who trades currencies, debt, and stocks around the world, likes the way McCain arrives at his positions. It's different from relying on academic knowledge or creative brilliance, says Dalio."

Scores of lobotomized politicians doing exactly what they are told, making information-free decisions, without looking at the hard data - this is K Street's wet dream. It is the domestic version of the Bush administration's reality-free march to war, with Wall Street financiers playing the role of preening neoconservative think-tankers. Remember this from Ron Suskind's now-famous New York Times article about the Bush White House:

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' ... 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

No wonder Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) had absolutely no idea how many new freshman Democrats were elected on platforms against lobbyist-written trade deals. No wonder Democratic politicians trumpet Bob Rubin as a great guru of job creation at the same time his company is laying off tens of thousands of American workers. No wonder Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is huddling with corporate lobbyists for strategy sessions on Capitol Hill about how to pass President Bush's request to reauthorize fast-track trade authority at the very moment his own state has the lowest wages in the United States. No wonder Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and John McCain and Mitt Romney are running for the highest office in the land, and yet are simultaneously refusing to offer anything other than "world is flat" propaganda about globalization - the most important economic issue facing the planet. Why should they behave any differently? To paraphrase the Bush White House, they don't live in the reality-based community anymore.

They - the candidates, the politicians and the Wall Street CEOs who "revise" their core positions - are part of a global financial empire and when they act, they believe they create their own reality. And while us mere mortals are studying and experiencing the consequences of reality - like depressed wages, massive trade deficits, environmental degradation and human rights abuses brought on by standards-free trade policy - they'll act again, creating other new realities because they are history's actors while us commoners will be left to just study what they do. Because it's not about the economy anymore - it's about the economic ideology, stupid.