01/22/2006 05:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Dishonest Economic Fantasies Screwing Over Ordinary Americans

In my book Hostile Takeover that comes out this Spring, I make the point that if you want to really understand the political/media Establishment's bias on economic issues, you have to look at what dishonest, highly-questionable assumptions are regularly portrayed as concrete factual axioms. The biggest and most dangerous assumption that we can see from our current political/media Establishment - and that we can see in today's newspapers - is the one that basically says the so-called "free" market is the only way to address society's challenges (I put "free" in quotes because many supposedly "free" market policies like our current trade deals are chock full of highly restrictive protections for Big Money interests - these policies are not "free" market, they are corporate socialism). These assumptions also portray anyone who challenges this "free" market fundamentalism as out of the mainstream, even as polls show most Americans question that fundamentalism). We see these biased assumption everywhere, and they come not from a Republican or Democratic bias in the media, but from an overall economic bias from the entire Establishment.

To understand this bias and how pervasive it is even in the so-called "liberal" media bastions, let's take a second and look at the New York Times coverage of economic "globalization," both present and past. We can use the Times not to single it out (these trends can be seen in most Establishment media/political communication outlets), but because the paper is arguably the most important news outlet in the world. And because it is widely considered left-of-center, it is a good indicator that these innate biases are not exclusively in right-wing media, but parroted throughout the Establishment - from left to right.

The first place to look at the Times is in the writing of the paper's most famous and revered columnist, Thomas Friedman, who is (incredibly) portrayed on chat shows as either an objective centrist, or even slightly left of center. Yet he is the man who recently urged America to basically eliminate or drastically cut Medicare and Social Security; the man who chastises other countries for having strong worker protections; the man whose entire book, The World is Flat, is one giant glossy justification for shipping U.S. jobs overseas and driving wages into the ground; the man who, thanks to his unflagging efforts to shill for corporate America's agenda, gets billed by elitist rag sheets like Fortune Magazine as "The Oracle of the Global Century." Thanks to the Times, Friedman has become so influential that politicians (including Democrats) regularly regurgitate his exact language when endorsing the outsourcing of U.S. jobs.

But the bias of its top columnist pales in comparison to the more troubling bias of the Times' "news" reporting - more troubling because it is billed as objective journalism. For instance, take a look at the disdainful tone with which the paper addresses the recent election of working class populists in Latin America. The paper labeled as "radical" one Latin American leader's proposal to reject corporate-written trade policies that have driven his country into sustained poverty - trade policies that polls show the American public opposes. Now that that leader has won office, the paper today continues to try to marginalize the opposition to these trade policies, once again reasserting that free market fundamentalism is, unquestionably, the only possible prescriptions that should be pursued in any economic realm, no matter what.

This propensity to venerate ultraconservative free market fundamentalism as a law of nature can also be seen in the paper's domestic reporting. Just look at the Times today, where it enlisted a writer from the neoconservative New Republic to write a supposedly "objective" review of a book by former Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling justifying "free" trade policies. Sperling, of course, has every right to push his ideas, because he does not try to hide the fact that he was one of the main architects of neoliberal economic thinking. And his book clearly has some good ideas. What is troubling is that the Times pretends to be "objective" in covering his book, and yet couches Sperling's very subjective, neoliberal opinions as assumed, concrete, unquestionable fact. Just look at these excerpts, not from the book, but from the Times piece in the reporter's supposedly objective voice:

"Democrats have little to lose and everything to gain by embracing the hallmarks of a dynamic economy like freer trade...Yet while Sperling appears to chide both sides equally, his book functions primarily as a useful reproach to progressives who believe that ideological purity requires rejecting market-friendly means...Sperling's ideas are unfailingly sound."

The assumptions by the Times in this passage are so preposterous they can be seen only as rank, deliberate dishonesty in pursuit of a well-defined economic agenda. As mentioned above, polls have consistently shown the public's growing opposition to America's current corporate-written trade policy. America's trade deficit continues to skyrocket, real wages continue to stagnate and higher paying jobs are shipped overseas - all aided and abetted by a corporate-written economic and trade policies that actually encourage these trends. Yet the Times states as fact that the Democratic Party - the party that desperately needs to start winning the very working-class constituencies decimated by these policies - has nothing to gain by articulating anything other than more "free" trade.

Similarly, polls show that on major economic issues like energy and health care, the public rejects free market fundamentalism, and wants the government to play a strong role regulating the market. Parts of the economy with strong market intervention by the government such as publicly-owned energy facilities and Medicare have managed to provide quality services to the general public, while helping stabilize the economy. Yet the Times states as fact that progressives are rightfully "reproached" for demanding anything other than free market fundamentalism, and offers not even a mention of all the factual data about wage, pension and health care cuts encouraged by neoliberal trade/economic policies that clearly call into question all the assumptions. Instead, we are simply told that Sperling's prescriptions are "unfailingly sound."

Remember, this is not out of the ordinary. The Times has, for years, genuflected to ultra-right economic policy and touted its supposedly incredible virtues as fact, even as evidence is presented to the contrary. To see what I mean, let's go back to November 18, 1993 - the day after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Economic experts, labor leaders, consumer advocates, environmental groups and courageous Democrats in Congress all provided hard evidence that the deal would be a disaster, yet here is how the Times portrayed the pact's passage on its front page:

"Bill Clinton pressed on [in pursuit of the pact], growing more rather than less committed as the days passed. Abandoned by two of the three top Democratic leaders in the House, opposed by usually reliable Democrats in the trade unions and by some important leaders of minority groups and environmental organizations, he kept shoving more and more chips into the pot on an issue that few Americans really understood...It was the most important achievement of his Presidency...Mr. Clinton retreated early on Bosnia, on Haiti, on homosexuals in the military, on important elements of his economic plan; he seemed ready to compromise on all but the most basic provisions of his health-care reforms. Critics started asking whether he had a bottom line on anything. On the trade accord, he did, and that question won't be asked much for a while [after] the President's smashing trade would not be quite so free as it might have been, but more walls came down this week than went least Mr. Clinton has gained credibility, through his tenacity on the trade pact, that will help him in the months ahead. 'This is a great victory,' said Robert S. Strauss, the longtime Democratic power broker."

In short, all the facts and evidence of what was accurately predicted to come (stagnating wages, cross-border environmental degradation, exploitation of worker rights, exporting of good-paying American jobs, etc.) was shoved to the side, substituted by a glowing Times narrative of a "smashing success." A President who was willing to capitulate on everything else was lauded for having the supposed courage required to stand with Big Money interests in screwing over ordinary Americans and pushing more ultra-right-wing neoliberal economics.

Let me be very clear - we can have a debate about all of these core economic issues, and people like Gene Sperling have some good points to make on the neoliberal side. But they have points to be made within the context of a debate. And that's the core problem: when you look at the discourse between politicians or the news coverage of these economic issues, you barely ever see a debate at all, and when you do, the side arguing against the free market fundamentalism and for the positions supported by the majority of ordinary Americans is automatically portrayed by the Establishment as marginal.

What's really going on is obvious: the political/media Establishment is trying to dishonestly create the perception that it is just a fact that the Big Money position on key economic issues (ie. corporate-written trade deals and neoliberal economics) has resulted and always will result in major benefits to society. The Establishment does this even though almost every factual indicator about these policies of import to ordinary people - real wages, trade deficits, health care & retirement benefit levels - are on the negative swing. Oh sure, corporate profits continue to skyrocket - but the indicators that actually matter to the vast majority of hard working Americans in their day-to-day lives are not.

The most interesting question of all is why? Why would the Establishment so deliberately bias its economic coverage? For politicians, the answer is easy - the more they toe the corporate line, push economic policies that screw over ordinary citizens and pad Big Money's bottom line, the more our corrupt, pay-to-play political process rewards them with huge wads of campaign cash. For the media, it is more complex, having partly to do with the fact that the media is owned by corporations with a huge incentive to push ultraconservative economic policies and partly to do with the fact that in today's journalist-as-celebrity era, many of the most important opinion-setting reporters are upper-crust elites who never have to deal with the consequences of the economic prescriptions they push.

The result, as I argue in my upcoming book, is an intense propaganda system that destructively distorts reality and an America that increasingly tunes out the media and politics altogether. The public is not stupid - the public knows that what they read, see and hear from the Establishment is often highly-biased fiction divorced from the average citizen's daily economic challenges, and deliberately designed to make anyone who questions the Establishment's economic agenda feel marginalized. My book shows how these policies are the result of a hostile takeover of our government by Big Money interests. And in doing so, the book aims to be an average citizen's guide to decoding all this B.S. - because the first step towards changing the media/political system is understanding in a very fundamental way how it is being used by the Establishment to wage a merciless class war against ordinary people.