Our nation is in a panic, and the media keeps missing the story.
Perhaps events are changing too quickly -- since September it has been a blur. The stock market's sudden fall. AIG and brokerage houses collapsing. The on-again, off-again bailouts. The election. The first black president. Bush leaving. The inauguration. Detroit auto companies. The new cabinet secretaries and officials. The stimulus package. Every week a new story dominates -- pushing out the rest. And old media bemoans its fate while it focuses always on the fight, the controversy, the doom and almost never on the substance.
But the substance matters. And because substance matters and is being ignored, decisions are being made and laws are being passed in a panic without discussion, debate, hearings or input. We are changing the course of the country without the sunshine and scrutiny that are antiseptics for bad and wasteful policies.
Here are some big stories that were totally missed:
The first one is old, but it helped get us into this mess: post 9-11, the media gave President Bush a bye on the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Sure, plenty of debate, but no real inquiry, no groundbreaking stories, no leaks from the administration about the lack of evidence. Only later did we learn of the intentional deception the administration waged on the evidence. The result seven years later has been a massive loss of human life, resources and reputation. You can blame the administration, but the media did not do its job.
The next big story missed was when we were getting into the mortgage mess. We all saw the TV ads and received endless solicitations. Where was the scrutiny of how millions of Americans could pay for the mortgages they were entering? Was it simply politically correct to favor home ownership and not question how so many people could buy mortgages they could not afford? Was it easier and better to focus on Britney Spears?
And more stories are being missed as each day's news cycle makes it easier to focus on the controversy rather than the substance. Where was the media on the first bailout that rushed through $300 billion in September? Is the legislation's passage itself the news or should the media have gone further and asked where the money would go and how it would be spent? A little scrutiny and discussion and a little less panic would have resulted in few billion dollars in saved executive bonuses. If the $300 billion was supposed to reverse the fall of Wall Street and jumpstart lending it sure has been a failure.
And what about the recently passed stimulus package? Where was the media scrutiny? The only media issue was not what was in it, but whether it would pass with bipartisan support. Proponents, including the president, said that everyone agrees we need a stimulus. Yet many economists disagreed and argued that there is little or no evidence that government spending can make a difference before the business cycle turns. With hardly any public discussion, Congress passed its biggest expenditure in history.
One lobbyist told me: "We got everything we have been asking for over the last 10 years in one fat package."
Has the media been so decimated by the economy that thoughtful analysis of these immense proposals is off the table?
And where was the outcry over this shift from immediate stimulus and job creation to massive government employment and industrial policy? Where was the outcry that Congress was being asked to vote on a 1000 plus page bill that barely had hearings and that almost no one had read? Where was the thoughtful analysis? And just how is it a stimulus when most of the projects will not even start this year? Has the media simply lost interest in anything but the battle? Have the facts and substantive issues become irrelevant?
Here are the stories that are being missed now and will be future fodder:
The Obama administration is backlogged in terms of staffing the government. The hiccups with three potential cabinet members have slowed down all vetting and made the administration slow to put people in place. The vetters are nervous, but the bigger backlog is at the clearance level. It takes a longer time to get governmental clearance as the bar keeps being raised and it is a long line. Expect the agencies to be on autopilot and listening without substantive change for a while.
Not unrelated to this backlog, is that the administration is ill-equipped to deal with the stimulus package. The package has huge federal government programs and anticipates large scale governmental hiring. The skills and personnel do not exist in the government today. The Department of Transportation was told to hire more than 1,000 people, and it pushed back because it can't process or absorb that many new employees.
The stimulus has so much money, it will be impossible to spend in a reasonable way. President Obama's speech to Congress anointed Vice President Biden as top overseer and grandly promised accountability. But almost no criteria are in the package defining success. Few government bureaucrats have the project management skills and the administration will probably be reluctant to outsource oversight to project management experts. Plenty of stories of waste and abuse will result. But how can success be measured if it is not spelled out in the law? Hopefully, Vice President Biden will define success up front with SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic with a Time Frame). The media should be tracking every project and making sure that every project has measurable goals.
The states are simply balancing their budgets with stimulus money. This means they are reallocating money from the stimulus to where they need it to save programs and jobs. This is fine and at least lowers potential unemployment, but it also means they are not making hard decisions and will be back pushing for money next year. The same is true for programs like Head Start and others in the stimulus package. They will get money for one year and then they will be back for more.
The brilliant shift the president had from signing a non-vetted $800 billion stimulus package to a few days later promising to cut the budget deficit in half by 2013 means we still will have a phenomenal unfunded deficit in a few years. It's like promising to be sober after a drinking binge. Yet big media dutifully provided the videos, stories and photos about this prudent plan to cut the deficit - but cutting it from the artificial high of this year is no great accomplishment and alone will help doom our progeny.
My sleepless nights are not about my personal loss of over half of my careful savings. I put them in stocks and knew the risks. Nor is it the loss in the value of my house. I have a place to live and am making my mortgage payments. Rather I am sleepless about the national legacy we are leaving our children.
In the course of one year's time -- with little opposition and almost no analysis or critique we are racking up over $800 billion on the stimulus and trillions bailing out companies that made poor decisions. We have two wars costing us billions more. When we measure our national debt in trillions, it is no surprise that our interest payments are massive. In 2008, we paid almost $500 billion in interest on our debt. This with historically low interest rates. Sometime soon, those to whom we owe money to are going to look elsewhere or insist on higher interest rates. All this without even addressing our growing and underfunded social security and Medicare deficit.
It will only get worse as we experience higher interest rates, a weaker dollar and inflation. The stimulus package also contains new spending levels which will be difficult to lower in coming years on everything from education and Head Start to grants to states seeking to balance their budgets.
Can we afford to add another trillion dollars each year to the deficit for the next few years? In 2012, we could be paying a trillion dollars just in interest on our growing debt.
I am not a deficit hawk. I am just an American who did the math and can't believe that few are planning forward and raising the cry about our future. We are guaranteeing a future for our children where they must pay for our unprecedented grab from their future.
President Obama's recent promise to cut the deficit by half is not even a dent as it starts with the extraordinarily high base of 2009. It will still be huge by any historic measure.
I am afraid that our generation will be noted for two things: We are the generation that embraced digital technology, not only the cell phone, the HDTV and digital music, but the Internet and all the glory and richness it provides. But we also will be forever known as the generation that saddled our children with a debt which will take generations to pay. The irresponsibility and the lack of discussion are breathtaking.
I know we are in a recession and people are losing their jobs and every inclination is to do something. But we are also in a free-market system which has a business cycle.
In the late 1970s we had gas rationing, double digit employment and interest rates approaching 20 percent. We survived without panicking. By comparison, today we could be on a path to increase public debt by some three trillion dollars in the next three years alone -- more than we added in the 50 years from 1940 to 1990. Baseline projections have us growing the public debt by some 60 percent in the next decade alone.
We are in an unnecessary financial stampede and making unwise, ill-considered choices. I respect the good intent of our politicians responding to real life needs. I understand the natural desire of business to ask the government for money. But the two have become a deadly combination as the short term high will give way soon to a horrible long term illness.
Our press had been among the best in the world in challenging the status quo. But it has failed us recently. It has been mostly reactive, favoring the politics and the battles between the political parties rather than independently reviewing the big issues.
I would prefer an engaged press that treated stories based on the size of long-term impact rather than the salaciousness of the immediate human interest. How can the public focus on the big picture if no one helps them to see it? How can we get fewer stories on feuds and more on what will shape our economic lives in the future?
We are at a double danger area. First, we have an intensely charismatic leader who broke through a huge barrier and almost every American wants him to succeed. Second, we are in the middle of a serious economic downturn. Those two together have blunted criticism and careful analysis. Many in Washington see the goodies they are getting as in their self interest. In any case, critical inquiry has yet to manifest.
We are in trouble unless we have an honest inquiry and discussion on the big issues of our time -- and they all come down to money and priorities.
Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.