Truthout, May 21, 2007
Last week I was struck to see a well-respected centrist foreign policy analyst discuss President Bush's "surge" as a serious policy for bringing stability to Iraq. This sight was striking, because at this point it is very difficult to imagine the surge as a serious policy. It seems evident that the surge is a desperate gambit by a president who does not want to acknowledge the failure of his invasion, and instead is willing to see the deaths of thousands more US soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
The analyst's comments were disturbing because they seemed to be yet another example of an expert bending an analysis to accommodate political power. If the surge is a ridiculous military strategy, then it should not cease to become ridiculous just because the president of the United States has implemented it.
Of course, this is exactly the story of the Iraq war. Before the war, it was possible to know that there was no serious evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or involvement with the September 11 attacks. It was also possible to know that an invasion and occupation of Iraq would be a disaster for the United States and Iraq. But our foreign policy experts generally treated President Bush's allegations and war plans as completely reasonable.
If you wanted to hear serious discussion of these issues, you would have had to turn to the "peace weenies" (the term that serious Washington types apply to people who protest wars). The peace weenies may not have been foreign policy experts, but they were smart enough to recognize a politician who was not telling the truth. Perhaps the most disturbing part of this story is that even after we all know that the invasion was a disaster and the tales of WMDs were lies, the "experts" are still bending their analysis to accommodate those in power, and the media are still largely ignoring the dissenting voices.
Unfortunately, the Iraq war is not the only example of experts bending their analysis to suit those in power. This is the standard methodology of modern economics.
For example, when President Bush wanted to privatize Social Security, his economists used projections that assumed that stock prices would continue to soar for decades, even as they projected that the economy - and corporate profits - would stagnate. While the inconsistency of these assumptions could be shown with simple arithmetic, even most critics of Social Security privatization were too polite to point out that President Bush's numbers didn't add up.
Until the mid-nineties, mainstream economists held it as an absolute article of faith that the unemployment rate could not fall below six percent without triggering explosive inflation. Because of his quirky background, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan chose to ignore the consensus view, and pursued an interest rate policy that allowed the unemployment rate to fall to four percent. As a result, millions of additional workers were able to get jobs, and there was the first period of broadly based wage growth in a quarter century. And there was no inflationary spike. Yet, there was no serious effort to re-examine the consensus view in economics that had said such prosperity was impossible.
As yet another example, economists tell the public that the upward redistribution of wage income of the last quarter-century was simply the result of changes in technology that favor more educated workers. This argument means that the upward redistribution is a sort of natural phenomenon. According to the mainstream of the economics profession, it has nothing to do with trade and immigration policies that are designed to put less- educated workers in competition with people in the developing world, or [with] anti-union policies that undermine the ability of workers to bargain collectively.
More recent wage data show that even college-educated workers are not benefiting in the new economy. Only workers with advanced degrees are still experiencing wage gains. This hasn't caused the economists to re-examine their claim that technology explains income inequality - they now just claim a further technological shift, so that only workers with advanced degrees are favored by technology.
Based on these examples, some people might reasonably believe that the mainstream of the economics profession bends its analysis to benefit the powerful. It would be great if there were some mechanism for holding experts accountable in the same way that most workers are held accountable for their performance. Unfortunately, being consistently wrong doesn't seem to damage a person's stature as an expert.
This is a serious problem. If those who are supposed to give impartial analysis routinely bend their views to favor those in power, then their expertise is not very valuable.
There is no simple solution to this problem. We will have to find mechanisms that hold experts more accountable. To paraphrase an old left-wing slogan, "better right than expert."
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (www.conservativenannystate.org). He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.