Sunday, May 10, 2009

The fetish for the center

Normally I love NPR's Planet Money podcast. Not because I'm a huge fan of money, but because they've done a great job of making the economic crisis understandable. I wouldn't know what a credit default swap is, or even a derivative, without them.

That said, the episode I listened to today while walking my dog pissed me off enough to make me come home and write about it.

See, Adam Davidson interviewed Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the oversight committee of the TARP--otherwise known as the big-ass bailout. Warren is a law professor by trade, and by ideological bent she's on my side of the spectrum--she sees the current economic crisis as not just a crisis of capitalization for major banks, but of an entire playing field tilted so far in one direction that all the money slides out of the average person's pockets into the pockets of corporate overlords.

Anyway, Davidson picked a fight with Warren because she said that the conditions for the average American family need to be improved at the same time as the banks need to be recapitalized, and Davidson said, not that she was wrong, but that he can't find a single other economist who agrees with Warren.

That's funny, because Davidson does this for a living and I, well, I make some pocket change writing about this stuff every once in a while, and yet I could think of several people who agree. Including Nobel Prize-winning economist and Clinton Administration veteran Joseph Stiglitz.

Anyway, the more irritating part of all this is that Davidson, who of course gets to explain himself because he's the guy in charge of the podcast, says that he's mad not because Warren is wrong, but because the panel isn't objective enough. Davidson claims to be an objective journalist (which is a term I'd never have applied to this podcast even if I thought that any human being had the right to claim objectivity), and he wants the Congressional Oversight Panel to be staffed with what he terms "senior statesmen."

Leaving aside the sexism that goes completely unquestioned in his statement and the names that he follows up with, he essentially goes on to argue that the panel should be made up of "centrists." The names he names are pretty much all old white men, the same ones who've been opining on the economy for so damn long that they all should've seen the crisis coming, yet they're the ones qualified to oversee the bailout--because they fall into some mystical category of not being too partisan?

I hate to always go back to the same thing (no, I don't) but once again we're seeing the fetishizing of the middle ground that happens in the media over and over again. Elizabeth Warren, whom one would think is certainly qualified to have her opinion if nothing else because the press usually gives those with official positions entirely too much credit, is placed in the sphere of deviance by Davidson because she's spent most of her career arguing FOR American working people and AGAINST corporate control.

The fact that she wants to look out for the average people being hurt by the crisis at the same time as she tries to salvage sinking banks is seen as a negative because it's partisan. There's absolutely nothing in this entire 18-minute podcast that takes on Warren's argument on a substantive level. The only argument Davidson has is that he hasn't talked to anyone else who agrees with Warren.

I have to go back to the sexism I called out above, because it's a major problem for me in this statement. The argument reminds me entirely too much of too many arguments where women are told they are too emotional to be objective. Davidson would probably be horrified at my implication there, but the fact is that women are used to hearing that we can't be objective, that only men (white, usually) are objective. Davidson unthinkingly reproduces that statement and it sets my teeth on edge. I wonder, for the sake of wondering, if he'd grill the male Republican on the panel the same way and tell him his opinions are wrong simply because they don't fit the mainstream economic thought. Didn't mainstream economic thought CAUSE this crisis, or did I miss something?

Anyway, on the one hand we have a journalist who claims to be objective nevertheless perfectly willing to argue with the subject of his interview that she is wrong (Yay!). On the other hand, he's doing it not because she's lying or because she's demonstrably wrong (:cough: Greenspan) but in defense of some mythical ideal of centrism/bipartisanship that he feels compelled to defend, much like our favorite Wanker Caucus.

Krugman at the time of the stimulus bill:

So Mr. Obama was reduced to bargaining for the votes of those centrists. And the centrists, predictably, extracted a pound of flesh — not, as far as anyone can tell, based on any coherent economic argument, but simply to demonstrate their centrist mojo.

In essence, Davidson is arguing that the oversight panel should be substantially less tough on the businesses it oversees in the name of centrist mojo and the ideals he thinks he lives up to of objective journalism, which has itself lost more than a pound of flesh by its very unwillingness to argue issues, not semantics. Elizabeth Warren's opinion has to be validated by some "senior statesman" before Davidson will admit that she has a point.

Where have we heard that before?