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Striking Out at the New York Times

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As Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination continues to strengthen, so do the attacks on him by the establishment corporate media, which are reflexively backing the status quo corporatocracy.

The latest smear comes from the New York Times, in the form of an almost laughable piece by Jackie Calmes run on Feb. 15 and headlined “Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans.”

The so-called “left-leaning” economists quoted by her, however, included not one genuine left or even left-leaning economist. Rather, they were a bunch of mainstream economists who, while “not working for Hillary Clinton,” as Calmes notes, have in fact worked for either the administration of Barack Obama or of Bill Clinton (a point she largely fails to note). As media critic Doug Henwood of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) pointed out in a blistering critique of the Times article, referring to the economists quoted in the piece, “So slight is their leftward lean that it would require very sensitive equipment to measure.”

Take source one, Austan Goolsbee, former chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, who obligingly tells Calmes that Sander’s “numbers just don’t add up,” and claims that Sanders’ proposed measures on health care and job creation would add “$2 to $3 trillion” to the current $4-trillion federal budget. Just the vagueness of his estimate, which had a range of uncertainty of $1 trillion, should alert people to a certain, shall we say lack of rigor on Goolsbee’s part, rather unbecoming of a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. Goolslbee, in fact, was the economist with the Obama campaign who famously rushed off to Ottawa to privately reassure that country’s right-wing Prime Minister Stephen Harper that candidate Obama wasn’t serious in his campaign rhetoric condemning the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The second supposedly “left-leaning” economist critic of Sanders cited by Calmes in her article was Jared Bernstein, former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, who is now at what Calmes terms the “liberal” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — actually a haven for Clinton-era mainstream economic hacks pedaling the usual trickle-down theories. Bernstein is quoted criticizing UMass economist Gerald Friedman, who wrote an analysis backing Sander’s call for replacing Obamacare with a Medicare for All program. Friedman, in his analysis, demonstrates that such a switch to a single-payer system would save Americans an average of about $5000 per family, even after raising the Medicare tax by about $500 per family, because it would eliminate virtually all private insurance premiums and co-pays.

Bernstein argued that “several assumptions” in Friedman’s analysis were “wishful thinking.” In fact though, it’s Bernstein whose assumptions are flawed. For example he argues that Sanders and Friedman are “mistakenly” assuming that there would be minimum health care inflation under Sanders’ plan. Actually, it’s no mistake. With the government in a position as sole customer under a national single-payer plan to negotiate pricing with all segments of the delivery system — hospitals, doctors, drug companies, equipment makers, etc. — health inflation could be virtually halted in its tracks, and in many cases, costs would likely go down significantly.

Calmes’ third “left-leaning” economist, Henry Aaron, is with the Brookings Institution, a “graveyard of conservative Democrats” that is hardly a nest of lefty intellectuals. Aaron is quoted calling Sanders’ proposal for Medicare for All a “fairy tale” given the current political climate in Washington, implying that it could never win passage with a Republican Congress — a point also credited by Calmes to a colleague, Times columnist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, whose column attacking Sanders for “magical thinking” is quoted, though he is not actually interviewed for her piece. That political analysis might be correct, though nobody can really predict how a charged-up electorate voting in Sanders as President (and current polls suggest he’d wallop any of the Republican candidates, including Donald Trump) would impact House and Senate races. In any case, that kind of political naval gazing has nothing to do with evaluating the economics of a reform proposal, and doesn’t even properly belong in Calmes’ article.

Fourth in line as a “left-leaning” economist critic of Sanders is Kenneth E. Thorpe, who Calmes notes “advised” the Clintons in the 1990s, including Hillary Clinton, whose epic failure to develop a health care reform acceptable to the private insurance industry famously collapsed, marking her only foray into health care reform, back in Bill Clinton’s first term. Actually, Thorpe more than just advised the Clintons; he was in Bill Clinton’s cabinet, responsible for crunching all the numbers for Hillary’s failed health care reform project! Thorpe, in the latest Times article, makes the ludicrous assertion that Sanders’ proposed Medicare for All proposal would end up costing twice what he is claiming, ignoring the reality that all other nations that have adopted such a plan spend roughly half of what the US does on health care, and yet get better outcomes while covering all their populations.

The truth is that none of the economists cited by the Times’ Calmes could properly be called “left-leaning.” They are in some cases perhaps liberal economists, in the context of American politics, whatever that may mean, but they are also all very conventional free-market advocates at the core.

If Calmes wanted to talk to left-leaning economists, she had plenty to choose from, but they are not people generally interviewed by NY Times reporters. I’m thinking for example of Dean Baker, James Galbraith or Alex Binder — all well-known economists who, it turns out, think Sanders’ plans on health care, economic reform, and Wall Street re-regulation make a lot of sense.

For that matter, she might have contacted French economist Thomas Piketty, whom the UK’s Guardian newspaper just a day later referred to as “perhaps the most influential economic thinker of the left in the Western world.”

As Picketty wrote in Le Monde on Feb. 14 in an article also run by the Guardian [4], Sanders’ ascent spells “the end of the politico-ideological cycle opened by the victory of Ronald Reagan at the 1980 elections.” Piketty, a sharp critic of modern global capitalism and of America’s national religion of “free markets,” argues that regardless of Sanders’ fate in this particular contest, he has created an opening for similar candidates in the future who could successfully make it into the White House and “change the face of the country.” He writes:

Sanders’ success today shows that much of America is tired of rising inequality and these so-called political changes, and intends to revive both a progressive agenda and the American tradition of egalitarianism. Hillary Clinton, who fought to the left of Barack Obama in 2008 on topics such as health insurance, appears today as if she is defending the status quo, just another heiress of the Reagan-Clinton-Obama political regime.

Sanders makes clear he wants to restore progressive taxation and a higher minimum wage ($15 an hour). To this he adds free healthcare and higher education in a country where inequality in access to education has reached unprecedented heights, highlighting a gulf standing between the lives of most Americans, and the soothing meritocratic speeches pronounced by the winners of the system.

Meanwhile, the Republican party sinks into a hyper-nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam discourse (even though Islam isn’t a great religious force in the country), and a limitless glorification of the fortune amassed by rich white people. The judges appointed under Reagan and Bush have lifted any legal limitation on the influence of private money in politics, which greatly complicates the task of candidates like Sanders.

However, new forms of political mobilization and crowd-funding can prevail and push America into a new political cycle. We are far from gloomy prophecies about the end of history.

Calmes would have done well to call any of these actual leftists for at least one critical response to her one-sided hit piece on Sanders. But then, since when has the New York Times been a fair and balanced journal when covering US national politics?

The giveaway about what is really going on at the Times is that just a month earlier, on Jan. 14, 170 economists, many of them quite prominent — and many, but not all, of them actual “left-leaners” in the profession — signed a public letter endorsing and supporting Sanders’ proposals for breaking up the “too big to fail” banks, and for more tightly regulating Wall Street. That list included such big-name genuinely “left-leaning” economists as Baker, Galbraith and Binder, as well as former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich and William Black, the man who spearheaded the unwinding and prosecution of the massively corrupt Savings and Loans companies during the Bush administration scandal involving those institutions.

When that letter was released, the Times simply ignored it — the media’s typical response to reporting on “inconvenient” news –, while its economics columnist Krugman, a Clinton backer, labelled its signers “not serious people.”

I suppose the best way to view this hit piece, and Krugman’s brush-off of professional colleagues who disagree with him, is to note that it’s probably a measure of the fear the establishment has of the power and potential impact of Sanders’ upstart economic proposals that it has to attack them with biased, one-sided reporting and snide comments instead of reasoned argumentation.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

CounterPunch Magazine

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