I think the important thing to say is there is no escaping those decisions. You can’t simply say, well, we are only going to accept objective truths that are universally acknowledged to be objective truths, because almost nothing is universally acknowledged. So where do you draw the line? Do you say, we’re going to acknowledge all objective truths that in polls 95% of Americans acknowledge? Do you say we’re going to draw it at 80%? And I don’t think you can ultimately hand over that decision to some kind of numerical measure.
We already make those decisions. For example, we cover the deficit as if the notion that the U.S. is on an unsustainable fiscal path is an objective truth. There are some people who essentially reject that truth, but we don’t let the existence of that opinion sway us from covering the deficit story in a way that acknowledges that we have long-term unsustainability problem. We acknowledge some of the uncertainty about that problem. We do not say the way to solve it is X or Y. But we start from a base that the Congressional Budget Office and the vast majority of economists who say that we cannot continue on this fiscal path are correct.
Are there other areas in which you think that necessary decision has been evaded?
That’s probably a better question for me to try to answer in six months or a year, and I’m happy to try to do so. I don’t really feel like I’m qualified to answer it now. The only thing I’m going to say is that we didn’t get together as a bureau at any point and decide the deficit was a problem, nor did the press corps as a whole, anymore than we got together as a bureau and decided that the fact the earth orbits the sun was a fact. The funny thing is making these calls is not always obvious, and yet we can’t escape making them.
And sometimes we need to acknowledge that there is no such call—sometimes we need to acknowledge that, you know what, we don’t know what’ll happen if the government raises taxes. I don’t mean to suggest you can always say there is some large universal truth. But I certainly think we already do in many cases, and that’s part of our jobs.
That same column offered an indictment of a political culture that does not, in your words, “spend enough time focusing on our actual economic problems.” Does that criticism apply to the orientation of press coverage as well, or do you intend it only for policy makers and political elites?
I think it applies to policy makers, I think it applies to political elites, I think it applies to the press, and while this won’t win me an election, I think it applies to the American public. I think we have a society-wide problem of not focusing enough on what our real economic problems are. My favorite example is that when you read the polls, you emerge thinking that the American public is strongly in favor of the deficit. They don’t say that, but they don’t want their taxes raised and they don’t want Social Security or Medicare changed significantly. They don’t really want much major spending changed significantly, when you look at specifics. And so I do think that critique applies to the press, but I think of that as a symptom of a larger issue.
A couple more questions in this vein, and I appreciate you indulging me and playing press critic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the performance of the Times, or the D.C. press corps more broadly, on the economic policy debates of the last few years. Are there particular episodes where you think the press would have been better served by taking some of the advice your offering?
I think we at the Times did a good job covering the housing bubble, but I’ll also offer a critique there. When major policy-makers at the head of large government institutions were saying there was no housing bubble and there couldn’t be one, and when huge lobbying groups like the National Association of Realtors were saying the same thing, we insisted that there could be—in all kinds of ways, in reported stories on the front page, in columns by people like Floyd Norris, in big takeouts for our real estate section. We said again and again: Look, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but relative to any measure you have, it sure looks like housing prices are really high. And we were at times fairly viciously criticized for that.