But what was the broad economic narrative, and the assumptions beneath that narrative, that was driven home day after day, year after year, in ways large and small, subtle and overt, in the news columns and on the opinion pages, on the relentless loop of cable news? A belief in the power of unfettered markets to make our lives better. The New Economy. The End of History and the Triumph of Free-Market Capitalism. The Ownership Society. It was the celebration of men who make money, who master those markets, and of the citizen as consumer and nothing more. This was the agenda of power in the U.S., from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, from Martin Feldstein to Robert Rubin to Alan Greenspan; and it was the agenda that the mass media broadcast and, directly and indirectly, endorsed—even if they did, on occasion, manage a piece that cried foul. As my colleague Dean Starkman ably demonstrated in our May/June issue (“Power Problem”), the business press failed to challenge the conventional wisdom that prevailed at the institutions that so damaged our economy.
If ever there were a moment for our press to begin to change this dynamic, to embrace a mission more in keeping with the ideals of public service and an adversarial fourth estate, it is now. America is at a perilous juncture in its history, but one that is ripe with opportunity, too. The mythology of the nation—exceptional, above the taint of history—has been undercut by a terror attack, two botched wars, the reality of torture, a flooded city, a wounded economy, staggering inequality, a shameful health-care system . . . the list is long. It has been undercut, too, by the emerging realities of the twenty-first century: a multipolar world, transglobal problems that no amount of debt-funded escapism can keep at bay, a realization that America must lead, but cannot dictate. America has created systems—legal, political, educational—that have much to admire, but they are not sacrosanct. In short, many of the ideas that we take for granted are not the only good ideas, or necessarily the ones best suited for every set of circumstances. On many fronts, the circumstances are decidedly different from those that allowed this notion of American exceptionalism to persist, fundamentally unchallenged, for so long.
The expression of this opportunity, this need to, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote, “stop being stupid,” was everywhere last fall and earlier this year, as the financial crisis deepened and President Obama took office. Thomas Friedman—not exactly a thorn in the side of conventional wisdom—wrote, “We don’t just need a bailout. We need a reboot. We need a build out. We need a buildup. We need a national makeover.” Matt Miller’s new book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, promised to “illuminate where today’s destructive conventional wisdom came from and how it holds our country back.” Yale economist Robert Shiller, writing in September 2008 in The Washington Post, said, “Whenever the public endures a crisis, ordinary citizens start to wonder how—and whether—our institutions really work. We no longer take things for granted. It is only then that real change becomes possible.”
Such moments, born of crisis, tend to pass quickly, however. During the oil shocks of the 1970s, the air was thick with talk of weaning ourselves from foreign oil. I remember writing a school report on all the fabulous new sustainable sources of energy that were in the offing—wind, hydro, etc. And following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America vowed to set aside the narcissism of the 1990s and pay more attention to the wider world. And after Katrina we were going to really do something about all that poverty we were surprised to discover in our midst. Indeed, once the Dow begins nosing back toward ten thousand, the window of opportunity for fundamental change may close.
Barack Obama was ushered into office as a president who “got it,” who understood that many of our systems were in need of fundamental change. But already there are signs that he may not have the stomach for the conflict such change requires: his failure to address the skewed incentives at various levels of our financial system that helped to produce the current crisis; the timid cost-containment strategies in his health-care agenda; the lack of a bold vision on infrastructure, etc. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, American journalism, too, is in a protracted moment of painful change. Both its business model and its sense of mission are in full retreat. Much experimentation is under way, with different financial-support structures, narrower editorial missions, collaborative projects, etc. There is an urgency, a humility, at news outlets about the need to rethink things that is long overdue.