bigcon.jpg



I sort of feel like saying you probably shouldn't buy Jonathan Chait's book, The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hikacked by Crackpot Economics because the parts of the book that deal with the media are positively infuriating. Becoming enraged about newspaper and magazine articles than ran years ago is probably an unhealthy impulse. But it's vitally important, and Chait brilliant dissects the moronic manner in which economic issues get covered and the horrible damage it does. Here's a lengthy example:

The unveiling of the Bush tax cut stood out for its devious ingenuity. The Bush campaign had been advertising its approach to tax cuts as a dramatic break from the old GOP practice of giving the rich the biggest breaks. To quote Time once again:
Though Bush won't unveil his plan until the fall, team member Martin Anderson, who helped craft Ronald Reagan's tax cuts in 1981, told TIME last week that Bush's plan "is going to be significantly different from what the Republicans are doing now." Of course, the Texas Governor wants to cut taxes for the middle and upper classes, but sources tell TIME his plan will feature a series of proposals aimed at lowering the tax burden on families earning between $12,500 and $30,000 a year. . . . A tax plan that helps low-income Americans goes deep into Democratic territory and sounds like the perfect policy component to fit Bush's centrist rhetoric
Laudatory coverage like this kept up for months on end, through the summer of 1999 and into the fall. [...] In point of fact, Bush's tax plan was no less regressive than previous Republican plans -- it gave an even higher percentage of its benefits to the top 1 percent than the Republican plan veroed by Clinton in 1999, and it did virtually nothing for families earning under $20,000 a year. So, in December, they hit on the solution of preempting the release of the plan by showing it a day early to a handful of major newspaper reporters. There was one catch: those reporters could not share its details with any outside analysts -- such as, say, economists who could run numbers disproving its core claims. Astonishingly, reputable newspapers agreed to this arrangement.

The result was a triumph of propaganda. The Washington Post breathlessly reported that Bush's plan would "focus its deepest reductions on the working poor and middle class" and would thus "mark a clear departure from more traditional conservative GOP tax policy." The Wall Street Journal noted that Bush was "seeking to steer more benefits to working-poor taxpayers."



The book details the ways in which the cranks first took over the Republican Party and then the entire country, and notes correctly that mere electoral defeat won't resolve the problem. Republicans have, after all, faced electoral setbacks in 1982, 1986, 1992, and 1998 only to come back crazier than ever after wins in 1984, 1994, and 2000. The book can be ordered here, it's coming out in September and I'll probably encourage you to buy it again between now and then.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.