Yves Smith: NYT’s Joe Nocera Defends Failure to Bring Wall Street Execs to Justice
Janet Yellen on Unconventional Monetary Policy

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?

I had written:

Yes, Gene Sperling Really Is a Liberal - Grasping Reality with an X-11 Seasonal Adjustment Filter: Bob Woodward's The Agenda is in general not a reliable book, but its sections on Gene [Sperling]'s attempts to push Clinton administration economic policy a little further to the left are, I think, accurate...

Bob Woodward commented:

Brad: History, even economic history, should get better with time, not worse. AFter all these years and the multiple confirmations about the accuracy of The Agenda, you persist. For example, I have released transcripts of taped interviews with the late Lloyd Bentsen (wasn't he your former boss?) showing the accuracy of key incidents in the book. What are you talking about? Bob Woodward

My reply:

As I recall, when I heard you speak you gave two examples of why you thought that in general we knew less than 5% of what was going on, and of how in your career you had gotten it wrong: examples you said were "burned into my head--you are sure that this is the way it is, and it turns out to be exactly the opposite. That is very sobering." One of these examples you gave was the contrast between early Clinton economic policy as you portrayed it in "The Agenda" and as you portrayed it in "Maestro": "The Agenda," you said, focused on administrative chaos, and while you had excellent inside sources you missed the big story.

And I am reassured to be reminded over and over again that the lurkers agree with me in email. For example, here in the mailbag is yet another note from a correspondent, an old-time bipartisan senior Washington hand, reassuring me that I am not alone in my view:

I thought, even at the time, The Agenda was a dreadful, awesomely misleading book. Woodward put huge overemphasis on process, disregarding results and outcomes. The first year of the Clinton Administration was, unfortunately, the most successful on substantive economic policymaking grounds. Woodward heaped ridicule on it, not based on the decisions reached and concrete steps taken, but on the sometimes ridiculous turns that the policymaking process took.

Woodward did not recognize that apparently unlovely process can yield excellent results, as was the case here. He made the opposite error early in the Bush II Administration when he confused apparently deliberative and tidy decision making for good policymaking.  In the year after 9/11 the Bush Administration made the most foolish and reckless policy blunder of the past 40 years of U.S. decision making.

Because it was made in a less messy process than Clinton's early economic decisonmaking, however, Woodward mistakenly concluded Bush and his aides were first-rate policymakers. They were the opposite.

When Woodward’s book came out, there was a great deal of discussion of its conclusions. Journalists and political scientists present took Woodward’s conclusions seriously. Many of them seem to believe Woodward had demonstrated the Clinton Administration consisted of an amateurish gang of egoists led by the biggest, most child-like egoist of all.  It did no good to point out that the policies actually adopted (by razor-thin majorities in Congress, as I recall) were unusually sensible and sound after 12 or 20 years of policy follies.

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