wsj: Financial Infotainment vs Sound Economics

Thomas Frank on The Peter Principle in financial journalism:

If the world of financial infotainment can itself be described as a “market,” it is a market where accountability does not seem to exist, where the heaviest of incentives seems to carry no weight, and where consumers, to judge by what they get, seem constantly to choose the lousy over the good. The old order discredits itself, but the old order persists nevertheless.

This needs to be repeated every time someone pleads, “Who could have known?” Plenty of people did see the disaster coming. Most of them were marginalized, however, laboring at out-of-the-way econ departments, blogs and B-list think tanks. They were excluded and even ridiculed because their larger understanding of the economy was not one that fit well with the sort of Wall Street worship preached by the likes of CNBC.

Nor is this a particularly liberal line of inquiry, despite Jon Stewart’s well-known fondness for tormenting Republicans. It was a question that interested Milton Friedman, among others, who could be seen musing on the subject in a 1994 TV interview that C-Span chose to rebroadcast on Sunday.

The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom.” As he looked around him, Friedman marveled at the world’s perverse refusal to learn certain lessons, even when history itself drove them home. Everyone had by then learned that government was too large, he said, but countries kept on growing government anyway.

Friedman may have misread the direction in which the world was moving in 1994, but the question he raised is still a good one. Bad ideas and clueless pundits often do get on top, and they stay there — sometimes hailing incentives and accountability, even — despite all manner of rebukes handed down by history itself.

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