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Hack WatchNewsletter | February 2, 2024

Conspiracy (Taylor’s Version): On Conservative Crazies, The Media Definition of “Economist,” And Our Humble Little Clown Show

Financial RegulationMedia AccountabilityRight-Wing Media

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hack Watch website.

Welcome to February! For today’s Hack Watch, we’ve got a series of quick hits for you. 

It’s a fun roundup. And no, the title isn’t clickbait! We know everyone relies on us for all the latest Swiftie gossip. Let’s dive right in!

Conspiracy (Taylor’s Version)

We’ve all seen it. Conservatives are losing their damn minds about Taylor Swift. They think she’s part of a giant conspiracy to rig the Super Bowl and doom Trump’s presidential campaign. To be honest, that sounds kind of awesome (though I would’ve liked if they could have at least let the Lions in while they were working on the plan, it’d be nice to stop seeing the same teams in the big game).

It’s such a big thing that it’s being covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPRThe Wall Street Journal, and Politico, just to name a few. In just a quick search I counted at least ten different stories from just the past week that heavily involved the drama from the Times alone (I am counting this one where she’s more of a b-plot to Vivek Ramaswamy as a potential Trump VP pick). This WSJ article is from their editorial board. Things have got to be crazy to peel those folks away from their busy schedules of sacrificing goats at the altar of Ronald Reagan or whatever it is they do between writing horrible takes meant to flatter their plutocratic peers.

The whole thing is being mocked by all the late night comedians, Fox News is in a frenzy, and the NFL is rigged to favor the Chiefs. (What else is new? I promise I’m only kidding). But what’s really going on?

I know, there’s about seven quintillion explainer pieces about it, but it seems like most people agree that it largely has to do with a combination of anger at her and Travis Kelce having politics conservatives don’t like and a fear that Swift could throw enough support behind Biden to hand him the election. The mainstream explanations aren’t wrong, but there’s something just out of sight. We’ve all seen stupid culture war BS many times before, but there’s something intangible about this one that sets it apart. The rage feels somehow more palpable, less like just feigning outrage. It feels like the visceral hatred laced with filaments of fear we’re used to when conservatives talk about immigrants or trans people. That they’re effusing something so primal on a classic culture war issue centered on a cis white woman from Pennsylvania who got her start singing country music and her cis white boyfriend from Ohio who plays football is just… weird. Really weird.

Nearly everyone seems to be missing the deeper roots of this phenomena though. Taylor Swift used to be worshiped as the epitome of an Aryan by many Nazis and their adjacents on the alt-right. Before 2018, she refrained from opining on politics and white-supremacist creeps basically drafted their fantasy version of her into the white nationalist movement. Why does this matter? Because it shows how much the right has become intermixed with what were, rightly, super fringe elements of their coalition. 

More important, at least for our purposes here, is that Politico, WSJ, NYT, and WaPo all seem to be oblivious to this. If they can’t find out something that was already reported years ago about the most famous person in the universe, it really doesn’t inspire confidence in their reporting on the minutiae that drives economic issues and policy fights. If you need some examples, see basically every other edition of this very newsletter. I wasn’t even planning to write about this, I only looked into it for maybe two hours. I should not be shedding more insight than double-digit NYT pieces. All I’m asking is for major outlets that publish innumerable pieces on a topic to be able to match what I came up with. Maybe I’m just that good at research, but I don’t think so. Either way, a global paper’s news staff should be able to keep pace. 

C’mon NYT, look what you made me do.

A Monolith of Economists?

As inflation continues to look good without a whiff of the recession many predicted, a number of outlets have taken to running stories about how “Economists Were Wrong.” Bloomberg declared “Economists Were Right In Theory But Wrong In Practice.” The Economist decreed “Economists had a dreadful 2023.” From Axios we got a headline asserting “everyone was so wrong about the 2023 economy.” Perhaps the worst offender is a New York Times piece: “Economists Predicted a Recession. So Far They’ve Been Wrong.”

While not untrue, this runs into an issue I wrote about in a Hack Watch from all the way back in October of 2022. As I warned then, “it is irresponsible to tacitly confine the field of economics” to only the mainstream view. While most economists did believe that we would have a recession, not all of them did. We should all tip our hats to Hal Singer, Claudia Sahm, and other heterodox thinkers for not jumping on the bandwagon. 

A lot of people only read headlines or ledes to pieces, so a casual reader could very well believe that the view we were heading into a recession was not only commonplace, but that it was universal economic gospel. And that simply isn’t true. The economists that places like the Times quote most, your Larry Summers and Jason Furmans, were wrong. But this is a wasted opportunity for a teaching moment; instead of questioning the credibility of economists of a certain worldview, these pieces (or at the very least the headlines—they clarify to varying extents in the texts) assign that bad reasoning to all practitioners of the discipline. 

And it really isn’t hard to do better. All it takes is inserting the word “most,” “many,” “prominent,” or some other clarifier like The Guardian did here and Forbes did here. Even better, use the actual word “mainstream!” Take the opportunity to reflect on whose predictions have been more reliable of late. And hey, maybe update your rolodexes of economists to lean less heavily on the ones who were off by a country mile!

 Admit It, Powell Has Been Bad

On Monday, my colleague Kenny had a great piece in The Sling about how Fed Chair Jerome Powell has been a disaster for our climate and our democracy. To be blunt, inflation has fallen and Powell had nothing to do with it. Concurrently, we face compounding crises in the health of our political system and environment—and Powell has everything to do with that.

Now, we got a couple different lines of pushback to Kenny’s piece. One from Joe Weisenthal is a good example of how hard it can be to fully track the nuances of the executive branch. Another, from longtime friend of the program Matt Yglesias, does more to highlight how personal sentiment can get in the way of reflection.

After the release of Kenny’s piece, Weisenthal tweeted that it was “interesting to see this group demand apologies from Powell defenders, when one of its own favored FOMC members, has taken an even more hawkish posture” above two screenshots: one depicting our Executive Director Jeff Hauser’s comment to Axios from 2020 about potential candidates for Treasury Secretary and one of Raphael Bostic (one of the candidates Jeff flagged) speaking in favor of keeping rates high. 

In the Axios piece, Jeff’s comment was about viable progressive Black candidates for Treasury Secretary that did not come from a Wall Street background. It had nothing to do with who we’d like to see on the Federal Open Market Committee. Not to make a mountain out of a molehill, but if you follow discussions around personnel decisions in the upper levels of government you might notice this is not an uncommon tendency. A lot of technical, specialized jobs get conflated because, frankly, it’s hard to keep track of everything. There are weird overlaps and intersections of authority between federal agencies. Nowhere is that more true than in economic policy. 

Weisenthal’s response probably wasn’t rooted in any ill intent; when we clarified on Twitter that we consider the criteria for what makes a good Treasury Secretary are distinct from what makes a good Fed official, Weisenthal liked and retweeted it. While his response was frustrating, it was ultimately fruitful; we got to contextualize our position and Weisenthal hopefully can appreciate these little nuances going forward.

Contrast that to the response we got from Matt Yglesias. In the piece and the accompanying Twitter thread, Kenny explicitly called on two big Powell proponents to issue mea culpas: Robinson Meyer and Matt Yglesias. Yglesias responded like this:

Putting aside the irony of demeaning people you disagree with while complaining about “character assassination,” we’re disappointed that Yglesias wouldn’t see the light here. 

We may disagree with him often, but we do take Matt seriously and don’t go around demeaning him. When we butt heads, we do it on specific points where we have genuine disagreements. We’ve teased over misunderstanding things, like when he called the Federal Communications Commission a financial regulator, but it’s always about his argument, not him. 

And as much as we disagree with him, we don’t think he’s always wrong or even incorrigible. I even cited Matt in my piece in TAP today (go read it when you’re done with this!), where I referenced his frank analysis about why Jamie Dimon suddenly can’t stop talking about the border and how great Trump is.

That said, while it’s absolutely his prerogative to call us clowns, Yglesias might want to consider that by that token he’s pretty consistently been proven wrong by this little circus of ours. We aren’t the ones who said “SBF is for real” before his staggering fraud and indifference came to light. It wasn’t RDP that was so confident that his law prof parents meant SBF’s moral compass was fully functional. (It’s worth noting that Bankman-Fried later explicitly said that this was a pile of fecal matter he used specifically to string media and pundits along). 

Similarly, we weren’t the ones to be completely, absolutely wrong about Powell as a Fed Chair. Kenny did more than enough to show this, we don’t need to rehash it here. But ad personam attacks are the last resort of those who can feel themselves losing on the merits.

Matt, if you read this, if you ever get tired of being wrong, we got you. Say the word, grab a red nose and your best oversized shoes, and I’ll make sure to save you a seat in the clown car (not that it ever gets full).

Financial RegulationMedia AccountabilityRight-Wing Media

More articles by Dylan Gyauch-Lewis

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