On Conventional Wisdom


By Marc Imbillicieri


It is now widely acknowledged that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake. We now know Hussein was not harboring weapons of mass destruction. There was never any reason to think he was, but those who expressed skepticism were labeled blasphemous in 2003 America. Majorities of both parties voted to authorize the invasion. Even liberal Hollywood booed Michael Moore for condemning the war. What's more notable is that the pundits and advisors who staunchly backed the invasion, who believed the lies of the Bush administration and maligned those who didn't, are still taken seriously amongst the elites. The opinion pages of major newspapers are filled with names of hawks such as Ross Douthat, Meghan McCardle, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and Bret Stephens. Friedman supported interventionist dogma so vehemently that he recommended Obama pick Dick Cheney as his vice presidential nominee in 2008; writing in a column that diplomacy should be tempered with the threat of waterboarding the enemy’s grandchildren on a Sunday afternoon. Whilst Obama did not take Friedman’s advice on vice presidential appointments, he did consult with Friedman on Middle Eastern policy.

Not only are pundits unpunished for supporting bad wars, but even reporters and journalists who promoted the misinformation that justified the invasion retain unscathed reputations. In 2003, the editor of The New Yorker David Remnick published an editorial stressing the responsibility of the United States to invade Iraq. The magazine published several articles citing nameless sources linking Iraq to Al-Qaeda. We now know this to be totally untrue, yet Remnick remains editor of The New Yorker. In a democratic society, the role of the media is fundamentally adversarial to the government, to be a check on their power. Reporters should investigate, journalists should ask questions of politicians that citizens should want answered, and pundits should convey evidence-based opinions. The press has a duty to be skeptical of what those in power say, not repeat their talking points uncritically. A responsible outlet would point out that the Bush administration had no grounds to link Iraq to Al-Qaeda.

Most people would not want a doctor with a history of misdiagnosing their patients or prescribing harmful medications. Yet a record of supporting policies that lead to the destabilization of the Middle East or the global economy isn’t enough to make political leaders skeptical of established thinkers.

Government advisors who have crafted similarly disastrous policies also continue to be sought out for advice. While Chair of the World Bank, Larry Summers wrote: "the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that". Part of his reasoning was that workers in poor countries aren't likely to live long enough to develop diseases from pollution. As Treasury Secretary under Clinton, he opposed efforts to regulate greenhouse gases and supported the deregulation of derivatives markets, warning increased regulation would lead to a devastating recession. Summers also supported the repeal of Glass-Stegall, a law prohibiting banks from engaging in both investment and commercial activity. Ironically, such financial liberalization led to the 2008 recession, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. One would imagine that gross ineptitude would tarnish his reputation. In fact, Summers remains a widely respected economist. He later served as President of Harvard but was ultimately pressured to resign due to comments perceived as sexist relating to women in STEM. He later took positions on the boards of hedge funds and was appointed as an economic advisor by Obama, whilst still being paid by hedge funds. Within the Obama administration, he supported tax cuts and opposed infrastructure stimulus and caps on executive pay.


Hiring heterodox thinkers risks losing grants; hiring Marxian researchers is unlikely to attract donations from billionaires.

This is not a new phenomenon; the American invasion of Vietnam was supported across the board by pundits and government technocrats. The notion that American hegemony is a benign force for good on the world stage is almost a first principle in international affairs. It’s a matter of historical record that almost every Latin American nation has endured a military dictatorship imposed by the United States, that most of the issues in the Middle East cited as ‘justification for intervention’ are themselves results of previous interventions, or that the majority of dictatorships are supported by the United States. Yet none of these objective realities of international affairs seem to challenge that assumption at all.

Why are people like Summers and Friedman on global policy still taken seriously in spite of their bad records? Most people would not trust a doctor with a history of misdiagnosing their patients or prescribing harmful medications. Yet a record of supporting policies that lead to the destabilization of the Middle East or the global economy isn’t enough to make political leaders skeptical of established thinkers. Economist and ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, a noted maverick amongst academics popularized the term "conventional wisdom" referring to "the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability". No matter how often American hegemony proves to further destabilize the world or globalization exploits and plunders, support for them remains not only mainstream but virtually a given amongst the ruling elite. Pundits and technocrats alike retain their reputation not based on the accuracy of their predictions, but on how conventional they've been.

So like medieval priests who espoused the divine rights of the monarchs who patronized them, today's intellectuals implore us to trust that what's good for the powerful is good for us.

The entrenchment of such ideas is largely due to moneyed interests in think tanks, academia, and the media. Most politicians outsource their policy plans to think tanks, and the largest think tanks are those funded by rich people. The governing board of the Brookings institute counts financiers and executives among its members. The Council of Foreign Relations in New York City has always been closely linked with the business class. In fact, private equity billionaire David Rubenstein has served as Chairman of both organizations. Similarly, much academic research is funded by private corporations or rich alumni. Hiring heterodox thinkers risks losing such grants; hiring Marxian researchers is unlikely to attract donations from billionaires. As for mass media, ownership is consolidated amongst similar groups. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are owned by Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch respectively. More so, these outlets rely on special access to politicians and military officers for reporting. Such access is likely to be denied to those who hire controversial writers. The professional middle classes who consume such media and attend such universities then accept such established notions.

In effect, intellectuals, be they pundits like Friedman or technocrats like Summers are opinion-takers rather than opinion-makers. The ideas they espouse or strategies they devise are for ends favorable to those in power. The fact that it doesn't help most people is beside the point; they help the right people. So like medieval priests who espoused the divine rights of the monarchs who patronized them, today's intellectuals implore us to trust that what's good for the powerful is good for us.

The solution is for leaders and institutions to admit that the current ideas are not working, and in fact have been disastrous. The good news is that there are plenty of thinkers such as Joseph Stiglitz, James Galbraith (son of John), Stephen M. Walt, Ha Joon-Chang, and many others, who eloquently critique the issues with the intellectual establishment. Thinkers such as these can design frameworks which are based in material reality and use metrics relevant to human beings. Conventional wisdom has been proven wrong and should make way for a new paradigm.