Spiro Agnew, are you listening? This was to be (and, in a small way, will be) a column about economists falling onto hard times. But as 1984 ends, I'm drawn to the old habit of reflecting on the past and making resolutions for the future.
Here's one for Spiro: In 1985, I will say something nice. It's not that I'm a closet fan of Agnew's, but I think he had a point that journalists need to understand. The former vice president complained that the press almost never has anything good to say.
His criticism helps define the tension between the press and the public. The beginning of a new year is a good time to take stock of what we do, how we do it and why the public is simultaneously pleased, enraged and bored by what we do.
The press's most offensive characteristic is its obsessive self-righteousness, which can border on nastiness. Does this show we're a mean-spirited crowd? I think not. I don't kick my dog or take seats from old ladies in crowded buses. Sappy movies can lull me into sentimentality, and I confess to liking "ET."
And yet, my typewriter is a source of unrelenting criticism. In this sense, 1984 was like all other years.
I condemned the settlement between the United Auto Workers and General Motors, which was too expensive and will hasten the erosion of U.S. auto employment. I had harsh words for business lobbyists, who are trying to kill a reasonably good Treasury tax proposal. I disliked what the Catholic bishops said about the economy, thinking it simple-minded. I scorned the plans of the Israeli government to ask Congress for some billions of dollars to bail out its hyper-inflating economy. And I accused the Reagan Administration of economic hypocrisy, especially on trade policy; it preached free trade and practiced protectionism.
If I had written on economists this week, there would have been more of the same. Economists seem to have fallen to a low ebb in public esteem. Their forecasting is notoriously unreliable. And the most tangible proof of public disfavor -- President Reagan's reported plan to abolish the Council of Economic Advisers -- is understandable, if not desirable.
Reagan's last CEA chairman, Harvard economist Martin S. Feldstein, seemed to use his job mostly as a pulpit for self-promotion. Many economists have oversold their capabilities in return for money, power and prominence. But there it is again: nastiness.
'm excoriating economists in general, Feldstein in particular and Reagan, too (for doing the wrong thing for the right reason). What's wrong with me? The common complaint about the press is that -- depending on your point of view -- it's too liberal, too conservative, too sensational or too sloppy.
But this misses the real source of irritation: most journalists are not political partisans, but incurable reformers. Most of our cynicism is affectation. We see the world as a place that can be improved, and this organizes -- sometimes in the most subtle ways -- what we call "news."
We impose order on everyday anarchy, but in doing so, we are more moral commentators than dispassionate historians. Whether the flavor is liberal or conservative, the reformer's bias is pervasive. Maybe it's a character flaw or just the natural selection that makes some people journalists and others accountants.
It's worse in columnists, because they have the liberty of being openly opinionated. Instinctively, I fixate on what I think are others' mistakes. In general, I think the public accepts this earnestness and carping because, as a people, we believe in progress. We are a nation of improvers, and freedom of information is seen as an essential part of the process.
But there are limits. Americans are not a nation of meddlers, and they distrust entrenched power. So the press is also resented, for we are always judging things about which we are, arguably, not especially well-informed. Even with specialized journalism, we are a profession of outsiders; superficiality is often the best we can do.
The contradictory national impulses -- the one towards improvement, the other towards independence -- make the public ambivalent toward the press. A recent survey found that about nine of 10 Americans think that "nationally influential newspapers" report the news "intelligently."
But seven of 10 feel the papers are "politically biased" and nearly two out of three see them as invading people's privacy.
My most memorable letter of l984 put it this way: "Most of us simply do not want to be bothered, and most especially not by the likes of you. Nor the dislikes. There's a lot to be said for saying nothing. Why not try it?"
The letter was exasperated with my know-it-all attitude. Well, my critic was onto something; we are almost always dealing with incomplete information and imperfect understanding, sounding more authoritative than we actually are.
Journalistic judgments about what's significant are hardly infallible. The invention of the transistor in 1948 -- one of the momentous events of our age -- was reported on page 46 of The New York Times.
This short-sightedness is what divides journalism from history. Naturally, I had a glib answer for my critic. "If you -- or anyone you know -- will compensate me adequately for saying nothing, I will give serious consideration to your proposal." So far, there have been no takers. Even if there were, I'd probably renege.
I'm a confirmed complainer; the obsessiveness is what makes the press engaging and maddening. But I resolve to lighten up a little in 1985. Just a little. Happy New Year, everybody.