Hallucinations of Punditry

Paul Krugman has a dead-hit column in today’s NY Times about the “pundit delusion,” or, “the belief that the stuff of daily political reporting—who won the news cycle, who had the snappiest comeback—actually matters.”

I suspect that this delusion extends to all political reporters and their editors, not just pundits. It’s a hubris that comes from being so deep in the woods you have forgotten what the sky looks like. You start thinking that everyone in America knows what is in the financial regulatory bill (or that there was one at all) and what Vice President Biden said on the Sunday shows and where Obama ate coconut ice cream. Worst of all, you start thinking that you the pundit can explain everything that happens in politics through tidy linear narratives, particularly in hindsight.

It’s the same kind of know-it-all-ism we see in business reporting (“Stocks are up slightly due to reports of higher than expected retail profits—and possibly due to a new rainbow spotted in the sky over Manhattan. Or any one of a million other complex and sometimes irrational reasons that we cannot actually identify with any level of confidence.”) 

In fact, as Krugman notes, most Americans care a lot about the economy, but they are not very well-informed on the details of the stimulus package—and most pundits are not able to identify causality in the world whizzing by around them.

But the delusion is powerful—and contagious, as Krugman writes: “This delusion is, of course, most prevalent among pundits themselves, but it’s also widespread among political operatives. And I’d argue that susceptibility to the pundit delusion is part of the Obama administration’s problem.”

I have listened to many well-meaning administration staffers lament the media obsession with insider games and horse races. But then these very same men (and I say that simply because they are almost always men) frantically react to every twitch and craving of the deluded, answering their calls, emails and Tweets with the same shared breathlessness.

In their defense, it’s hard to know what to ignore and what to attack, since the delusions can, on rare occasions, spread to the voting masses. So they feed the cycle, complaining bitterly all the way to the mad house.

For myself, I am happy to be on the sidelines of this particular insanity. Since 2009, I have been lucky enough to only write when I have something to say, and I often do not. I confess that on most days, I have nothing valuable to add to the cacophony. And instead I look up at the big open sky and thank God.

GeneralAmanda Ripley