What's the matter with the FT?

The Financial Times is, to my mind, still the best English-language newspaper in the world. But something has been seriously awry in its coverage of US politics for some time.

Consider this front page headline from today: Obama targets greed of Wall St to open up poll lead over McCain (on the website this is abbreviated to “Obama targets Wall Street greed”). Now, which candidate has been banging the populist drum over the last few days? It isn’t Obama. In fact in the very same section, columnist Clive Crook (more on him later) writes: “Mr McCain, likewise playing to stereotype, sounded loud populist notes about greed on Wall Street.”

It’s worse inside. In a news analysis, the FT’s man in Washington, Andrew Ward, has a piece on a sensible topic — what will be the impact of the proposed toxic assets fund on the candidates’ economic plans, should they take office. But Ward claims that it is Obama’s plans in particular that come into question “because his carry the higher price tag”. Even The New York Times reckons McCain’s plans are $200-300 billion more costly than Obama’s. On what basis did Ward figure out that Obama’s plans are more expensive?

Lets look at the “experts” Ward consulted. Norm Ornstein at th American Enterprise Institute, for one. I suspect many FT readers know that the AEI is closely connected to the Bush administration and is decidedly on the right-wing, Republican side of any debate. Ward doesn’t, however, provide any pointers for unsuspecting readers that Ornstein may have a dog in this hunt.

The other “expert” is Nachama Soloveichik of the Club for Growth, which is described as “a free-market advocacy group”. That’s a curiously neutral way to describe a group explicitly dedicated to electing tax hating Republicans. Here’s the Club for Growth’s top four policy goals according to its website: making the Bush tax cuts permanent, “death tax” repeal, cutting and limiting government spending, and Social Security reform with personal retirement accounts. Are you surprised that Soloveichik tells the FT, “We did not think Obama could afford all his programmes even before the crisis and it’s even less likely now.”

To be fair, Ward does also quote Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, who is left of center. But Alter, who wrote a book on FDR’s response to the Great Depression, is called upon purely to state that we’re not going to have a “new New Deal” because “there’s not going to be any money to pay for it”.

I really can’t trust anything Andrew Ward writes about US politics. Sorry.

Oh, and back to that Clive Crook column. Crook is generally a member of the sensible center-right, and he has been leaning Obama for a few months now. But he does seem to have a bug that he has to slap both sides from time to time. Today’s column criticizes both candidates for indulging in playground politics when the financial crisis demands a serious response. I thought there was a huge difference in tone between Obama’s response and McCain’s populist ravings. And it isn’t true to say that neither candidate was aware of the impending problems.

Hilzoy on Political Animal has done the legwork that Crook neglected. He cites Obama’s September 2007 speech at Nasdaq, where he said:

Markets can’t thrive without the trust of investors and the public. At a most basic level, capital markets work by steering capital to the place where it is most productive. Without transparency, that cannot happen. If the information is flawed, if there is fraud, or if the risks facing financial institutions are not fully disclosed, people stop investing because they fear they’re being had. When the public trust is abused badly enough, it can bring financial markets to their knees.

Hilzoy also references a March 2008 speech by Obama where he states six principles of regulatory reform that stand up very well to the extraordinary events of the last week. In many ways, Obama did in March exactly what Crook is calling for in his column. Creating an equivalence between McCain and Obama on this crisis, as Crook does, just doesn’t pass the smell test.

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