Remember that number-cruncher extraordinnaire Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times became the go-to spot for electoral prediction and numerical analysis in 2012? Well, Silver has since moved on to his own broader venture (still called FiveThirtyEight), leaving the Old Gray Lady lagging in the fashionable (if scarequote-worthy) "data-driven journalism" space. The paper plugged that gap this spring with a new mini-pod called "The Upshot," edited by economics columnist David Leonhardt.
Some of us have been skeptical about the rise in fact-checking, "explanatory" journalism, arguing that it too often attempts to bathe a solidly statist bias in the holy waters of above-it-all empiricism. As if to live out that theory, here are the first two paragraphs of a David Leonhardt Upshot piece today:
If you wanted to bestow the grandiose title of "most successful organization in modern history," you would struggle to find a more obviously worthy nominee than the federal government of the United States.
In its earliest stirrings, it established a lasting and influential democracy. Since then, it has helped defeat totalitarianism (more than once), established the world's currency of choice, sent men to the moon, built the Internet, nurtured the world's largest economy, financed medical research that saved millions of lives and welcomed eager immigrants from around the world.
This is a telltale exercise in scoreboard-pointing, responsibility-assumption, and blurry timelines. For example, if a measurable chunk of the success of the United States is due to the revolutionary, limited-government architecture of the Constitution, which provided a framework protecting the non-governmental pursuit of happiness (including commerce), then that design victory technically belongs not to the current U.S. government, but to its immediate precursor, no? If the majority of America's globe-topping GDP–which created the conditions for the dollar becoming a reserve currency–emanates from the private sector, is it numerically sensical to assign primary responsibility to the much less productive sector that taxes and regulates the Apple Computers of the world? And though the raw numbers may be higher today, the continent was more legally welcoming to immigrants under British, French, and Spanish rule than it has been over the past century under the Yanks.
Then there are the U.S. government's many egregious failures, ranging from slavery to colonialism to internment to pointless war to mass incarceration. In fairness, Leonhardt's column is actually about government screw-uppery and the need to correct it; the we're-number-one stuff is more of a sweetener to make the medicine go down easier:
[P]rogressives in particular will need to grapple with these failures if they want to persuade Americans to support an active government.
The fact that such a sentence still needs to be written 45 years after Charles Peters founded an entire public-policy journalism genre around the notion of intellectually rigorous, sacred cow-slaying policy analysis from the left, speaks volumes about how far the Democratic/media center of gravity has drifted. As I wrote in a May 2013 critique of the new New Republic,
An entire valuable if flawed era in American journalism and liberalism has indeed come to a close. The reformist urge to cross-examine Democratic policy ideas has fizzled out precisely at the time when those ideas are both ascendant and as questionable as ever. Progressivism has reverted to a form that would have been recognizable to Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann when they founded The New Republic a century ago: an intellectual collaborator in the "responsible" exercise of state power.
If your starting point is that the U.S. government is the most successful organization in modern history, there are many possible adjectives to describe your journalism. "Data-driven" isn't one of them.
Hat tip: Rowland Stebbins.