August 21, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
The old spin on the "new economy"
How the media hyped the economic boom of the late 1990s
By Norman Solomon
WITH THE "new economy" now in shambles, it's easy for media outlets to disparage the illusions of the late 1990s years crammed with high-tech mania, fat stock options, and euphoria on Wall Street. But we hear very little about the fact that much of the bubble was filled with hot air from hyperventilating journalists.
Traveling back on a time machine, we would see mainstream reporters and pundits routinely extolling the digitally enhanced nirvana of huge profits and many more to come. The "new economy" media juggernaut was not to be denied.
Sure, journalists occasionally offered the common-sense observation that the boom would go bust someday. But it was a minor note in the media's orchestral tributes to the new economy. And the bullish pronouncements included an awful lot of hyped bull.
Five years ago Business Week was scorning "economic dogma" for its failure to embrace the glorious future at hand. "The fact is that major changes in the dynamics of growth are detonating many conventional wisdoms," the magazine declared in a July 28 editorial that concluded: "It is the Dow, the S&P 500, and NASDAQ that are telling us old assumptions should be challenged in the New Economy."
A column published July 24, 1997, in the very conservative Washington Times, by economist Lawrence Kudlow, rang the same bell: "Actually, information age high-tech breakthroughs have undreamed of spillovers that impact every nook and cranny of the new economy." Kudlow was upbeat about "even higher stock prices and even more economic growth as far as the eye can see."
The July 20, 1998, issue of Time was one of many touting the economic miracles of the Internet. "The real economy exists in the thousands even tens of thousands of sites that together with Yahoo are remaking the face of global commerce," Time reported. The magazine could not contain its enthusiasm: "The real promise of all this change is that it will enrich all of us, not just a bunch of kids in Silicon Valley."
When the last July of the 20th century got underway, Newsweek was featuring several pages about the national quest for riches: "The bull market, powered by the cyberboom, is a pre-millennium party that's blowing the roof off the American Dream. It's just that some of us can't seem to find our invitations. And all this new wealth is creating a sense of unease and bewilderment among those of us who don't know how to get in touch with our inner moguls."
Meanwhile, insightful analysis of the "new economy" received scant mass-media exposure, but it certainly existed. While Newsweek was fretting about "inner moguls," for instance, the progressive magazine Dollars and Sense published an article by economist Dean Baker warning that the country was in the midst of "a classic speculative bubble." A crash was on the way, Baker pointed out, and it would financially clobber many working people.
Writing three years ago, with the stock market near its peak, Baker anticipated grim financial realities: "Many moderate-income workers do have a direct stake in the market now that the vast majority of their pensions take the form of tax-sheltered retirement accounts such as a 401(k). These plans provide no guaranteed benefit to workers. At her retirement, a worker gets exactly what she has managed to accumulate in these accounts. Right now, a large percentage of the assets in these retirement accounts is in stock funds."
Overall, Baker contended, "the post-crash world is not likely to be a pretty one. The people who take the biggest losses will undoubtedly be wealthy speculators who should have understood the risks. The yuppie apostles of the 'new economy' will also be humbled by a plunging stock market. But these people can afford large losses on their stock holdings and still maintain a comfortable living standard."
Baker concluded his in-depth article by predicting a foreseeable tragedy that major-media outlets rarely dwelled on ahead of time: "The real losers from a stock market crash will be the workers who lose most of their pensions, and the workers who must struggle to find jobs in the ensuing recession. Once again, those at the bottom will pay for the foolishness of those at the top."
Now that the bubble has burst, most of the hot air about the "new economy" has dissipated. This summer, the media atmosphere is cool to scenarios for getting rich with shrewd investments. Too late.
Norman Solomon's latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media. His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.