Other economists have used the flattened economy to push their own political agendas, but Zandi refuses to become a political position player for the media. “I won’t engage,” he says when the Fox interview is over. “They pretty much know that, I think.” Which helps explain, at least in part, why Mark Zandi has become the Great Sage of the Great Recession.
In times of uncertainty, when the storms of craziness swirl, the public turns anxiously to reassuring voices who deliver the kind of hope that can only come when we believe we’re not completely clueless. Who can forget that expert from the National Hurricane Center who becomes a comforting guide on cable TV news every time a tropical cyclone threatens our loved ones? What’s that guy’s name again? Frank something?
Now an economic catastrophe is pounding in, and new voices have risen to help us cope — none more ubiquitous than Zandi’s. It helps that he’s been right a lot about our current troubles. In 2005, while speculators were gobbling up houses, Zandi told the Los Angeles Times that then-Fed chief Alan Greenspan needed to tighten lending standards, that “the Fed deserves some criticism for its handling of the stock bubble and now the housing bubble.” In October 2006, an Economy.com report used the word “crash” to forecast housing in 2007 — not long before that market fell apart, too.
In happier predictions, last January Zandi started saying the recession would end on September 15, 2009. Oh, really? On that very day, Fed chief Ben Bernanke stepped up to a microphone at the Brookings Institution and announced: “… from a technical perspective, the recession is very likely over at this point …”
Also crucial to Zandi’s credibility is his insistence on being apolitical. He’s a Democrat who has contributed to and advised both sides. (He advises politicos for free.) But his true religion, he swears, is the data. He strives to lead policymakers toward salvation with virtuous forecasts based on solid computer models. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Zandi jumped at the chance to write weekly reports as a member of John McCain’s team of advisers. But as the economy sank, he ran the data and became a vocal supporter of the very non-McCain-y $787 billion stimulus package the Democrats passed last year. He calculated “bang for the buck” numbers showing that federal aid to states would add, say, $1.36 per aid dollar to the economy, whereas the Bush tax cuts added 29 cents. (Zandi thinks the stimulus helped and insists we need more cash to finish the job.)