I’ve long described my raison d’être in terms of the intersection between geopolitics and finance.
From the outset (so, from this platform’s modest beginnings almost seven years ago), I’ve employed the same language to describe the site’s purpose. That language reads as follows:
Perhaps more than any other time in the last six decades, the fate of markets is inextricably intertwined with the ebb and flow of geopolitics. Simply put, one can’t fully comprehend financial markets without a thorough understanding of concurrent political outcomes.
Pretty simple, really. And not very controversial.
I wrote that description in 2016, and it’s becoming more true all the time. In 2022, geopolitics took center stage.
A tangential pursuit of mine is documenting the interplay between counter-narrative and macroeconomics or, more simply, the nexus between propaganda and markets. Understanding that connection is also more important than ever given the spread of propaganda on social media and social media’s influence on market outcomes.
I know a lot about counter-narrative. How it originates, how it’s spread and how unsuspecting market participants are enlisted in foreign propaganda campaigns, where that just means the propagation of anti-Western narratives designed to sow domestic discord in otherwise stable democracies. Over the past dozen years, macroeconomic content and slanted coverage of financial markets has played an increasingly important role.
As regular readers will attest, I’m hyper-vigilant to avoid getting myself or my audience trapped in the counter-narrative echo chamber. Last week, while documenting sabotage on the Nord Stream, I explained my position in response to a comment. If hyper-vigilance “means occasionally missing an actual conspiracy, that’s fine with me,” I wrote, noting that “I can always go back and chuckle at how naive I was if it turns out later there was something afoot that I missed, but what I can’t do is take it back if I put something out there that’s speculative and untrue.”
Eventually, I closed the comments section on that linked article because some readers were (and likely still are) inclined to believe that the US was responsible for, or complicit in, the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines. Maybe that’s true, but it probably isn’t and I was going to be away from the desk for dinner, and didn’t want to spend the evening policing replies.
On Thursday, I happened on an opportunity to illustrate how the counter-narrative machine works, and specifically how it’s working right now, with the Nord Stream sabotage story. I wanted to share this with readers because it’s very instructive.
While penning “OPEC+ Output Cut: The Bigger Picture,” I came across Al Mayadeen’s coverage of Khalil Dardmand, an Iranian national who was detained in Saudi Arabia after displaying the visage of Qassem Soleimani next to the Kaaba. Al Mayadeen is an Iranian influence operation.
A quick glance at the site’s “most read” articles turned up a predictable list of counter-narrative clickbait. At the top was “Putin’s response to the West’s pursuit of World War III” and then “Will Biden know when to stop?” Today’s top trending article was, “US weapons used in deadly Ukrainian strike.” You get the idea.
But what really caught my eye was a piece called “Colombia economist: US ‘probably’ behind the sabotage of Nord Stream.” (Apparently, the editors weren’t clear on the distinction between Colombia the country and Columbia the university.)
Allow me a brief aside. I was without Bloomberg Television on Monday. You can watch it on the terminal, but it’s cumbersome, which is why I prefer to stream the ultra-high definition version through Samsung TV (if you have a newer generation Samsung 4K, and you like markets, you should try it). On Sunday and Monday, I was compelled to rely on one of my backup WiFi hotspots, a hurricane having disrupted my standard connection. So, I was here, writing, and connected, fully, but for the first time in years, Bloomberg Television wasn’t streaming behind me.
As it turns out, I missed something. That morning, Jeffrey Sachs blindsided Tom Keene and Lisa Abramowicz with his opinion of possible US involvement in the Nord Stream incident.
“I would bet [it] was a US action, perhaps US and Poland,” Sachs said. He posted the video and the transcript to his website.
Already, I can offer a teaching moment about counter-narrative and propaganda. If you Google the exchange, you’ll find headlines like this one, from the NY Post: “Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs yanked off air after accusing US of sabotaging Nord Stream pipeline.”
The counter-narrative (the spin) has its own narrative and its own spin. Sachs wasn’t “yanked off air.” That’s opportunistic spin based on a disingenuous interpretation of Keene’s rejoinder. Keene said, “Jeff, Jeff we’ve got to stop there.” He didn’t say “Jeff, Jeff we’ve got to stop you there.” Journalists routinely stop guests during on-air interviews when a guest says something notable or controversial or important. Keene continued: “Why do you feel that was a US action? What evidence do you have of that?”
So, far from “yanking” Sachs off air, Keene prompted Sachs to elaborate. It was only after Sachs parroted familiar talking points (he offered no concrete evidence and really didn’t say anything new at all) when Abramowicz stopped him. Even then, her rationale was entirely fair: Bloomberg didn’t have another expert available to offer a counterpoint, and Bloomberg’s anchors can’t, because they’re supposed to be impartial.
In my opinion, Bloomberg let Sachs go on longer than they probably should’ve. “I know it runs counter to our narrative, you’re not allowed to say these things in the West, but the fact of the matter is all over the world when I talk to people, they think the US did it,” Sachs said. “Even reporters on our papers that are involved tell me ‘of course,’ but it doesn’t show up in our media.”
Sachs was (unwittingly, perhaps) himself employing tried and true counter-narrative tactics:
- He claimed he’s “not allowed” to express alternative views on Western media channels, a contention undermined by the fact that he made the remark while being interviewed on a Western media channel.
- He called it “a fact” that people around the world believe the US was responsible for sabotaging critical infrastructure, but not only did he fail to present any concrete evidence of the accusation itself, he even failed to back up his assertion that international public opinion runs contrary to the Western narrative. I could say, for example, “The fact is, everyone around here believes there’s more to Area 51 than the government lets on,” but my saying that doesn’t definitively establish anything about my neighbors’ opinion on aliens, let alone the presence of any deceased extraterrestrials in Nevada.
- He cited private conversations with reporters, but didn’t identify them or get them on the record, so who’s to say he’s telling the truth? Maybe reporters have told Sachs they believe the US was responsible. Maybe they haven’t. All we have to go on in Sachs’s word. I believe he’s talked to reporters. But that’s irrelevant.
I assume this is obvious, but just in case: The point isn’t to say Sachs is lying. Nor is it necessarily to say he’s wrong about the Nord Stream. He could be telling the truth and he could be right. Rather, my point is that far from blowing any minds or dropping any “counter-narrative bombs” on Keene and Abramowicz (as one hyperbolic netizen suggested, while reposting the video on social media), Sachs merely repeated a conspiracy theory and failed to defend it when pressed.
In addition to being picked up by at least one Iranian propaganda outlet, Sachs’s Bloomberg cameo was also leveraged by Tucker Carlson who, in a wild piece published to Fox’s website, claimed Keene and Abramowicz were “clearly getting instruction[s].” Bloomberg, Carlson seemed to suggest, was whispering in their ear pieces: “Be quiet. Shut up. Just cut them off. Never invite them back. Stop.”
Carlson began his “opinion” piece with an incendiary flourish. “There are few things more infuriating than being lied to by your own government, the government you pay for, the one your ancestors risked their lives to protect. Does that happen to you? Of course, it has. It enrages you,” Carlson wrote, on the way to suggesting Americans are “not really living in a democracy” in 2022.
He’s right, of course. America is indeed moving away from democratic governance. Just ask experts on state legislatures.
Carlson is an avowed fan of Viktor Orban’s self-described “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, and has variously suggested the US adopt a similar model. “Of the nearly two hundred different countries on the face of the earth, precisely one of them has an elected leader who publicly identifies as a Western-style conservative. His name is Viktor Orban,” Carlson declared, on August 5, 2021, setting up a one-on-one with Orban. A year later, he claimed Orban nemesis George Soros “Has decided to destroy the American justice system.”
The lesson here is clear enough: It’s dangerously easy to get caught in the counter-narrative echo chamber — to find yourself awhirl in the propaganda spin machine. The architects of that machine are everywhere and always searching for people to exploit. From disaffected, undereducated voters in Western democracies to gullible market participants unable to spot the bear behind the permabear to famous economists.
As one well-known purveyor of counter-narrative once put it to me, over Dark ’n’ Stormys in Manhattan, “Everyone’s an idiot.” He left out “useful,” but it was implied.
Introducing Sachs on Monday, Bloomberg’s Keene said, “The heart of Bloomberg Surveillance is the quality of our guests, always in every case.” Two days later, citing Sachs’s remarks among a host of other ostensible evidence, Carlson wrote, “[The] only explanation allowed on Nord Stream is what the government wants you to believe.”