Putin’s liberal/loyalist successor and the human tendency to seek support in the news for prexisting beliefs

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I was in the airport this morning about to catch a flight to Detroit when I saw the big headline in the FT: “Putin favours liberal as successor.” Interesting, I thought.

Then I saw the headline in the WSJ, which didn’t say anything about Dmitri Medvedev being a liberal: “Putin Chooses Young Loyalist as Successor.” The second sentence of the article reads, “But while he may soften the Kremlin’s image in the West, there is little sign the 42-year-old protégé of President Vladimir Putin will alter Russia’s authoritarian direction.”

The NYT also chose loyalty over liberalism: “Putin Backs a Young Loyalist As His Choice to Follow Him” (although the online headline on that story is a noncommittal Putin Backs Deputy Prime Minister as Successor).

At first I thought that maybe the FT just had a particularly naive headline writer. Then I saw my daily e-mail from the Dutch Volkskrant, headlined “Putin chooses the liberal, not the hawk” (well, similar words to that effect in Dutch).

So I was all ready to declare a major difference in attitude between Western Europeans and Americans, with the Europeans desperately wanting to see something positive in Putin’s choice and the Americans full of skepticism. Subsequent visits to the websites of the Frankfurter Allgemeine (“One like Putin“), NRC Handelsblad (“Strongman Putin chooses the weakest son“), El Pais (“Putin picks his hombre de confianza to succeed him in charge of Russia“), and Helsingin Sanomat (“Riskeillä kuohuvaa“) didn’t really back that up.

But I’d already typed five link-filled paragraphs, so I certainly wasn’t going to let a few inconvenient counterexamples stand in the way of transitioning to Paul Krugman’s observation a few weeks ago that the FT and others in the European press are being far more alarmist about the global credit crunch than most American media are. So are economists originally hailing from elsewhere, by the way. The three of the most prominent U.S. economic bears over the past year have probably been Goldman Sachs’ Jan Hatzius (Germany), Merrill Lynch’s David Rosenberg (Canada), and NYU’s Nouriel Roubini (Italy).

Lately these gloomy guys have been right more often than their congenitally optimistic American-born peers have. But that’s not really my point. My point is that when somebody is making pronouncements about big, uncertain things like the future direction of the global economy or of Russian politics, his initial opinions and prevailing attitudes probably affect his assessment at least as much as the currently available facts do.

And why am I in Detroit? To be the entertainment at a dinner for some local clients of UBS. No, they’re not paying me, except in the sense that UBS buys ads in Time and these days magazines often promise a bit of dinner entertainment in the course of landing an ad deal. I assume these people will want to know what I think of the prospects of the U.S. economy, and the Michigan economy. So should I go with gloomy or sunny?