America, We Have a Problem

August 30th, 2012 at 12:50 pm

When Rep Paul Ryan was nominated, I welcomed the choice because, even while I documented ways in which his numbers don’t add up, and while we at CBPP documented his reverse Robin Hood’ism, he espouses a vision of government’s role that is very different from my own as discussed here at OTE.  As he says, this is the debate we need to have.

But I also worried, loudly, that we won’t have that vital debate if we are not highly vigilant.  Yes, we need to have this debate, but “…whether we actually have it will be up to the candidates, the media, the fact-checkers, and analysts like those of us at CBPP who try to break things down in ways they can be understood.”

Following Ryan’s acceptance speech last night, the fact checkers and many in the media have been working hard to correct the many falsehoods.  The Plum Line blog at the WaPo, for instance, has been on that case, contributing their own analysis and collecting relevant links.  

The fact checkers, including Politifact, Factcheck.org, and those Pinocchio fetishists at the WaPo have also been making great contributions.  I have criticized these groups when they get stuff wrong and not been nearly supportive enough when they get it right, which is the vast majority of the time.  My bad and I’ll be sure to further amplify their worthy fact checks in areas of interest around here.

But what’s got me very worried today is the blatant acceptance of post-truthiness that one feels creeping deeply into our national debate.  Most—not all—of the news stories on the speeches from the convention—and I’m sure this won’t be limited to the R’s—focus on the emotional, the personal stories, the strategic (did the speech accomplish its goal…did is rally the base…did it appeal to [interest group]?), the political horse race.

And then there’s this other section of the show or the newspaper–if you’re lucky or interested in going there—that asks…um…how much of what you just heard was true?

Think about this for a second.  Just the fact that newspapers now need a fact-check section is itself evidence that we’re deep into the post-truth era.  There’s the news…and then there’s the question of how much of the news is true.

We need a debate about the role of government.  It’s not a simple debate, but neither is it rocket science.  It has to do with how we provide income and health security for those past their working years, how we sustain a safety net for economically vulnerable families, how we offset market failures like the Great Recession, and how we regulate volatile sectors, like finance, to avoid the next bubble and bust. 

There are distinct choices in how societies deal with these challenges, how they apportion risk, how they decide which of these functions are critical and how they pay their costs. 

And today, with so much disinformation and post-truthiness, I’m having a hard time seeing how we will be able to make the right choices in a true democratic manner.

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8 comments in reply to "America, We Have a Problem"

  1. Bearpaw says:

    Given that truthiness is defined as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true”, what is “post-truthiness”?

    Is that when it moves beyond a *preference* of “concepts or facts one wishes to be true” to an *assumption* of them? Is it when facts are dismissed out-of-hand as not relevant to a discussion, rather than considered — albeit in passing — and then dismissed?


    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Good questions. I’m not an expert in these memes but I like the way you put it in your second paragraph.


    • Bill Gatliff says:

      “Is that when it moves beyond a *preference* of “concepts or facts one wishes to be true” to an *assumption* of them? Is it when facts are dismissed out-of-hand as not relevant to a discussion, rather than considered — albeit in passing — and then dismissed?”

      That sounds pretty much like where we are at now as a society. Sadly.

      I like that Jared digs into this stuff, even when it’s hard to understand. And then he also takes the time to help the rest of us mere mortals understand as well.

      As long as that level of effort is out of fashion, Jared will never want for work—and the rest of us will just have to live with the consequences.


  2. Greg says:

    Well – this is sorta depressing, but I understand and empathize completely. The problem – that we’re not going to have the debate we need to have – is compounded by the tit-for-tat horserace you describe and the fact that this debate is not “sensational” enough. It’s “boring” regardless of how important it is, so I feel it’s probably NOT going to happen. Sigh – we need better.

    Thanks for all you do.


  3. Coffeybrook says:

    What we seem to be witnessing is the creeping dominance of propaganda over substance. Economic issues are hard(to those not trained)and people are easily lost in the weeds. Discussions about government shouldn’t be about how big but rather how necessary, how effective, and how efficient. These are not sound bite discussions, but that is how the vast majority of Americans perceive elections…an endless series of sound bites with longer, infomercial propaganda pieces.

    People who are frightened for their future well being are prime targets for skilled propagandists. “Well-crafted” lies and convenient targets for their fear and frustration create a fertile substrate for propagation of Fascism. While major differences exist, the connections to Europe in the early 30s is hard to avoid.


  4. PJ Chan says:

    I believe an on-going problem was highlighted this week when the Romney campaign said they will continue saying things which every responsible fact checker has said are LIES. Why are they able to do this? Because journalism and investigative digging and reporting has died. Because nobody can honestly say _____ is a non-biased news outlet. The MSM has aided in it’s own downfall with preference of fluff and ratings over facts and reporting of these…
    so those that most need to hear the truth and facts never will.


  5. David Kaib says:

    “We need a debate about the role of government. It’s not a simple debate, but neither is it rocket science. It has to do with how we provide income and health security for those past their working years, how we sustain a safety net for economically vulnerable families, how we offset market failures like the Great Recession, and how we regulate volatile sectors, like finance, to avoid the next bubble and bust.”

    We do need a debate about the role of government. But this paragraph seems to assume that the right is interested in doing these things. They aren’t. They real debate is over whether government should provide opportunity and security only for those at the top (while administering as much punishment as possible for everyone else) or for everyone. Failing to note this dispute over values makes it impossible to have a productive debate.


  6. Jake says:

    Respectfully, I don’t see a debate about the role of government ever happening in a public forum. Noneless, I believe there is greater opportunity for informed private debate (among family and friends) to occur b/c of blogs like this and others that provide information that can teach and be verified. Sharing of verifiable information about what works and doesn’t work among small groups either face-to-face or in cyberspace holds the best prospect for debates. So, I think we are better equipped than ever to make good decisions about the kind of government we want.


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