Do we (ie, most of us) really now live in a “post-factual” culture?

February 5th, 2017 at 11:00 am

I yield to no one in my disdain for alternative facts. I’ve been doing what I can from my own little fiefdom to chart a path back to Factville, most recently devoting the debut episode of our new podcast (On the Economy Podcast, co-chaired with Ben Spielberg) to that theme. So consider that bit of street cred as I raise a question stimulated by this interesting, smart read in today’s NYT.

The title—Why Nobody Cares the President is Lying—is obviously hyperbole, and the piece focuses on the interaction of the Trump administration with their hard-right supporters and the alt-right media that closes this dangerous circle. No question, that’s a real problem and the motivation for the work I noted above.

But it is not clear to me how far down this rabbit hole we’ve fallen. The oped talks of a “new, post-factual political culture,” but is this not ultimately a question of numbers? Really, how many people actually don’t care about facts anymore? Did not a majority of jaws drop along with Chuck Todd’s when Kellyanne Conway defended the administration’s alternative facts? What share of the those paying attention believe Trump’s nonsense about the crowds at his inauguration or millions of fraudulent ballots cast against him?

I assure you, I’m not downplaying this problem at all. But attacking the problem requires us to think clearly about its actual nature. Though I don’t have the numbers to answer those questions above, my strong suspicion is that our biggest problem when it comes to facts-on-the-run is not that we—meaning most people—live in a post-factual culture. It’s that our president lives, flourishes, and has a symbiotic relationship with that minority culture.

Obviously, history brims with examples of how a violent, oppressive minority, can take control and cause terrible, even murderous, damage. And history also reveals that this process is facilitated by a feckless, apathetic opposition, a lazy press, an academic and research community too ensconced in their comfortable sinecures to recognize that the game has changed.

Those are the potentially threatening institution failings that allow for the rise of the oppressor. In this regard, there’s hope in what looks like the rise of an extremely energized and nimble opposition, some early evidence that legal checks and balances appear to still be operative, and some clear media willingness to call out lies.

No question, some of us live in a post-fact culture fed by falsehoods designed to keep us fighting among ourselves while empowering a non-representative government. But as the actual popular vote showed, most of us do not. I will continue to try to draw the map back to Factville, but I do not for a moment believe that this is a lonely endeavor. There are way more of us than there are of them.

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8 comments in reply to "Do we (ie, most of us) really now live in a “post-factual” culture?"

  1. Peter K. says:

    I started to pay attention to politics and economics after I graduated college and entered the workforce. In the early 90s, Cold War had ended, the Internet came online and Clinton and the New Democrats passed NAFTA and GATT.

    The Reagan-Bush years demonstrated that trickle-down economics didn’t really work. Clinton’s policies worked better (except for the bubble-bust-rinse-repeat aspect.)

    Dean Baker and Sarah Rawlins had an interesting piece on “the Clinton-Trump Vote and the Socioeconomic Progress of the White Working Class.” They suggest if the working class was more educated, Clinton would have won the Electoral College as well as the popular vote.

    http://cepr.net/blogs/beat-the-press/the-clinton-trump-vote-and-the-socioeconomic-progress-of-the-white-working-class

    The more educated voted for Clinton, the less educated for Trump. The “trickle-down” economics of Reagan and W. Bush were a less extreme example of the “post-factual” culture, perhaps foreshadowing the Truthiness of the Trump administration.

    Another less extreme precedent, was the selling of free trade and globalization. Both had elements of Truthiness. Trump’s main selling point to the uneducated primary voters was economic nationalism, not the trickle-down economics of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Trump won primaries in all regions of the country but it was also telling that he won Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania during the general election (but not Virginia which include the thriving areas around D.C.)

    As you wrote about DeLong, “Or, as Brad also says, “…those whose jobs vanish usually find something else to do that does not involve too much downward mobility, whether in income or status.” OK, but man, that’s some cold comfort!” For the more educated voters, they looked past the Truthiness arguments about trade, and focused about how Hillary, DeLong and Krugman were for Obamacare and more safety net programs for displaced workers. The less educated conservative working class bought into Trump’s economic nationalism and listened to him promise to make trade more of an even playing field and more fair. They heard him promise to upgrade the infrastructure even as Republicans blocked Obama from doing so. (I think Obama could have fought harder on the infrastructure front, instead he would brag about how he brought down the deficit.)

    The solution is to fight for more education and not to engage in Truthiness arguments over trade and globalization (and automation) as some Democrats have done for 20 years and continue to do so.

    Also one can make fun of the “Post-Factual” culture to keep up morale.

    http://www.vox.com/culture/2017/2/5/14512934/melissa-mccarthy-sean-spicer-impression-snl


  2. Raven Onthill says:

    I am not sure our political culture has ever been fact-based and it is never less so than when it comes to foreign policy, which has long been dominated by unrealistic beliefs. Second in that list, I fear, is your own field, economics, where what technocratic successes there have been have largely slipped by the voters as boring.

    Was it Paul Krugman who said that the neo-liberals had the best stories, they were persuasive but they weren’t true? In any event, whoever said that was quite right.

    We need to work up better stories.


  3. Robert Salzberg says:

    Walter Benjamin: “History is written by the victors”. While Mr. Benjamin died in 1940, from the beginnings of recorded history, the victors not only wrote the history but sought to destroy evidence of the opposing cultures they conquered. That continues to this day.

    There is nothing new about a “new, post-factual political culture,” besides being relatively more prominent today. Propaganda and planting fake news is an old game.

    I also disagree with JB’s concluding assessment that there are more of us then them. We all have tendencies to put emotions before facts and that tendency is best viewed as a continuum. Who among us hasn’t lied to ourself about their spouse, children, parents, job, relationships, etc..while ignoring the facts? President Obama has admitted he mistakenly held onto the belief that he could unite Democrats and Republicans for the common good long after scorched earth opposition and Mitch McConnell’s comment that his goal was to make Obama a one term President. We all have tendencies to accept or reject information based on our fundamental beliefs. The road to Factville should be paved with education, outreach, understanding, and shining examples. Us vs. them feeds the divisions instead of building coalitions.

    Some Congressional Republicans are already rejecting some of the insanity of Trump’s agenda and nominations. Many if not most Republicans will likely become disillusioned with Trump as he fails to deliver his promises. Cooperating on specific issues and nominations instead of labeling a significant minority of Americans as a lost cause, seems like the way to go to me.


  4. dwb says:

    “I will continue to try to draw the map back to Factville, but I do not for a moment believe that this is a lonely endeavor. There are way more of us than there are of them.”

    This quote illustrates the problem, and why it won’t get solved in the near future. It is not “their” problem.

    The culture is not going to change until everyone (both left, right, and center) looks in the mirror and realizes the person in the mirror is responsible.

    The hard truth is that confirmation bias is rife in social sciences, maybe unavoidable until we put more emphasis on clinical-trial style research protocols. Too many work for think tanks and advocacy organizations and do shoddy studies to back up their prior. Too many academics do shoddy research either to bolster their cv, or because they stop when they see what they want. No one believes economists on either the left *or* the right anymore. The public largely believes economists have become mathy advocates – slightly more scientific sounding than lawyers, lacking common sense, and offering not much more than snake oil salesmen.

    Short of clinical-trial style protocols (expensive, I know), everyone should try to see how the other half lives. Argue their case for a while, do some research, set out to prove a conclusion you think is unlikely. “They” are not the problem, we are.


  5. William Miller says:

    Do we (ie, most of us) really now live in a “post-factual” culture?
    Yes, because the failure to address the real causes of income inequality by the news media and both political parties and bad policies by Democrats have contributed to a public receptivity for a “post-factual” culture based on “alternative facts”.
    A reference on real causes of income inequality is Dean Baker’s new book – Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy were Structured to Make the Rich Richer
    Chapter 4 – Rule #2 – Financial sector policies such as deregulation create inequality
    Bill Clinton supported deregulation in the financial sector –
    The Glass–Steagall legislation was enacted by the United States Congress in 1933 as part of the 1933 Banking Act, amended as part of the 1935 Banking Act, and most of it was repealed in 1999 by the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act (GLBA).
    Interstate banking was seriously limited until 1994, the year the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking Act opened the door to an enormous wave of bank consolidation.
    The Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (CFMA) is United States federal legislation that officially ensured modernized regulation of financial products known as over-the-counter derivatives. It was signed into law on December 21, 2000 by President Bill Clinton.
    Chapter 3 – Rule #1 : Macroeconomic policies such as free trade create income inequality
    Bill Clinton’s supported of free trade with NAFTA and China’s entry in the WTO –
    In “Rigged: …”, Baker missed the gap in trade policy that ignores the theft of public intangible capital in offshoring.
    Trade driven by offshoring has caused a large loss in manufacturing jobs. A change in trade policy can return many manufacturing jobs to the USA and stop many additional losses. However, Trump is fighting trade with a weak argument that has no legal justification.
    The right legal argument recognizes that trade policy doesn’t account for the theft of public intangible capital (IC) financed with public investments. Failed trade policy is based on a paradigm of comparative advantage but doesn’t penalize offshoring that is advantaged by the theft of public IC. Economics currently ignores the theft of public IC by a company that does offshoring where the IC is a product of public investments in national defense, federal R&D, domestic security, healthcare, education and infrastructure.
    Trade policy currently protects the theft of many types of private IC such as patents but ignores the theft of public IC. The theft of public IC occurs when business operations at a company with jobs and factories are first established in America with public IC created as a result of public investments in IC that get translated into business IC and then moved offshore with proven business capabilities (both tangible and intangible capital) consisting of knowledge, tools, technology and processes. Since 1992, IC has been a larger part of business investments as a part of GDP in America than tangible capital.
    Theft of public IC in offshoring creates a negative externality in economics that is similar to pollution of public resources penalized in environmental regulation. Trade imbalances don’t measure the flows of IC. Measuring the flows of IC created with public investments is a prerequisite for properly governing offshoring in globalization. The new international activity in Integrated Reporting is changing financial reporting in business to measure both tangible capital and IC.
    Regulations on offshoring should require repayment of the apportioned public investments that produced the IC used for manufacturing operations at a company with a tax of at least 20% on the value of traded goods sent back to America from offshored factories.

    I’m a registered Democrat who voted for HRC, but her proposed policies were inadequate to solve income inequality by fixing financial deregulation and trade.


  6. Nick Batzdorf says:

    It’s encouraging that at least the real news – such as NY Times, WaPo, even what I’ve seen of CNN* – are finally calling a spade a f-ing shovel. That’s a marked difference from the 24/7 emails stories that caused this tragedy, never mind years of failure to inform (the lead-in to the Iraq invasion comes to mind).

    * I still haven’t been able to watch cable news since the orange apocalypse. Still hurting too much.


  7. Smith says:

    You are dealing with Trump only because he captured a fundamental truth, while Clinton left Factville in search of a the Obama promised land. Clinton campaigned on the supposed fact that “America is Great”. I doubt even a majority of Americans who voted for Hillary believed that the economy wast great. A good many were afraid (and rightfully so) of Trump.
    It’s important to call Trump on everything he gets wrong. But tell me how we had eight years of Obama being treated with kid gloves, and Clinton’s disastrous strategy of four more years.
    Wall Street was bailed out without sufficient reform or accountability, while record foreclosures proceeded unabated, the President kept 80% of the Bush tax cuts, passed RomneyCare, and pursued a grand bargain, allowed the debt ceiling crisis to disrupt the economy, and got out maneuvered on his Supreme Court nominee because he was sure the Democrats were going to win, and didn’t want to fight with Republicans he’d need to pass the TPP in the lame duck session.
    Yeah those are facts too. I understand if your programs are blocked by Republicans, but then don’t tell me everything is great, and we’re going to do more of the same.


  8. Anxious says:

    Jared, I want to agree with you because I believe most of the things you believe, I think.

    But the main stream media is not helping right now. Almost everyone including the media is operating in opinion rather than fact at this time. I turn on CNN for 5 minutes and I see nothing but reporters talking to other reporters in trying to define the PROPER opinions rather than facts.

    It is hard to blame them because Trump is a strange person. Anybody that operates in an isolated bubble world like he does is going to be kind of strange and a bit dangerous. But the press has been doing a disservice to our system for a long time, and so I think most people just don’t see anyone to be trusted anymore.

    I think we all knew this would be the most tumultuous presidency in recent history. Our system requires rigorous honesty from the president and the press, and on balance I don’t see it either place. My only hope is that y’all that feel comfortable staying in the battle will acknowledge that the main stream media is off the rails also.

    I guess what you see depends upon what you are looking for. Most working people don’t have any honest advocates right now. It seems like a battle of corporate interests vs. a delusion of simple solutions and gut feel.

    There’s just too much news, too many sources of information and too many liars in the system. I’ve seen our country descend into total dishonesty as a long trend of marketing bias and so-called white lies. Everyone bending the truth just a little bit to achieve their goals.

    I think we’re in a post-factual, post-justice world right now. Nobody seems to believe in the laws we have on the books because they don’t like the outcome of enforcement.

    Allowing the courts to disobey the clear letter of the law is a long-term mistake in my view. I hate Trump’s travel ban, but my understanding of the law is that he has the legal right to do it. We’re damned if we follow the law and damned if we don’t.

    If there is one lesson I wish our elite class would learn is that they should not try to wield their power on our political system. The reward for capitalist success is money. The reward should not also be political power. It seems it has always been so, however.

    Forces help us. I can’t take a side on these issues without feeling sick either way. I do wonder if we’re going to lose it all.

    I think all of this could have been avoided if O had not pushed the TPP so hard. It always seems that the victims of mistakes at this level are the innocent. I don’t see anyone with power admitting their wrongs. Until it becomes acceptable and normal for powerful people to admit being wrong sometimes, I don’t know how we move forward.


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