We also all know that the reality [of how democracy in America functions] falls far short of the ideal. Voters are often misinformed, and politicians aren’t reliably truthful. Still, we like to imagine that voters generally get it right in the end, and that politicians are eventually held accountable for what they do.But is even this modified, more realistic vision of democracy in action still relevant? Or has our political system been so degraded by misinformation and disinformation that it can no longer function?
He goes on to fulminate about Exhibit A: Americans do not know that the deficit has been dropping throughout the Obama years, as they did not know that the deficit was falling through Clinton's first term.
Why am I disconcerted by Krugman's consternation? Of course I share his frustration at the "outright falsehoods" that Republican leaders routinely mouth about the deficit. I agree, as he laments in this column, that our political discourse is shot through with truthiness.
But unlike Krugman (apparently), I recall what Krugman wrote..yesterday. Reacting to a recent morsel of egregious economic misinformation in a Robert Samuelson column, he opined:
My guess is that in the pre-Internet era, an assertion like that would simply have sat there; economists would complain about it in the coffee room, but that would be it. In this case, however, the whole econoblogosphere immediately pounced, pointing out that Britain’s debt/GDP ratio in the 30s was actually much higher than it is today. (Times policy, by the way, would have called for a formal correction. Oh well.)
The point is that real journalists, as opposed to the idealized picture of the way things used to be, benefit from the ability of knowledgeable non-journalists to get their knowledge out there, fast.
It’s true that there’s a lot of misinformation out there on the web; but is it any worse than the misinformation people used to get from other sources? I don’t think so...
Finally, let me just say that leaving the news organizations to one side, the truth is that we’re living in a golden age of economic discourse. Yes, there’s a lot of really bad stuff out there, some of it from people with big reputations — but then the loose relationship between reputations and the quality of analysis is part of what we’re learning. And the amount of good stuff — stuff delivered in real time, on blogs open to anyone who wants to read rather than in the pages of economics journals with a few thousand readers at most — is amazing. When it comes to useful economic analysis, these are the good old days.
So how do we get from there (yesterday) to here (today)?
Admittedly, we could today have both better access to scholarly insight and a media less willing to call out politicians' lies than we had in days of yore. But Krugman offers no evidence that journalists in prior days were better umpires - instead, he indulges in just the kind of nostalgia for which he yesterday spanked Samuelson:Still, aren’t there umpires for this sort of thing [deficit lies from Cantor and Paul] — trusted, nonpartisan authorities who can and will call out purveyors of falsehood? Once upon a time, I think, there were. But these days the partisan divide runs very deep, and even those who try to play umpire seem afraid to call out falsehood. Incredibly, the fact-checking site PolitiFact rated Mr. Cantor’s flatly false statement as “half true.”
Pundits like Samuelson seem to long for an age when wise men, from their platforms at major news orgs, sifted truth from falsehood and delivered sound judgment to the masses. The trouble is, that age never existed.In fact, his complaint about Politifact is a bait-and-switch -- argument by anecdote at its worst. Politifact frustrates a lot of observers and has lost a lot of credibility. But it gets some things right, and it's not the only fact-checking game in town -- fact-check sites and columns have proliferated worldwide. For fact-checking, too, these are the good old days.
Surely, if Krugman reached into his own RAM or even parsed the facts in today's column, he'd have to concede that today's media is likelier than the media in days past to call out falsehood, and that the electorate was just as misinformed twenty years ago as today. The one kernel of real complaint here is that politicians are probably (possibly? I have no evidence..) likelier to lie and spread deliberate misinformation in the post-Gingrich era than in the decades prior.
But Krugman, cranky today, indulges in his own moment of truthiness.
P.S. It's hard not get cranky when you're Cassandra.