Friday, August 16, 2013

Paul Krugman's moment of truthiness

I suffered cognitive dissonance this morning when I read this from Krugman:
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)?
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.”
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:
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.


  1. Seeing the people that got elected in the past, I'll say they've been more honest over the years. The web forces you to watch what you say. Nobody wants to end up like Mitt.


  2. I don't think this is really that bad of a dissonance if you read it the way Krugman intends. On the one hand, it is much easier for a layman, or a non-credentialed expert, or an expert without a column in the Times or the Post, to correct someone like Samuelson. The blogosphere is, as the saying goes, a hell of a drug -- and that kind of information platform being accessible to everyone is a good counterweight to misinformation.

    At the same time, I think it is certainly true that the mainstream media is less likely than ever before to call politicians on outright falsehoods (which have grown in frequency by several orders of magnitude since the 80s and 90s.) In addition, it is easier than ever before for large sections of the electorate to get by on news which comes only from partisan or outright dishonest sources. (Looking at Fox News here, obviously -- but the roles could easily be reversed and it would be just as easy for the left wing get by on a similarly dishonest source, if there were one.)

    Those aren't mutually exclusive statements even if they do overlap a little bit.

  3. Perhaps the problem isn't the lack of fact checking so much as the lack of fact checkers with perceived authority -- for any claim you can point to, there will be a set of 'fact checkers' saying it's true, and another set of 'fact checkers' saying it's false, so they largely cancel each other out and the public is back to square one.

  4. Uh, this is not hard. The complaint in the first piece you quote is about national political discourse generally. The second quote is about discourse among experts in economics. They're different points about different populations, and they don't contradict each other at all.

  5. It seems to me that Krugman was talking about two different issues -- the competency of the media in dealing with economic issues (which, he argues, has improved) and political discourse (which, he argues, has been degraded). By way of example, it seems to me that nowadays politicians are much more likely to claim that cutting taxes always increases revenues, even though economics writers are much more willing to call such claims false.

  6. Re various comments alleging no contradiction btwn the two Krugman pieces: the post above does acknowledge the difference of subject. But Krugman's post lauding the plenitude of econ info/response is a comment on the quick discrediting of Samuelson's mainstream column, and it applauds the wealth of informed Internet comment generally as well as within the econ sphere. In a section I did not quote, Krugman generalizes further:

    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.

    As for the journalistic failures alleged today, a Politifact faux pas is an odd example, since there were no mainstream fact-check sources of this sort in bygone eras, and as I've pointed out, they've proliferated recently. If Krugman wanted to say that reporters are more meek and less skeptical in their treatment of politicians' assertions today than in bygone eras, he could have done so.

  7. "the post above does acknowledge the difference of subject"

    Not explicitly.

    Maybe you're talking about this: "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."

    Ok, so you probably shouldn't claim that you suffered cognitive dissonance and accuse Krugman of truthiness at the top of your post?

    You followed that admission with this: "But Krugman offers no evidence that journalists in prior days were better umpires - instead, he indulges in just the kind of nostalgia"

    which is utterly contradicted by the Krugman quote immediately following: "The trouble is, that age never existed."

    I don't think it's cognitive dissonance you've got there. I'd say it's a plain old lack of comprehension.

  8. Sullivan links to this post approvingly and I was ready to agree, but I gotta agree with the other responses in comments; this post is awfully weak sauce.

    These are great days for real journalists, smart people, and others who can make use of the internet to understand.

    These are *not* great days as far as the general public actually coming to grasp much of anything.

    I think he's right on both counts -- although on the critical question whether the general public is LESS informed than it used to be, I don't think he has given us any evidence one way or the other.

  9. Funny how Politifact suddenly lost credibility once they started calling out Democrat lies.

    1. Cantor's statement was false. End of story. It's not a "Democrat lie." Cantor said, "What we are trying to do is fund the government and make sure also that we take away the kinds of things that are standing in the way of a growing economy (and) a better health care, and all the while keeping our eye focused on trying to deal with the ultimate problem, which is this growing deficit." If he would have said, ". . . that the deficit is projected to start growing again in a couple of years," that would have been true, but he didn't add that qualification. The deficit is shrinking right now, so to say that it's growing is a lie. 100% false.

  10. I agree with the commenters who say this post is overreaching. He seems to be describing two different topics, as though he said, "the grass is green and the sky is blue," and you responded, "see he says it's green then says it's blue!"
    Also, I notice that many right-wing trolls have a habit of using phrases like 'seems like..." or "funny how..." to give themselves a false sense of authority. Or maybe there's only one guy and that's just how he talks.

  11. Well, I have read the comments again, and read the post again, and Krugman's two pieces, and I think the argument in the post holds. Krugman said on one day that the media is the better for being swiftly fact-checked by a host of non-journalist bloggers and other commenters -- that it has gotten better both because factual errors get corrected swiftly and because journalists have ready access to expert information. Yes, he illustrated this in the context of economics, but he explicitly generalized the argument. He said the next day that voters are more misinformed today than in eras past -- notwithstanding that his examples are twenty years apart, that political scientists have demonstrated at least since the early 1960s that most voters are low-information and that that accurate corrections to false information do not penetrate most people's biases. More to the point, he used the anecdotal evidence of a Politifact fuck-up to suggest that the media utterly fails to spotlight politicians' lies and misstatements, without offering any evidence that media did a better job of this in the past, and then suggested that democracy is failing because the media is failing. The probable kernel of truth in there is that politicians lie and mislead with less inhibition now than 20 years ago. But one set of statements and innuendo about the media absolutely does undercut the prior set.

  12. I think Krugman means the mainstream media, including his own paper.

    I have subscribed to NYT for 18 years.
    When it comes to politics, the Times is a perfect example of "opinions on the shape of the earth differ" maljournalism.

    CBS, NBC, ABC, WP, NYT, etc. seem to be completely unable to call a lie a lie.