Friday, April 17, 2015

Nothing Really Matters, Anyone Can See ... or Maybe Not

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my post here on Dorf on Law yesterday, I asked, "Do Republicans Lie and Deceive for No Reason?"  There, I considered whether there is any real value in calling out the lies and deceptions of politicians -- especially today's Republicans, who have taken shameless distortion to levels previously unseen.  In particular, I responded to the apologia that goes something like this: "Oh, come on, it's all a game.  The politicians lie, and the people know they're lying.  It's stupid to think that there is any reason to point out when a politician isn't being completely honest."

My response to that objection was that it proves too much, which is not to say that there is nothing at all to it.  For example, any good criminal defense lawyer will know to refer to her client by name (to humanize him), just as any good prosecutor will know never to refer to a defendant by anything other than "the defendant," and it would be tantamount to malpractice for either attorney not to act based on such strategic considerations.  Words matter, and we expect people to choose words in ways that will advance their objectives.

However, if we were truly in the equilibrium position where every politician is lying all the time, and everyone knows that everyone is lying all the time, then there would be no reason to make the effort to lie.  Now, one might object that a lying-all-the-time equilibrium would at least require everyone to continue lying, lest one put oneself in a disadvantageous position, as in my example with the defense lawyer and prosecutor above.  That does not work, however, because if everyone knows when everyone else is lying, then everyone must also know what the truth is, which means that a politician would suffer no disadvantage from telling the truth.  (The lawyers' word choices only matter, after all, because their audience is a jury that is not in on the game.)  But if everyone does not know when someone is telling the truth, then there really is an advantage to be gained from lying, which brings us back to a situation in which calling out liars has a public benefit.

In any case, I noted that the Republicans do not act as if they expect to gain no advantage from lying and deceiving.  As the Washington Post Fact Check article that I discussed yesterday explained, Republicans in the mid-1990's conceived of the idea of referring to the tax code as the "IRS Code," putting great effort into the plan to have all Republicans associate the public's dissatisfaction with the tax code (written by Congress) with their hatred of the IRS (vilified and under-funded by Congress, at Republican insistence).  This was exactly the same period in which those same Contract-on-America Republican radicals were re-branding the estate tax the "death tax," a public relations effort that has been documented at book length.

Republicans have shown that they are willing to put serious resources into long-term propaganda campaigns.  By revealed preference, then, they must believe that they are doing something shrewd.  To prove that repeated Orwellisms like "IRS Code" do not matter would require something far beyond, "I don't think it affects the way people think, because people aren't stupid," which is the only thing resembling an argument that the Republicans' defenders have offered.

There might, however, be a different way to deflect claims that Republicans' sustained assault on facts and language is damaging the country.  That defense can be assembled from the arguments of, of all people, Paul Krugman.  In his NYT op-ed this past Monday, Krugman convincingly asserted that all of the "endless thumb-sucking" about the presidential candidates is a waste of time.  For all of the attempts to divine the "character" of the various candidates, Krugman notes, the two parties will nominate people in 2016 whose platforms are currently pretty easy to predict.

Moreover, Krugman points out, the parties' consensus positions are quite different.  Unlike, say, 1976, when one could reasonably have predicted that Jimmy Carter would govern to the right of where Gerald Ford would have governed (at least on some issues), any Republican candidate today will win only by embracing the tax-cutting, labor-bashing, regulation-cutting, Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security-attacking, climate-change denying, culture warrior stuff that the party's base requires.  In fact, Krugman wrote, "the differences between the parties are so clear and dramatic that it’s hard to see how anyone who has been paying attention could be undecided even now, or be induced to change his or her mind between now and the election."

And then there is the well known empirical fact, which Krugman described in his op-ed the previous Monday, that nothing that politicians say seems to matter to election outcomes, because "[w]hat mainly matters is income growth immediately before the election. And I mean immediately: We’re talking about something less than a year, maybe less than half a year."  This effect, moreover, seems to be true not just of general elections.  In the 2014 mid-terms, the only way to explain the success of candidates who would otherwise have been punchlines -- like now-Senators Jodi Ernst and Cory Gardner -- is by reference to something beyond what the politicians actually say.

Put together these two observations -- that we already know what the ultimate nominees will stand for, and that the differences between those two positions will not determine the result of the election -- and you have a pretty good case for the idea that "nothing really matters." Whether Rand Paul is being especially egregious in his twisting of statistics, or Ted Cruz is being unhinged in telling his followers that it would be possible to "shut down the IRS" (without replacing it with an essentially identical tax collection agency), might simply not affect anything.  Which would mean, of course, that calling them out on any of that does not matter, either.

Although I completely believe both elements of Krugman's argument, there is still room for Republicans' lying to matter, which means that there is still reason to be vigilant in pointing out those lies.  The question is how the parties' consensus positions become consensus positions.  For example, as many people have pointed out over the years, there is no good reason for the Republicans' foot soldiers to oppose the estate tax.  Once it was called a death tax, and once the mythology had been implanted about that tax's supposedly devastating effects on family farms, the plutocrats were able to get the little people to do their bidding.

Worse, the Democrats failed to push back on that mythology, which quickly led to farm-state Democrats in the Senate agreeing to make foolish changes to that tax.  It is the same basic story that I have often recounted about how Democrats so badly failed to respond to the deficits-and-debt-are-destroying-the-world campaign waged by Republicans.  Not having made the arguments in favor of deficits and debt, and having essentially adopted the Republicans' attack lines to try to attack deficits under Reagan and the Bushes, Democrats have left themselves with no room to move, to the detriment of actual people.

We then find ourselves with two parties, admittedly miles apart on policy, and whose fates will be determined by the direction of the economy in Spring 2016, with policy positions driven in large part by the successes and failures of attempts to distort the facts.  Pushing back on ridiculousness like "IRS Code" and "death tax" will surely not turn around the next election, but it can change the arguments that are taken as acceptable by both sides going forward.

Congressional Republicans' big symbolic move this year on April 15 was not to pass a fundamental tax reform bill.  It was to repeal the estate tax.  That strategic decision did not happen by accident, and it certainly was not a given when "death tax" was first injected into the political conversation in the 1990's.  Distortions, especially those to which there has been no effective response, matter.

9 comments:

David Ricardo said...

Mr. Buchanan has presented us with a very interesting and insightful analysis of the politics of lying and modern Republicans. But one explanation of the phenomena whereby fabrications, misrepresentations and outright falsehood by Republicans are accepted is in the very different approach that modern Conservatives and the rest of us take with respect to politics and policy.

Those of us who are not Conservatives generally adopt a pragmatic approach to government. We support demand based fiscal policy not because we have a desire to enhance and enlarge the roll of government in our lives, but because Keynesian economics work to produce full employment and economic growth. We support a vigorous regulatory policy with respect to the financial sector because of the huge number of situations where the lack of such policy resulted in calamitous economic disruptions, not because we want the government to operate the banking system.

Conservatives however approach policy as a matter of faith. They oppose Keynesian economics not because it doesn’t work but because as a matter of faith they are opposed to government and government intervention. Better for them is stagnation, recession and high unemployment then government spending to stimulate an economy and prevent such things. (Of course this is helped by the fact that for the most part Conservatives themselves are generally not affected by the deprivations caused by economic downturns). Among Conservatives, when faith and reality collide faith should always prevail.

But a second and more important rationale for the lying is that Republican/Conservatives for the most part do not believe they are lying. Anyone who has spent time amongst them knows that these people actually believe what they are espousing. Yes the ‘Death Tax’ moniker did start as a market and spin concept that was developed to oppose the Estate Tax, but today the overwhelming majority of supporters of repeal really believe this is a tax on death. They believe that at death the vast majority of Americans are relieved of their accumulated wealth by the Estate Tax. They know as a certainty that every year tens of thousands of small businesses and family farms are destroyed by the Estate Tax and that the lack of any evidence to support this is simply an indication of a vast conspiracy by the government to hide those facts.

One has only to peruse the editorial/opinion pages of the WSJ ro view Fox News to see this in action. On any day in which the number of lies, distortions or misrepresentations on those pages on on talk radio or on Fox News is less than triple digits is a good day for truth (relatively speaking of course).

And those few who do know that they are lying are able to rationalize the lies by the fact that in their minds they are serving a higher cause. Sacrificing the truth is a small price to pay for allowing Americans the freedom to pollute, the freedom to collude, the freedom to receive government services without paying for them, the freedom to be unemployed, the freedom to discriminate in the name of religion, the freedom to torture etc.

The final word on lying of course belongs to George Costanza who although he didn’t know it was talking about Republicans. ‘Jerry, just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.

Greg said...

While I was generally with Mr. Buchanan on the previous post, I'm not so sure about this one because the examples used are just so poor. While IRS code is a bit of a misnomer (it would seem to refer to the laws concerning the management of the IRS, not tax law generally) I don't really see it as a lie at all to refer to the tax code as the IRS code. Similarly, while there may be estates created by means other than death, most people's interaction with the estate tax is through death.
So, while these are both forms of "spin," I wouldn't call either one a lie, and both contain significantly more truth in them than the "pro choice" or "pro life" monikers used for decades in the abortion debate.

That said, I'm all for disputing incorrect facts or semi-factual assertions.

I agree with the broader idea that even if it doesn't affect the outcome of elections, lies can affect the outcome of governing, which is really what the point of elections is in the first place.

David Ricardo said...

While the previous commentator may have point concerning the ‘IRS Code’, with respect to the Estate Tax calling it a ‘Death Tax’ is the pinnacle of misrepresentation and lying. The tax is a tax on the transfer of large estates from the deceased to the heirs.

Look, the sales tax is a tax imposed on sales; the income tax is a tax imposed on income, the capital gains tax is a tax imposed on capital gains, the property tax is a tax imposed on the value of property. The Estate tax is not a tax that is imposed on the act of dying and the sole purpose of calling it a Death Tax is to incite opposition to it with the uninformed who are being told that the act of dying triggers a tax, that the government will take their accumulated wealth because they they have had the temerity to die.

And the comment that most people’s interaction with the Estate Tax is through death obscures the point that most people, like 99.99% of the population have no interaction with the Estate Tax at all. This is from the WSJ in an article on the passing of repeal by the House.

“Democrats dismiss the repeal as a pointless giveaway to the rich, saying GOP lawmakers are merely pandering to their wealthy supporters. They noted that the estate tax’s reach already has been scaled back over the last 15 years, to the point where it affects a fraction of estates—about 0.2%. By now it hits only around 5,400 families each year—“the Hiltons, the Adelsons, the Kochs, those folks,” said Rep. Jim McDermott (D., Wash.).”

That’s right, all of this is about a tax that affects 5,400 families a year, about 30,000+ persons a year out of a population of over 300 million, families that are fabulously wealthy and whose heirs are harmed very little by the imposition of the tax, since after the tax they still have tens of millions, or hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars bequeathed to them, money they have not earned, money that they receive only through the accident of being born in the right family.

So no, calling the Estate Tax the Death Tax (a term incidentally that is not found anywhere in the IRS Code) is not appropriate, is not ethical, is not acceptable. It is what it has always been, an attempt by Conservatives to generate support for a position where that support would not be forthcoming without the lies and distortions that they put forth.

Joe said...

Take a page from the abortion area and call it a partial death tax. They are after all just half-way to the afterlife when it is applied.

David Burns said...

Both parties now inspire cynicism in me. The lying exploits human tribal psychology, whipping both sides into an us vs. them frenzy to get donations, win nominations, generate volunteers, and basically perpetuate the status quo. Who is immune to this? How do we escape it?

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