Double Etch-a-Sketch, Confirmability, and Credibility

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Friday, I wrote a post here on Dorf on Law arguing that the defenders of Communism, somewhat surprisingly, have an easier argument than the defenders of fiscal austerity. My point was that there is at least a colorable case to be made that real Communism has never been tried, giving us no direct empirical evidence from which to conclude that a real Communist system can or cannot work.

By contrast, there is either no empirical evidence that fiscal austerity is expansionary, or at best, there are one or two isolated examples of small countries whose experiences cannot be generalized. And The New Statesman reports that 9 out of 10 British economists who supported the Cameron/Osbourne hyper-austerity plan now say that they are having second thoughts, as the UK's recession-ridden economy staggers along.

Professor Dorf commented to me after reading my post that I am now completely unconfirmable for any appointed position in the United States government. Quite so. I wondered whether my very public veganism might be worse than being red-baitable, in terms of Senate confirmation of a wacky lefty professor. In any case, one of the best things about blogging is that it has long since removed me from any consideration for political appointments for which I might otherwise be considered. I am sure the world thanks me for this, too.

Although I have no desire to serve in any government positions, however, I do have a great deal of interest in public policy debates. In my little corner of the interwebs, the considerable time that I spend writing about policy and political issues is, admittedly, mostly a "consumption item." That is, I cannot kid myself into thinking that I am having a profound impact on the public debate, and it is best to think of what I am doing at any particular moment as either simply doing a job that I truly enjoy, or (and this is the consumption part) just doing what I like to do, because I like to do it.

There is an important difference, however, between confirmability and credibility. Whatever minor impact that any scholar can have on the debate requires being viewed as credible in the eyes of some readers. Any writer, therefore, must consider whether his public statements undermine his credibility. How does one navigate this tricky territory?

There is plenty of easy stuff, of course. Do not buy into conspiracy theories (yes, we did land on the moon in 1969, thank you very much), do not rely on non-credible sources of information, and do not make things up. As the kids say, "No duh!" After that, however, it becomes very interesting to see how different writers respond to the felt need to maintain that ever-elusive notion of credibility.

The easiest move, at least in the context of U.S. political discussions, is to hold oneself above the partisan fray, calling upon everyone to put aside petty differences for the good of the nation and humankind. The next step, which we might call "Pulling a Tom Friedman," is to then say that both parties are to blame for the deplorable state of affairs, and what we need to do at all times is to criticize both political parties for contributing to the decline of civility.

An interesting recent example of this move came, surprisingly, from the truly nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. TPC released a report early this month in which three economists said that something resembling the Romney tax plan ("resembling" only because the Romney campaign has steadfastly refused to offer an actual tax plan, leaving analysts with only a few aspirational concepts that Romney has repeated for months) would be starkly regressive -- that is, it would increase taxes on the middle class and poor, and reduce taxes on the rich.

The Romney campaign and its allies went ballistic, claiming that the TPC was a liberal organization, and basically doing everything they could to undermine the TPC's credibility. What did the TPC do? It issued an (appropriately) muted statement, trying to tamp down the controversy and reaffirm its commitment to unbiased analysis (which never should have been questioned in the first place).

But how to do that while Pulling a Tom Friedman? The TPC's director wrote: "I don’t interpret this as evidence that Governor Romney wants to increase taxes on the middle class in order to cut taxes for the rich, as an Obama campaign ad claimed. Instead, I view it as showing that his plan can’t accomplish all his stated objectives." Get it? The Republicans are wrong, because they are howling about the liberal bias of an unbiased organization; but the Democrats are wrong, too, because they issued a campaign ad that correctly described the implications of the study while -- and this is apparently the transgression -- ascribing intent to the logical implication of Mitt Romney's policy agenda. Both sides are wrong, says the TPC, so the TPC cannot be accused of being liberal.

What happens when a scholar honestly concludes that one side is wrong? Ask Paul Krugman. He was given an enviable platform from which to share his views, and he has been using that platform for more than ten years to make the case that -- far too often -- both sides are not equally benighted. One can sometimes disagree with his logic or his conclusions, but he never makes things up, and he has always been willing to say when one side is wrong. For this, he is accused of being biased. Why? Because, by the assumptions underlying Pulling a Tom Friedman, it simply cannot be true that only one side is wrong.

Krugman has made his peace with the consequences of being unwilling to play the game, and he is thriving. Even so, he is now viewed by some people as lacking credibility -- not because of any analytical or factual errors, but simply because he does not play the both-sides-are-always-to-blame game. Earlier this year, I even received a broadcast email from an economist, who was advocating for more infrastructure investment by governments and businesses. Bizarrely, in the middle of the email, I found this sentence: "Today, economists such as Paul Krugman and pundits like Rush Limbaugh share a concern that the United States is entering into a Japanese-style lost decade. For Krugman, the answer is more government spending, for Limbaugh less. Mayor X, however, is advancing an economic philosophy distinct from both these positions."

What?! We now have academic economists using Krugman as the left equivalent of Limbaugh -- and not even in a document that is available to the public at large. And the assertion in the email is simply wrong: Mayor X's economic philosophy (described elsewhere in the email) is not "distinct from both of these positions." It is, in fact, an application of Krugman's position, using government to increase infrastructure investment. (The only twist is that the government gives businesses incentives to undertake investments that they would not otherwise take. It is still government promises of money that make it all happen.)

None of this apparently matters. What matters is that Krugman is now viewed as lacking credibility, so that he can be linked with Limbaugh. Both sides are wrong! What should other scholars do to avoid that fate? Apparently, they need to do what TPC did, always looking for ways to say, "Well, both sides have people who proceed in good faith, but both sides need to rein in their worst impulses."

As a strategic matter, the only reason I can see for taking this approach is that one needs to maintain one's credibility, saving it for that key moment when one can say, "Well, I could never be accused of being one-sided, but in this case, Politician A is wrong and Politician B is right." But under the current rules, that works once -- at most. If one is truly viewed as credible in the Pulling a Tom Friedman sense, then one might be lucky enough not to be savaged when the fateful moment comes. It is much more likely, however, that even that one deviation will simply result in retroactive stripping of one's status as a credible pundit.

What we see, therefore, is a group of people who apparently think that they need to blame both sides in the hope of keeping their powder dry, ready for the one time when they need to stand up and speak the real truth. Because there are future possible moments that might be even more important, however, the powder is never used.

Which brings me to my new Verdict column: "The Double Etch-a-Sketch Ticket: The Romney Campaign Tries to Erase Paul Ryan’s Dishonest and Troubling Track Record." I am already definitively on the record as someone who calls one side wrong when I think that only one side is wrong. (To bolster my credibility, I guess I could point out that I have sometimes criticized Obama and the Democrats. But that is credibility based on not being in the tank for one party or the other, not for describing every controversy as both sides being wrong.)

Even so, it briefly occurred to me that maybe I should hold back on my criticism of Paul Ryan. He is a hack, but saying so would make me biased, by definition. But it had to be said. Ryan's reputation as a serious, number-crunching policy wonk is pure fantasy. Pretending otherwise would make me complicit in the lie.

So, not only will I never be Treasury Secretary, but I will never be invited to participate on a pundit's roundtable on Sunday mornings. No one is shedding any tears about that, least of all me.