Tuesday, August 16, 2011

post-fact politics and the national debt.

circa 2003, my mass communications class taught the theory that media proliferation led to knowledge proliferation. access to information was access to the truth. the theory mirrored the jefferson quote engraved above the door to uva's cabell hall, "for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." but even at the time, the theory was falling apart. media wasn't just proliferating, it was fracturing. channels were proliferating, but they were also narrowing. narrowcasting was the name of the game and now, almost a decade later, i think it's safe to say that former theory is dead. so what happened? well jefferson was right, but it's all in the caveat: "so long as reason is left free to combat it."

(reason.)

media channels, in their quest for ever-narrower market segments, have put the normative before the positive without regard for truth in any objective sense. that crucial caveat "so long as reason is left free to combat it" has become the crux of a broken system, as information proliferates in the service of biases rather than reason. sure, everyone would like to think they're interested in the objective truth, (even fox news retains the slogan "fair and balanced,") but for anyone with a broader perspective and a remote awareness of the nuances that characterize liberal vs conservative reporting, it's easy to see how ridiculous the claims of objectivity have become. indeed, media channels like fox and msnbc increasingly filter out the factual positive statements that contradict their target audience's normative beliefs and biases, and focus exclusively on what reifies their narrow narrative. everything is delivered in a carefully crafted context, and what isn't an outright lie is often a strong but misleading implication.

(anddd gotcha.)

while no one wants to admit they're misled by their own biases, the tendency to get upset or uncomfortable when presented with contrary information steers people to media channels that tune out discomforting information and focus instead on what reifies their narratives. eventually it gets to a point where biases are so ingrained that completely contradictory narratives emerge, along with a defensiveness that twists even contradicting information into a greater belief in the narrative. the result is post-fact media and post-fact politics. narratives should be based on the facts, but facts are increasingly chosen to support the narratives. in situations where including the glaring omissions would result in a completely contrary narrative, this is done in spite of the truth, and the unfortunate truth is that as a society, we are afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead. the debt crisis has made this more apparent than ever, as the opposing sides seem to exist in totally mutually exclusive alternate universes.

here's a little study i dug up on just how skewed people's (mis)perceptions of reality really are: nyhan-reifler (skip to the appendix to get right to the point, and also there's some summarizing here). now here's a little interesting tidbit i noticed in the appendix: if 0 is the baseline, notice the skew on all those graphs. maybe it's just a function of the questions they chose, but maybe not. i've long had a theory that between liberals and conservatives, conservatives tend to have more widely accepted misperceptions. it's been an unscientific theory of mine, (now nominally supported by an academic study,) but i've just consistently noticed that amongst all the polls i've seen, conservative's misperceptions consistently seem to have broader acceptance than those of liberals. (see: birther movement.)

maybe something about conservativism, be it a religion-induced relaxation of skepticism or just being outright dumber, more effectively lends itself to biases and irrationality. i suppose in deference to objectivity and airing of any of my own possible biases, i should mention that i identify most with libertarian, neither liberal or conservative, nor democrat or republican. (though i increasingly prefer the term "classical liberal" if you'd like to go with that.) that said, as an observer it still seems to me that compared to conservatives, liberals tend to have an objectivity bias (oxymoron intended). ironically, objectivity is a distinct disadvantage in a post-fact environment, which might explain why liberals can't seem to play hardball half as well.

so now with all that in mind, how do you explain the advent of a group, full of a fervor typically reserved for muslim extremists, willing to hold the american government's credit hostage to their demands? it's post-fact politics. and who's more to blame for the debt crisis and subsequent downgrade? well as you might imagine, most partisans have already made up their mind, and in their alternate universes they're right, but they're wrong when it comes to the bigger picture. to some extent, either the liberal or conservative position can be supported because the debt crisis was basically a game of chicken, and it takes two to tango... but, which narrative is missing the more of the bigger picture? who is culling the objective truth most to fit their narrow narrative?

before i drop this truth bomb on you and potentially ruin your worldview, ask yourself where the debt came from. no seriously, ask yourself "where did the debt come from?" and then answer. got it? okay, keep that answer in mind. now think about if you've ever gone out and tried to objectively verify your beliefs. if you have, i'm impressed. but if you haven't, why is that? i mean you're probably not by any means an exception, but it's mind blowing when you think of how so many people have so many divergent impassioned beliefs about where the debt came from given that it's so objectively quantifiable and verifiable. okay, so now think about what i mean when i say post-fact politics...

(the objective quantifiable verifiable truth.)

now go ahead and attribute each of those to their political source. which of those programs were implemented by republicans, and which were by democrats? too lazy? okay here it is all done for you...

(also see: nyt. beware: liberal source, objectivity bias.)

i'm sure some post-fact conservatives will detect the threat to their narrative and try to question the source, but there's no disagreement between what the pew charitable trusts published and what the white house published other than the political attribution, and here's what the wall street journal had to say about the pew charitable trusts:

although today the pew charitable trusts is rigorously non-partisan and non-ideological, joseph pew and his heirs were themselves politically conservative. the mission of the j. howard pew freedom trust was to "acquaint the american people with the evils of bureaucracy and the values of a free market and to inform our people of the struggle, persecution, hardship, sacrifice and death by which freedom of the individual was won." joseph n. pew, jr., called franklin roosevelt's new deal, "a gigantic scheme to raze u.s. businesses to a dead level and debase the citizenry into a mass of ballot-casting serfs."

don't worry if you were wrong, even i wasn't rigorous enough. (hypocritical, i know.) i actually believed some bs i read about how obama is such a big spender because deficits skyrocketed in his budgets. but again, a conservative source culling the facts. the bigger picture is that deficits did skyrocket, but it had less to do with spending and more to do with recession-induced revenue decreases. in fact, obama's policies to date have cost roughly $1.4 trillion, while the downward revisions from the recession cost $3.6 trillion. (quantifiable fact. don't leave home without it.) so when someone says obama has "spent" up the debt, now you know they're either misleading you or they're misled. help them out. the obama administration, aka the u.s. treasury, has "spent" the deficits only in the sense that they're required by law to pay previously racked up bills with now decreased revenues, with the exception of the roughly 10% of the debt attributable to obama's policies, over half of which was stimulus spending.

(right wing liars!)

now let me get off my objective high horse for one second and divulge a few of my opinions (or biases if you'd prefer)... everything i know about basic economics tells me: you don't cut government spending during a fragile economic recovery; you don't hold the u.s. credit rating hostage to defend a regressive tax code that favors millionaires and billionaires; you don't block infrastructure spending (investment) that could sustain a recovery and increase revenue in the long-run; and you don't do it all while the cost of borrowing is at historic lows. (unless, of course, you're willing to make a gullible american public suffer so that you can blame the incumbent president in an upcoming election cycle.)

common sense? in a post-fact political environment, depends who you ask i guess. reviens, voltaire, ils sont devenus fous!