Deficit fetishism and political bulls**t – the reason you don’t hear the facts on the news?

This is not a new phenomenon: Noam Chomsky discussed it with Andrew Marr in 1996.

This is not a new phenomenon: Noam Chomsky discussed it with Andrew Marr in 1996.

If you are easily offended, then look away now because there is a new buzz-phrase in economic circles: “political bullshit”.

This will play havoc with Vox Political‘s anti-profanity standards!

The gist is that “political bullshit” tells false stories that have nothing to do with the truth but appeal to what Tyler Cowen calls “common sense morality”. According to Mainly Macro‘s Professor Simon Wren-Lewis, the term was coined by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt.

Prof Wren-Lewis continues:

The implication… is that because bullshit does not reside in the “court of truth”, trying to combat it with facts, knowledge or expertise may have limited effectiveness. But what makes their discussion even more interesting for me is that they use what they call ‘deficit fetishism’, and in particular the stories that the UK government told before the last election, as their subject matter.
In the case of fiscal policy, deficit fetishism as bullshit involves appeals to ‘common sense’ by invoking simple analogies with households, often coupled with an element of morality – it is responsible to pay down debts. The point in calling it bullshit … is that attempts to counter it by appeals to facts or knowledge (e.g. the government is not like a household, as every economist knows) may have limited effectiveness.
Instead it might be better to fight bullshit with bullshit, by talking about the need to borrow to invest, or even that it is best to ‘grow your way out of debt’. (If you think the latter is nonsense, you are still in the wrong court: the court of truth rather than bullshit. As long as the phrase contains what I have sometimes called a ‘half-truth’, it has the potential to be effective bullshit.)
At first sight deficit fetishism seems to be innate, because it appeals to the basic intuition of the household and the morality of good housekeeping. However households also borrow to invest (such as in a house), and most people understand that this is what firms also do. The reason why the bullshit involving paying back borrowing may have been particularly powerful over the last five years is that this is exactly what many households have also been doing.
However that process now appears to have come to an end. As individuals start to borrow again (or at least stop running down their debt), perhaps they will become more tolerant of governments doing the same.
To this we could add an obvious external factor. In 2010 and the following two years, deficit fetishism seemed to be validated by a superficial view of external events. The difficulties that some countries were getting into because their governments had ‘borrowed too much’ was top of the news night after night. In that context, is it any wonder that most people believed the bullshit?

The agenda of the news media was the subject of a comment on This Blog yesterday. Ian wrote: “There’s an interview of Noam Chomsky … by Andrew Marr … and the subject of reporting comes up in which Chomsky points out how truth often doesn’t see the light of day and how journalists are chosen for employment, i.e. ones that upset the applecart and speak truth to power never make it in the mainstream.

“Chomsky elaborated, ‘If you didn’t believe what you believe, you wouldn’t be where you are.’ That is, if Marr was in any way radical … he wouldn’t have a nice job at the BBC.”

He continued: “When one former Sun editor claimed Rupert Murdoch doesn’t decide on any particular editorial line, he doesn’t need to, the editor knows what line to take or he wouldn’t be in the job.”

And he concluded: “Imagine if [you] worked for BBC News and knew about the privatisation of the NHS and all the benefit ‘reforms’ related deaths? You try to broadcast that these days and you’d be sent to cover the quarter finals of the Penrith Cumberland wrestling championships on a rainy Wednesday night for BBC Radio Cumbria.”

So, “political bullshit” gains credibility with strong support from complicit news media. What chance do the facts have, in the face of that?

Source: mainly macro: Is deficit fetishism innate or contextual?

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  1. Denis Bell August 4, 2015 at 12:16 pm - Reply

    Agree with a lot of this Mike. Many Media commentators are intellectually light and in my opinion, biased to the extent that you can hear and see they ‘try to be investigative and a wee bit radical’ but actually they are often an embarrassment. You can see they ‘toe the Party line or that of their seniors’ and this negates quality ‘informed-ness’. They often (BBC) are too easily seen for ‘Public Sector’ and ‘compliant’ (soft underbelly, and not really good value for money, open to ‘abuse’?) I dislike (the big majority of them as ‘faces’…right looks to do the job..etc) their lack of courage to state things that are meaningful to us out here. I am disgusted how they trivialise air time with ‘crap’ ….and we know that there are serious things going on around the World that we (we’d not know about without social media= Facebook, etc) are never really creatively informed about…, Denis.

  2. hstorm August 4, 2015 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    The Royal Society Of Cattle wish to object in the strongest possible terms that their male faeces are of a substantially higher standard and quality than the verbal faecal material emitted during political/economic discourse in the media.

    • ian725 August 4, 2015 at 2:58 pm - Reply

      LMAO , really enjoyed that small piece . ..hstorm

  3. Neilth August 4, 2015 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    Truth and journalism? That would be nice. But even when presented with an article that is truthful but doesn’t reflect the readers prejudices it has little effect.

    I remember reading an article on the Mail Online website (yes I know that reading that stuff can cause brain damage) a few years ago about the improved crime figures that particularly showed a reduction in violent crime as a long term trend. At the end of the article was a poll asking if the readers felt they were safer or not.
    Unsurprisingly, despite the evidence, the vast majority of the Daily Mail readership felt they were becoming less safe.

  4. Florence August 4, 2015 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    Wasn’t it Tony Blair who filtered everything the Labour govt did through his own “what would Murdoch say” BS? Look at his rewards for their close ties.

    On the BBC during the election I actually stopped watching Newsnight completely, after decades of viewing, because of the naked bias especially by Laura Keunssberg. She constantly interrupted and tore into anyone from Labour or the very occasional non-party “alternative voice”. The range of opinions in the main news is reduced to a narrow Tory bias, all pushing the Deficit BS as reality. Trade Unionists, and other non-right-wingers have all but vanished – air brushed out of reported public life. (rather like the Kremlin?). Keunssberg has been rewarded by replacing the rabid paid-up Tory political editor Nick Robinson. Another revolving door for the “right” person? It’s the establishment closing ranks, and using everything they have to obliterate alternative views.

  5. maxwell1957 August 4, 2015 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    Two words that spring to mind when encountering any of the utterances/outpourings of our supposed ‘elders and betters’ are obfuscation and obscurantism. ’nuff sed!

  6. Michelle August 4, 2015 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    The censorship and self-censorship in the media seems to numb staff at all levels including the parochial. Last year the local BBC radio interviewed me about my art work for an exhibition in Cheltenham. My art work theme was the arms trade and my response to the WW1 research I had carried out for Campaign Against Arms Trade, my interview only lasted a couple of minutes during which time I explained about a local case study and the merger of two large arms manufacturers, however when the interview went on air a few days later the reason why I had carried out the research, the project: and for whom it was carried out was not included. Funnily enough the other 3 artists interviewed didn’t have their short 2 minute interviews ‘tailored’ and the radio program that aired our interviews lasted all Sunday morning, so they weren’t short of time!

  7. Ian August 4, 2015 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    “So, “political bullshit” gains credibility with strong support from complicit news media. What chance do the facts have, in the face of that?”

    The internet and especially social media is my biggest hope for the truth to escape. That’s one of the reasons (I think) The Daily Mail hates it. Newspapers will have to embrace it but they cannot fight it. Old media no longer has a lock on what information people are allowed to see, once the technophobes have gone everyone will have access to real facts and alternative opinions and everyone will be able to hold politicians’ self-serving lies up to scrutiny.

    You never know, there might even be a decent wage in proper factual online journalism

    • Mike Sivier August 4, 2015 at 6:17 pm - Reply

      That would be a great relief to some of us.

    • fkreid August 5, 2015 at 12:02 pm - Reply

      Unfortunately, there seems to be a rise in trolling of political forums. I suspect that many of the more recent ‘trolls’ are actually of the ‘Astroturfer’ variety, and probably in the employ of political groups, particularly right-wing ones. The enormous budget the Tory party uses for its publicity campaign may be a result of this activity. It’s got to the point where several left-wing groups are now filled with right-wing trolling posts getting people to argue amongst themselves and doubting any real facts. Far too many people on these media seem far too gullible and are willing to believe practically anything without bothering to check. It seems that the quality sources of info (such as this blog) are constantly under attack from these ‘astroturfers’. I fear that infiltration from agent-provocateurs is causing social media, particularly Facebook, to become somewhat spoiled and a source of even more confusion rather than clear information.

      • Mike Sivier August 5, 2015 at 12:22 pm - Reply

        I kick ’em out.
        They complain – of course – that it’s an infringement of their right to free speech, or some such nonsense. It’s actually a clarification of the facts.

      • Ian August 5, 2015 at 4:56 pm - Reply

        I’ve noticed a lot of Blairite types on forums and comment sections. The language they use is particularly wonkish and riddled with political jargon. That gives the impression they aren’t run of the mill, disinterested commenters but probably party workers/interns with an agenda.

        I love that freedom of speech complaint in these situations; that doesn’t mean you have to provide them with a platform. Your gaff, your rules, to paraphrase Al Murray.

  8. mrmarcpc August 6, 2015 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    You don’t hear and see all the facts on the news, they hide some of it away, so much for western democracy, the Americans are just as bad, RT, Russian news station DOES tell you what’s really going on in the world, they tell you the truth, ironic isn’t it, a Russian news network being more open and honest about the news, and RT aren’t the only ones either, from a country run by an undemocractic tyrant and we’re supposed to be better, a western democractic country and part of the world, what a joke!

    • Ian August 6, 2015 at 9:16 pm - Reply

      RT isn’t going to be very critical of Putin , bear that in mind and it’s a great news source, often putting the BBC to shame.

  9. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) August 9, 2015 at 12:18 pm - Reply

    This video rams that very point home and then goes on to explain where it comes from and why it is so wrong.

    Professor Mark Blyth Austerity- the history of a dangerous idea.

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