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?
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