Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 11 August 2017

The politics of lying

When people say ‘all politicians lie’, they cannot seriously mean they all hold to the same standards of veracity as Donald Trump. But how do you measure degrees of lying in politics?

Paul Krugman suggests that the Republican party’s problems began when they started pushing the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves. The notion that cutting taxes will bring in more rather than less tax revenue is a theoretical possibility but has been shown by study after study to be empirically false. But why was this lie worse than others?

I would suggest the following. The lie became (and continues to be) a major plank of Republican policy. We are not talking about being economical with the truth with statistics to present a party’s policies in a more favourable light. This lie was ultimately an attempt to legitimise cutting taxes on the very rich, and reducing the size of the state (because when the tax cuts did not pay for themselves the next step was to cut spending to control the deficit). It was a lie that went completely against expert opinion, and was at the heart of Republican economic strategy.

Lying in this fundamental way distorts the whole direction of political activity. It and its supporters begin to focus on ways to hide the truth. It means setting up think tanks whose aim is not just to push the party line, but also to provide a counter-weight to, and therefore neutralise the power of, real expertise. Such think tanks involve an element of ‘pay us your money and we will push your interests’, which is why right wing think tanks are the least transparent about their funding. It also means using partisan media outlets to present an alternative reality to voters.

If you can get away with this, then why stop at one crucial lie. Politics becomes about choosing the lies they can get away with that will promote their cause. It is about what lies sound plausible to particular voters, or what lies a partisan press can reliably sustain by selecting evidence to support them. Lines between politics and journalism in partisan outlets become blurred.

We see the politics of lying all the time in totalitarian regimes, or regimes that control much of the mean of information. What I think has surprised many is that two nations that pride themselves on their democratic traditions and independent media can reach a point where the leader and ruling party of one lies all the time, and the other undertakes a huge constitutional change on the basis of a campaign where one side lied with impunity. The Brexit campaign did not lie for the fun of it, but because it would gain them votes, and what evidence we have suggests their lies were believed.

It is not hard to understand why these two longstanding democracies succumbed so easily to the politics of lying. First, they tolerated the growth of a partisan media that danced to whatever tune their owners played. Second, the remaining non-partisan media placed even-handedness between each side, the political horse race and entertainment above informing the public and telling the truth. The Clinton email controversy illustrated clearly a failure to apply any notion of balance. Calling the £350 million a week figure ‘contested’ was literally being economical with the truth. The BBC’s mission to “inform, educate and entertain” has a secret caveat: informing and educating does not include anything deemed political.

What I find surprising is not just that this happened, but that the non-partisan broadcast media has so little interest in doing anything about it. In the US, when Trump complained about his coverage, CNN hired someone nominated by Trump. In the UK the BBC sees no evil, and bats away letters from the Royal Economic Society about its Brexit coverage as just one more irritating complainant. Understandable given business models and constant attacks on Fake News/Liberal bias by the political right, but it means both countries remain wide open to the politics of lying.

Longer read on similar themes: Post-truth and propaganda


  1. Brexit has moved from a narrative of easy quick money to a politics of struggle against saboteurs, which is why Hard Brexit is the language of choice for the elite trying to drive it through.

    Steve Richards on the BBC Parliament Channel reminds us in his lecture on Cameron that Cameron, Osborne, and their party came out against the fiscal stimulus following the 2008 crash after a set of weekend phone calls, which not even the Republican Bushies resisted.

    Baby boomers talk about removing Thatcherism; Millennials talk about removing elite Conservatism tout court.

  2. A still longer read (American-specific, but well worth it) is here:

  3. Rather than the republican party per se its neoliberal economic where ever it is preached has had this effect its neoliberalism that is so damaging to humanity or bad capitalism full stop on the point of taxation!

  4. It's hard to believe that liberal bias doesn't exist in light of the reporting on the "anti-diversity" memo[1]. The liberal media ignores the majority opinion of academics[2, 3] just as the right-wing media so often does.

    This is not merely a left/right issue. There's so much click-bait nonsense in the mainstream media about topics related to technology such as machine learning. I find that it is increasingly necessary to look for writings by academics such as yourself to cut through the propaganda.


  5. I think you are conflating media types and regulation.

    With regard to broadcast media the BBC has to abide by a fairness doctrine whereas this was abolished in the US in 1987 by Reagan (I'm not sure what arrangements apply to PBS). The point is that most of the media is partisan and has no duty to be otherwise.

    Furthermore you have used the pejorative term "lying" as it would apply to the partisan media but is it this or is it just being partisan - as it is entitled to be?

    On big problem with what you imply as a solution is that there has, ultimately, to be a much better understanding of these issues by the public and this is a difficult barrier to overcome and arguably an impossible one as the weight of opinion is so much right wing at the end of the day.

    Also,whether you like it or not, there is still a strong feeling among many in society that left wing governments are only good at spending other people's money and that any good arguments tend to get drowned out by this assumption.

  6. but what is funny, and hopeful, is the way the "public" doesn't take that much notice of the lying? cf the tabloids on GE2017-1 splurging all about Corbyn and his terrorist friends etc - Labour's vote went up. I think we worry too much about the MSM's shenanigans - what we should be asking is how do people really form their opinions and where do they get their information from, if not from the MSM? Are social media and face to face conversations really much more important (albeit difficult to identify, measure, quantify)? Bring back Mass Observation.

  7. Seekers of the truth no longer trust anything the media says and politics has become the establishment's vehicle to disseminate a vision that follows their agenda.

    We are currently witnessing how the CIA using the tried and tested formula of subverting democracies (Venezuela) then the media transforms reality into a view of the world where violence is seen as protest, and conversely in fascist countries freedom protesters are seen as terrorists.

    It should of course be obvious by now to any casual observer, that the political agenda is to transfer wealth and power upwards, the shrinking of the state allows the rich to obtain state assets at knock down prices, so that when the business around the world is collapsing due their policies, they can still profit stealing state assets.

    The Naylor report spells this process out in detail, and Theresa May has the audacity to say the £10 billion she is putting into to this project is investing in our NHS.

    Such blatant lies are accepted because most people are deliberately kept ignorant of these matters by a complicit media. Hence why social media is so important.

    If we want to return back into a fully functioning democracy, we have to recognise the corporate takeover of our country for what it is and and re-empower the state to take back what has been stolen from it.

    I suspect Karl Marx would even be shocked by the methods used by capitalists to steal public assets.

  8. There is a narrative which gets established in the MSM and even the BBC and that then becomes doctrine and anyone who challenges this becomes a modern day heretic , attacked and then silenced.
    A few years ago I watched a BBC documentary on JFK which followed the official line with not a single word from any of the huge range of people who were "it was not Oswald" heretics.
    A few years later the BBC were at it again over the 9/11 anniversary. Official line toed with great efficiency and no word from any heretics. They even dismissed the thermite possibility by igniting a pile of thermite on a Steal beam and crowing that there was no damage to the beam. A few moments research on YouTube would have found an American school teacher casually cutting substantial steal beams with his home made thermite cutting tubes but no sign of that heretic.
    Do you take the Churchill official story , wonderful guy who saved us in WW2 or do you go with the heretic David Irving. That he was a war monger who deliberately got us in to the war at the behest of his banker friends. That he delayed D-Day by a year and got us into the disastrous Italian and Norwegian campaigns. That by refusing Germany's peace offers we ended up a second rate power with no gold reserves , no empire , no American interests, we lost Poland to the Soviets instead of the Germans and inflicted 40 years of communism on eastern Europe and ended up begging our own money back from the USA.
    Even you Simon are a heretic, preaching against doctrine that the Tories are the safest hands with the economy and that Labour are profligate fools. Your data nicely illustrates that the opposite is often the case , but even the Labour party seem incapable of challenging the heresy, so the doctrine stands.
    The Brexit vote was simple, the majority of people in the UK felt that they did not want a federal states of Europe , that this entity we signed up to 40 years ago had become something we felt disquiet with. At a simple level we were fed up stepping over gangs of Romanian beggars in our street at a complex level this is a fight the USA still has ongoing states rights verses federal rights and we did not sign up for a non democratic federal united states of Europe. The heretics saw through the smoke and lies this time.
    I expect nothing much from the print MSM they are vehicles for the owners political views but the BBC seems far to wed to doctrines and immune to criticism when pushing these views upon the viewer. When you factor in that every minority seems immune from criticism no matter how offensive to many their views may be , then we are not in a good place and much doctrine still awaits for us to see through.

  9. It isn't just reactionaries. I.F. Stone, a great journalist and Washington watcher in mid-20th Century, was fond of saying that "Governments lie." Lying comes power. The Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley prided itself on being truthful, but as we gained power, we started lying. Specifically, the university administration offered to negotiate, but on the condition that we deny negotiations were going on (Ronald Reagan was governor then, and would have quashed the negotiation if he knew about it.) So, we lied and negotiated.

  10. It's worth looking SWL's reference to Paul Krugman's interesting article in "The New York Times" which tells us how Reagan's "tax cuts pay for themselves" policy was much more a ploy to get the Republicans elected than it was to increase total tax revenues.

    Reagan's policy certainly paid for itself though: he got two terms as president.

    Here's quote from the article:

    << A key moment came in the 1970s, when Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, embraced supply-side economics — the claim, refuted by all available evidence and experience, that tax cuts pay for themselves by boosting economic growth.

    Writing years later, he actually boasted about valuing political expediency over intellectual integrity: “I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities.” In another essay, he cheerfully conceded to having had a “cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit,” because it was all about creating a Republican majority — so “political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.” >>

    1. Supply-sider-turned-Keynesian Bruce Bartlett in a series of papers about the Laffer Curve refutes that "supply-side economics [is] the claim ... that tax cuts pay for themselves".

      In today's Republican fever swamp, yes, various politicians say "tax cuts pay for themselves" but this was not Reagan's position and he had a history of massive tax rises in California and a very large series of tax rises as President after his initial cut (because less revenue was clawed back than expected).

  11. I still find it weird you're fine with criticising Miliband from the left (because he rejected further stimulus in favour of budget balancing) and say this makes electoral sense explaining his loss, and yet, you won't criticise Hillary Clinton from the left (who wanted a microscopic stimulus using tax rises), as if you think she was owed loyalty on a British blog. The "email" controversy was an illegal private server, and it was only fear of Trump and the AG Lynch's conflict of interest over that tarmac meeting with Bill which got Hillary off. Comey wouldn't explain why "extremely careless" didn't rise to the level of "gross negligence" and constitute a crime, because obviously there is no explanation. Hillary Clinton was personally being investigated for crime, as Comey confirmed during the investigation, and that is newsworthy and not a lack of balance. Trump was not being investigated for crime.

    "But he's a lying bastard!" I hear you cry. Clinton was a liar too, so that cannot be the criterion. "But he's still a bastard!" -- well, once he got the nomination the entire media was against him and he still won. Only 1 or 2 newspapers in the entire United States endorsed him.

    The British left doesn't owe anything to American neoliberals, and funny you should mention Iraq; anyone with a brain knew Hussein couldn't afford to attack even if he had WMD unless he was suicidal, and no preparation for an attack had been shown. MI6 knew, I knew, Labour MPs knew, and so did Democrats in Congress like Hillary Clinton. They went along with the lies because they knew the pro-war faction was backed by powerful interests who wanted the future oil profits of Iraq for themselves. They miscalculated and all those people died -- worse than anything Trump has done, and I am not a Trump supporter in the slightest.

  12. It was a lie that went completely against expert opinion, and was at the heart of Republican economic strategy.Joseph Hayon


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