We are learning a lot lately about how people purposely lie and mislead on social media. Especially sad is how people fabricate news stories to the delight of friends who they know will spread the lies multiple times. The term urban legend has been around a long time. I understand it to mean a fictional account that has been circulated enough so that many people believe it to be true.
It worries people that soon we won’t know the difference between fact and fiction. Information will exist but its validity will be suspect. Whether it is evidence about global warming or about the color of the skin of a murderer, most of us will just shake our heads and wonder if the latest story has any truth to it. Information will (already has) become entertainment and persuasion.
We have been dealing with fact and fancy for a long time. In physics, we learn that the very fact of observing a phenomenon can bend its result. Does a tree that falls in the woods make a sound if we are not there to hear it? These ideas titillate the mind. Complicated phenomena (like poverty, economic growth) must be observed and interpreted, and there is room for two different observers to come away with two very different observations and conclusions.
Thus it is reasonable to think of truth as being subjective. And therefore it is possible that you might think one person is lying despite his or her very ardent attempts to be truthful. But when it comes to most things, this element of subjectivity is pretty minor. Many things are very clear. What goes up usually comes down. One final JD has predictable effects. A person high on crack may commit horrible crimes. Too much pollution makes for illness and discomfort. It it other more complicated phenomena that cause the consternation about truth or fiction.
I want to split a hair about these complicated issues. Yes, there is more than one interpretation. There is more than one intelligent view of the truth. But that does not give one license to intentionally lie and mislead. I am often critical of economists who intentionally distort issues by leaving out critical facts that they know to be true. They probably do not admit to their families that they tell whoppers, but surely they appreciate the back slaps, promotions, and high-paid speech opportunities that come with wowing their followers.
Sadly, misrepresentations are hitting new levels. Let me list below some of the ones that have been spouted in the last week by very prominent people.
Federal Reserve interest rate increases will lead to the next recession.
Any attempt to reform Obamacare will be tantamount to pushing grandma over the cliff.
Because Boomers are retiring, it is impossible to have strong employment growth in the US.
Consumer finance deregulation will lead to predatory lending and hurt loan customers.
Tax rate reductions that are part of tax reform will worsen poverty.
Deregulation of the financial sector will lead to excessive leveraging and lead to another financial disaster.
Any attempt to regulate abortions will cause irreparable harm to women’s health.
Infrastructure proposals with strong private sector participation/ownership will lead to rampant corruption.
No, I am not going to take each of these and bore you with a complete analysis. But be honest. The people who are now saying these things (and more) are misrepresenting truth. The people who say these things get wealth, power, and popularity by misleading you or providing ideological fodder for your predilections.
Could any of the above statements be true? Of course they could. But they might also never happen because they are each based on excluding things we know to be true. We know that regulations introduced in the last eight years were not all perfect. We know they have had severe unintended effects. We know that today we have major economic and social policy challenges.
Policies and regulations can easily be represented by a meter or a dial. In some years the needle moves to the left. In other years it moves back to the right. Arguing about these shifts and changes is normal. Screaming bloody murder when the next team gets power is normal too. But making up stories is not and should not be tolerated.
Let’s decide a position for the needle in the coming years based on honest and open discussion of the fullest possible set of facts. It might not amount to absolute truth but it will get us a lot further than a bunch of sad distortions.