Sunday, February 22, 2015

The high cost of spin in politics

American freedoms include the freedom of speech. The U.S. constitution protects it with a broad, strong shield. With only some exceptions, for example, inciting violence, making false statements and child pornography, Americans can say just about anything about anyone or anything with no fear of legal retribution or lawsuit. That is a real freedom. Despite the constitutional shield's power, a debate is quietly going on about whether to broaden it further.

One of the two sides, hard core pro-free speech Libertarian ideologues, argue for reducing or eliminating at least some existing limits, especially when it comes to spending money in politics as a form of free speech. The other side, maybe less ideologically driven, argues that some limits are needed for civil society. Their proposals are modeled, more or less, on speech laws in some European countries.

Since 2010, the pro-speech side has been winning significant cases in the Supreme Court. Congress, being hopelessly divided and gridlocked, is mostly irrelevant. The court cases expand free speech by nullifying anti-corruption or campaign finance laws on free speech grounds. This is fundamentally shifts power in political debate from average individuals (and candidates to some extent) to entities and individuals willing and able to use wealth for political speech, much of which contains deceptive content. In the process, laws intended to limit political corruption from special interest money were overturned as unconstitutional limits on free speech. The roots of such anti-corruption laws go back a century. Modern successor laws, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and counterpart state laws, are being successfully struck down on free speech-based constitutional grounds.

Free speech: What is the cost-benefit?
Given the shifting legal landscape, it is reasonable to raise the question about cost-benefit of free speech in politics, including spin.[1] Spin is a subset of protected free speech and in Dissident Politics (DP) opinion, it dominates political discourse. DP's starting assumption is that the costs of spin to the public interest outweigh its benefits. The assumption is based on the beliefs that (i) political policy debates and choices will be better in the long run when spin is not used to convince citizens to choose among competing options and (ii) debate winners should win on the merits, not on the spin because that is the American way, or, the way it should be. However, parts or all of the two-party system (TPS)[2] may not share that opinion.

Maybe some or most TPS participants and supporters would argue that political debate should be dominated by spin because if the public relies on unspun fact and unbiased logic, (i) the public interest is not well-served and (ii) our elected political leaders are elected to get what they want and whatever they want does in fact best serve the public interest.[3] Examples of political spin include its probable use to get American public opinion behind World War II, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. Some would argue that all of those wars were preceded by clever spin on the public to rally public support. Roosevelt bluntly admitted he misled congress and the public to get America into WWII and that it was for their own good.

Assuming allegations of pro-war spin are true, did that spin benefit or harm the public interest? Maybe there was net benefit. Maybe not. Maybe it was necessary. Maybe not, but if not, think hard and carefully if that is really true. In the case of WWII, wasn't it inevitable that the U.S. would be drawn in sooner or later? If later, would that have made a noticeable difference in the outcome? Maybe. Maybe not. No one can know. What is the public interest net balance from a possibly earlier entry into WWII via lying vs. damage to public trust from political lies?

Regardless, if some or most politicians and/or partisans think that spin confers a net benefit on the public, then they owe it to the American people to tell them that their rhetoric is spin intended to deceive us for our own good. In that case, we all might as well stop voting, walk away from politics and let the TPS do whatever it wants because it will be good for us. That's not a very appetizing choice, is it?

Another cost of spin in politics includes loss of public trust in federal governing institutions. That makes governing harder and less efficient. TPS rhetoric has sunk to the point that even some politicians and other prominent TPS players openly voice unwarranted disrespect or false accusations for politicians in the opposing party. That reflects disrespect for their own system and American voters who put the opposition in office. No wonder public trust in government is low. It should be. Even the TPS doesn't trust itself.

The bottom line
If one steps outside the TPS's rhetoric and looks objectively, the costs of political spin are far higher than either side is willing to admit.[4] The costs arguably include trillions of wasted tax dollars, tens of thousands of needlessly lost lives, long-term erosion or stagnation of the American standard of living and a drag on annual GDP growth, maybe 0.5% - 0.7%.[5] Despite the costs and lack of convincing rationale for using it, both parties, their politicians, partisans and the remaining parts of the TPS ruthlessly and relentlessly spin the public with little or no regard for damage to the public interest. If nothing else, incessant reliance on spin over merit and honest debate reflects the complete intellectual bankruptcy of the TPS, the ideologies it is based on and the participants who keep the Leviathan alive and well.

1.    As explained before, DP defines spin as lies, deception, misinformation, withholding, distorting or denying inconvenient facts or arguments, unwarranted character or motive assassination, and, conscious or not, use of fact or logic that is distorted by ideology and/or self-interest. Distortion of reality and logic by ideology, self-interest or both, is common and has been rigorously documented by years of research. DP accepts that research as basically accurate and valid, although it is still ongoing and incomplete. Future research may refine our understanding, but is very unlikely to negate existing research findings that ideology and self-interest have great power to subconsciously distort fact and therefore logic, i.e., garbage in, garbage out.
2.    DP defines the two-party system as the democratic and republican parties, their politicians, their ideologically aligned or affiliated pundits and think tanks, major campaign or other political cause or PAC contributors, lobbyists working for those contributors and partisan media. Although the lines are not sharp and content is not always obviously biased or flawed, the partisan media includes outlets such as Fox News, MSNBC, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times and websites such as Huffington Post, The Blaze and National Review Online. The TPS does not include average Americans, roughly defined as people who engage in typical levels of political participation, non-voters or minor campaign contributors. The partisan media does not include outlets that, although maybe ideologically biased to some degree, rely on mostly on unspun reality or facts and logic not unduly flawed by ideological bias or self-interest. Non-partisan media includes the Economist magazine, the news pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, CNN, The Week,, and (a FactCheck-Annenberg Foundation joint project). has been accused of being a conservative spin or shill operation set up by the conservative Tampa Bay Times newspaper. If that is true, DP has been fooled because Politifact appears to be even-handed and grounded in unspun reality in criticizing both the left and right. But, as one observer has pointed out, even fact checkers make mistakes, presumably including mistakes that arise at least in part from the subconscious power of fact checker's ideology to screw things up. Human error arises because the mind human is not a perfect cognition machine. Although most partisans 'know' they are solidly grounded in reality and that their opposition is delusional at best and insane at worst. Many or most hard core partisan ideologues use that false argument as their rationale to dismiss facts and logic they dislike or cannot rationalize away. This all boils down to a fight over core values, but that topic is for another post.
3.    There is some evidence that at least some politicians are willing to leave what would appear to be crucial aspects of governing to political leaders and quiet, powerful players in the TPS. For example, some politicians don't bother to read legislation they vote on, preferring to leave that to their party's leaders, lobbyists or whoever it is that does those unpleasant legislating things.
4.    Other costs of political spin include fostering (i) distrust between the left and right by appeal to emotion, primarily fear, anger and hate, instead of neutral argument over unbiased fact and reason and (ii) reluctance or refusal of partisans or ideologues to accept unspun facts that undermine their ideology or self-interest. Rejection of fact is bipartisan. It cripples effective governance. It is usually easy to know whether the politics of a partisan is liberal or conservative simply by asking a few questions they are reluctant or refuse to answer. The reluctance stems from answers that are uncomfortable for ideological reasons. For example, pro-abortion liberals tend to avoid answering the question 'Is a 20-week old unborn child a human being?', while anti-abortion conservatives generally have no discomfort answering the question because the answer does not undermine their anti-abortion ideology or belief. For ideologues, reality (facts) is often hard to reconcile with their ideology and many often do not face it honestly and instead, subconscious or not, deny or distort uncomfortable reality to make it palatable. Politics based on that kind of flawed perception and thinking is second rate and wasteful at best. Ideological politics doesn't serve the public interest nearly as well as facing reality despite the psychological discomforts. The most obvious conclusion is that ideology is bad for politics and the public interest. This boils down to a fight over core values, which is a topic is for another post.
5.    Obviously DP cannot prove the costs, because no one has done a serious, fact-based, unbiased assessment. On the other hand, no one can disprove them either for the same reason.

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