Sunday, November 6, 2011

Inequality and bullshit

The other day, I blogged about Paul Krugman's take on America's growing inequality of wealth and income. But that's just one side of the issue. Sure, we have a Nobel Prize-winning economist on that side, but what's on the other?

From Jonathan Chait:
The conservative movement generally, and sensibly, has its cranks specialize their crankery, so that you have one set of people tasked with pumping up the fantasies of supply-side economics, another concentrating on denying climate change, another insisting income inequality isn’t increasing, and so forth. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute is a somewhat unique figure in that he’s deeply involved in all these projects. (Here’s Pethokoukis on "the supposed crisis" of climate change; here he is touting Lafferism.)

His latest project is to deny — or quasi-deny, or muddy the waters, depending on the day — the fact of rising income inequality. ...

Here are the basic facts. For Americans at most income levels, wage growth has dramatically slowed over the past three decades, compared with the three decades that followed World War II. At the same time, overall inequality has risen, and inequality between the richest 1 percent and everybody has skyrocketed. The Congressional Budget Office’s masterful study lays out these facts in impressive detail.

The thing to keep in mind is that Pethokoukis doesn’t directly challenge any of these facts, though he wants his audience to think he does. ...

He is, in a word, bullshitting. Bullshitting is not the same thing as lying. It is a higher art form, which Harry Frankfurt once explored in his classic essay, "On Bullshit":
[The] statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.

Bullshitting, not lying, is the natural metier of denialists of all forms. Pethokoukis compares the debate over inequality to the debate over climate change, by which he means that liberals are using false claims of expert consensus to stifle a very open question. I agree that it’s like climate change, but in a different way — a broad consensus exists among experts, but there are different ways of measuring it, which produce different perspectives on the shape of the phenomenon.

Because the consensus bolsters the case for policy changes that conservatives don’t like, the movement expends vast resources attempting, with general success, to persuade its adherents that the whole thing is a lie cooked up by liberals. Pethokoukis is executing the dance steps perfectly. First he calls inequality a myth, then — when his primary source contradicts him — he retreats to calling it “overblown,” then returns to calling it a "myth" again. All along he pleads that he merely wants open dialogue, that it’s the liberals who are trying to stigmatize dissent and suppress open debate. The only purpose of the exercise is to muddy the debate enough to allow conservatives to avoid coming to grips with ideologically inconvenient facts.

The only purpose of the exercise is to muddy the debate enough to allow conservatives to avoid coming to grips with ideologically inconvenient facts. That says it in a nutshell, doesn't it?

As Chait notes, this is the exact same process they use with global warming and with trickle-down economics. And they use the same manner of bullshit to attack evolution and, well,... pretty much everything they don't like.

On one side are the experts armed with inconvenient evidence. When you're faith-based, you don't believe in evidence, but some people do. So how do you counter that? You can lie, but sometimes that backfires. Bullshit, on the other hand, generally works perfectly.

I mean, all you really need to do is sow doubt. That lets people pretty well believe whatever they want to believe. And when the facts aren't on your side, that's a huge, huge benefit.

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