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Thornton Hall

The Revolution Will Be Kuhnian.

Big Idea Breakthrough? Wrongness Feedback Across Endeavors?

Hypothesis: what if my longtime complaint, my medium term obsession, and my recent insight are networked together in a feedback loop of wrongness?

Longtime complaint: objective journalism uses access to power to reveal two sides to every story. But they are incapable of telling the truth. Or relating any information that doesn't come from a "source".

Medium term obsession: ideology is not a relevant category for understanding the American electorate or it's representatives. There is no "conservative" system of ideas that somehow deduces hatred of poor people, immigrants, and Barack Obama from first principles about "small government". Ask a Republican what "conservative" means and you will get radically different answers which have one unifying element: they are empirical claims about how the world works that have been proven false.

Recent discovery: the current paradigm in economics--characterized by equilibrium theory, efficient markets, and somewhat rational actors--is incapable of accurate prediction and offers consistently false policy advice. It has been falsified again and again. Accurate predictions and useful policy advice will have to wait until the advent of so-called "agent based models", the economics version of complex systems analysis, the scientific tool that predicted the course and strength of superstorm Sandy days in advance. 

Breakthrough insight?

Here's the breakthrough: this triumvirate of wrongness feeds back on itself. The media needs stories with two sides and promotes the views of political scientists who model elections as left versus right. Meanwhile, seeking balance for stories that present the common sense progressive understanding that helping people often requires an active government with an explicit injunction to help people, journalists seek out economists who supply rhetoric about faith in free markets and the magic of self-interested actors guided by an invisible hand.

Political science then jumps in and labels "government's role in the market" as an ideological choice, not subject to empirical validation. This transforms all sorts of pragmatic choices--where the goal should be to create the system of laws that best promotes our common welfare--into grand debates where no one is right. Somehow, it becomes appropriate to counter data about single-payer health care systems around the world (and at home with Medicare and the VA) with quotations from Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson!

Economics piles on, and journalists dutifully report, theories about how anything that "distorts the market" is "inefficient" and therefore bad. Jouralists and political scientists take this false identity as a given, despite a total absence of empirical evidence, despite the obvious fact that one economist's "inefficiency" is another American's "satisfying career", and despite, most glaring of all, the fact that it makes no logical sense at all because markets are created by governments!

Journalists, while defending Judith Miller on the basis that "the free press" is essential to democracy, the living, breathing embodiment of the First Amendment, never point out (in what would be a genuine service to democracy) that the laws enforcing contracts established in the 18th Century are no more natural that the laws enacted surrounding contracts in bankruptcy at the end of the 20th Century.

Did extremist Republicans see a flaw in objective journalism and deliberately set out to hack it? Premeditated or not, the tactics associated with the Southern Strategy and the emergence of political evangelicalism have meant that much of what is politically important happens in a journalistic blind spot. The post war press defines its own integrity in a way that fetishizes both objectivity and the appearance of objectivity. This self-image is flatly incompatible with reporting the truth about the role of hate in GOP politics.

This is because it is impossible to simultaneously appear objective and accurately describe the late 70s/early 80s process whereby southern racists migrated to the GOP, tipping the balance toward 20+ years of electoral success (but, by unifying the racists with John Birch Society red baiters, also sowing the seeds of the GOP's eventual destruction).

Political science offers a narrative hand, suggesting the claim that "the country is shifting to the Right." Thus, the stories describing how the worst elements of American public opinion came to coagulate in one party, where their propensity to vote made them the GOP base, instead feature a narrative about a country reacting against the Great Society. Nevermind that support for Medicare grew quickly and has never dropped, that support for Social Security has been unchanged through the decade, and so on and so forth down the list of welfare state programs.

How do political scientists manage to see "increasing Conservativism" in an electorate that does not waver in support of the New Deal and the Great Society? By focusing on the exceptions: housing, busing, and affirmative action. Three guesses what these exceptions actually have in common, first two don't count. (Hint, it's not a belief in "small government"!)

To be fair, not all political scientists are this stupid. But the smart ones, when called by journalists looking for quotes, give answers that are either far too complex (with 5 cross-cutting interests and identities) or far too one sided (it's the racism, stupid).

The public has no clue that the ideas in political science are being filtered in this way that consistently obscures the truth of the single most important fact in the early 21st Century American political landscape. We are told, again and again, that "objective reporters" protect democracy. But the ideal of "objectivity" is the principle obstacle in reporting the truth.

How many editorials in the Post will call for bipartisan leadership before the academy rises up and says: "Stop the madness!"?

Tempting Fate: me calling Krugman wrong... again

Measuring "The Economy"