speri.comment: the political economy blog

Deficit fetishism and the art of political bullshit: Part II

Faced with radical uncertainty, rationally ignorant actors are more likely to fall back on conventional, emotionally satisfying beliefs than complex theories advanced by professional economists

Jonathan Hopkin, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics, London School of Economics and Ben Rosamond, Professor of Political Science, University of Copenhagen.

Jonathan Hopkin and Ben RosamondIn a previous post we argued that the current obsession with the UK’s budgetary position, far from being the result of a rational debate about Britain’s economic problems, is best seen as an example of ‘political bullshit’.  We used the term in the conceptually precise way proposed by Harry Frankfurt: that is, that bullshit is qualitatively different from lying, in that it betrays a lack of concern for the truth, rather than a conscious decision to tell an untruth.  The result is that British politics is characterised by a ‘deficit fetishism’ that has trapped almost all of the political elite in a discourse that appears unconcerned with the real problems we face and the policies that could address them.

Here we look beyond the identification and definition of the problem to consider the reasons why bullshit is so successful politically, and what can be done about it.  As we noted in our previous post, much of the discussion of the deficit makes no economic sense; yet large numbers of British voters appear to have been convinced by the argument that deep spending cuts are the best way to improve the economy, even though most economists agree that excessive austerity has actually hindered the recovery.  Why is political bullshit popular, even when the policies it underpins have clearly failed?

The first point to establish is that, if politicians are rarely attuned to the kind of rigorous analysis that Keynesian economists such as Krugman and Wren-Lewis deploy to ridicule ‘deficit fetishism’, then ordinary voters are even less equipped to make informed judgments about the causes of economic problems and the likely effects of policy responses.  Not only do most lack the knowledge and critical skills necessary to such a task, they also lack the time and motivation to engage in serious political and economic analysis.  Instead, they have every reason to settle quickly on the political narrative that sounds most plausible to them and, once that is done, to update their view only if discordant information becomes overwhelming.  Even then, the power of cognitive dissonance can prevent them from truly engaging in any serious revision of their views.

However, this receptiveness of ‘rationally ignorant’ citizens to a bullshit discourse of economic problems could potentially favour a variety of alternative ideas.  Why should voters be more amenable to austerity than Keynesian counter-cyclical spending or indeed, central bank printing of ‘helicopter money’?  Does bullshit have a conservative bias?  Interestingly, experimental research by psychologists in the United States has found that Republican voters were more likely than Democrats to prefer news from partisan sources that confirmed their prejudices.  This is consistent with other research that suggests that conservatives, on the whole, are less comfortable with complex or ambiguous information and, consequently, are more likely to conform to the values expressed by authority figures.

However, there is no need to advance a partisan interpretation of the rejection of Keynesian thinking.  Many voters on the left of the spectrum are equally suspicious of alternatives to austerity, with opinion surveys showing that large majorities of citizens in Italy and Spain (though not in Greece) support austerity measures – despite their devastating effect on Southern European economies.

In a sense, little has changed since the 1930s, when calamitous policy mistakes plunged the world into deflation, depression and ultimately the devastation of war, even as politicians and central bankers, on both the left and right, fretted over the need to restore ‘sound money’ and ensure all debts were paid in hard currency.  Despite decades of research inspired by Keynes’ insights, failed economic ideas – what John Quiggin calls ‘zombie economics’ – never seem to die.

The irony is that contemporary politics is supposed to be more driven by rational, evidence-based, judgements than ever before.  The vogue for regulatory agencies and rules-based policy managed by non-partisan experts has removed ever more political decisions from the hands of the professional politicians, who are of course the prime purveyors of bullshit.  Moreover, the entrenching of mass education is presumed to have made public opinion – at least in rich democracies – better informed and more analytically skilled; a process Ronald Inglehart described as ‘cognitive mobilization’. Surely democratic institutions should be immune to bullshit by now?

However, there are other recent developments which point in the opposite direction. The ICT revolution and the spectacular multiplication of online sources of information accessible to almost everyone have placed citizens under huge cognitive strain.  Presented with a variety of conflicting opinions, but also conflicting facts, Western publics are increasingly required to make their own individual judgments about the veracity and plausibility of political and economic arguments.  Most, indeed perhaps all of us, are ill-equipped to do so.  Even academic specialists can be hoodwinked into accepting nonsensical arguments, simply because they are presented in plausible manner.  Yet we are all encouraged to trawl the internet for information and make up our own minds.  As Cass Sunstein presciently argued a decade and a half ago, the rise of the internet has led to a fragmentation of sources of information and analysis and has increasingly generated the coexistence of multiple perceived realities in the minds of citizens.  In short, we no longer can even agree on the facts, never mind what we should do about them!

If this state of collective confusion has paralysed attempts to address the relatively straightforward (at least scientifically speaking) problem of anthropogenic climate change, there would seem little hope of resolving our rather less well understood economic problems on the basis of rational analysis alone.  After all, the Keynesian prescriptions of monetary and fiscal expansion, or indeed more radical proposals of debt monetisation and manufactured inflation, are themselves based on uncertain scientific knowledge.  Traditional political science theory based on actors’ calculations of their material interests runs into the problem of uncertainty: how do we know if our economic well-being is best served by Keynesian reflation or sound money and fiscal retrenchment?  The simple answer is that we don’t, for sure, although we could make an educated guess.

In this situation of radical uncertainty, rationally ignorant actors are rather more likely to fall back on conventional and emotionally satisfying beliefs, based more on the store of reassuring tropes with which we make sense of the world, than the sophisticated theoretical and empirical tools developed by professional economists. The current language of economic policy may constitute bullshit in that it is not rooted in serious concern for the truth, but it is not carelessly framed.  On the contrary: it deliberately evokes the apparently timeless values of stability, safety and rewards for hard work and sensible financial decision-making.  Deficit fetishism draws strongly on fables (‘fixing the roof while the sun is shining’), strong ideas of individual desert (‘hard-working families’) and association with desirable future states (‘aspirational voters’) to justify its economic choices.

In sum, in a world of competing realities as well as competing theories, the power of rhetoric is more likely to settle an argument than evidence and logic.  Opponents of austerity need to think more about the theatre of the public sphere, rather than trying to reason the status quo into submission.  Perhaps the only hope is to fight bullshit with bullshit.  There is no a priori reason why deficit hawks should have the monopoly of politically attractive words.  What’s certain is that, if we fail to take bullshit seriously, there will be no hope of laying the ground for more growth-oriented and socially progressive approaches.

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Categories: British growth crisis, Social science, SPERI Comment | Tags: , , , , , | 3 comments

Articles and comments posted on this blog reflect the views of the author(s) and not the position of SPERI or the University of Sheffield.

Comments (3)

  1. I’ve really, really enjoyed these two pieces over the past week or so. Genuinely enlightening. Thanks so much. The question that they provoke for me is: what specific rhetorical devices should those in opposition, say, to the Tories in Britain, seek to deploy?

    A couple of examples immediately spring to mind.

    Instead of acquiescing to the usual narratives around “privatisation”, or “returning [banks] to the private sector”, particularly given the huge losses envisaged in the proposed sales of RBS (following the Royal Mail example), could we perhaps rebrand these a “theft” of public money or public assets? If Labour politicians went on TV describing this as such – along with other metaphors like giving the “foxes the keys to the henhouse” once more – people could easily understand what they were saying. If they were then described as “anti-business”, an easy retort could be: why does business depend on thieving public assets? Why can’t business “pay its way”? The Conservative rhetoric on welfare could quite easily be turned on its head, and the “theft” metaphor could really stick in the minds of everyday people.

    The other reflects George Osborne’s generally appalling performance as Chancellor, despite the rhetoric: missed targets, hundreds of billions more borrowed, extending austerity from 2015, to 2019, and now 2020. Could he be said to be behaving even more “like a drunk at the bar”? This might allow Labour to turn his “credibility” narrative on its head too? Why has he, for example, deliberately lied to the electorate about austerity? He promised massive cuts; he hasn’t delivered them! I guess the problem with framing the issue in this way, though, is that forces the left to make the case that there is too much spending, which runs counter, probably, to what most actually think and may the hem them in in other ways. Still, fun game!

  2. In the end, you can’t sell the public a narrative like this without some help from your opponents, and Labour helped the Tories out massively.

    Ed Miliband lent a huge amount of credibility to the narrative by endorsing austerity. To say, in effect, “no, we did not overspend; but, now we have left office, ten years of spending cuts are needed”… this is going to strike any voter as an inconsistent message.

    Let’s also not understate the importance of Liam Byrne’s “no money left” note, which left every voter with an image of the Labour government emptying the Treasury and then scurrying off giggling. It was an act of total electoral self-destruction.

    The moral, I think, if that if Labour gets its act together and starts resisting the Tory narrative about deficit reduction in a coherent and competent way, then there is at least hope that the myth can be dispelled. It has stuck in the public’s consciousness largely because it has never been effectively resisted.

  3. I enjoyed these blogs too, but I’m not entirely buying the notion that the electorate bought ‘the bullshit’ in sufficient numbers for that to be the reason the Conservatives ended up with a small working parliamentary majority. I’m not sure you are saying that, but it sound like it at times.

    This was an election that Labour lost rather than the Conservative’s won. They certainly didn’t win it on the economy. My own experience is that many voters with minimal economic literacy understood perfectly well that the Tory ‘deficit – country bankrupt, on the verge of being Greece,’ narrative was bullshit.

    I think this second blog rather underestimates sufficient numbers of people’s capacity to see through the bullshit and certainly polling data suggests the majority of the electorate were not convinced by the Tories track record on the economy. My concern here is that you come dangerously close to taking a position that people are stupid, can be duped and accept any old nonsense. As tempting as it sometimes is to adopt this position, any politician underestimating the public and the electorate and assuming them to be stupid, will eventually pay the penalty. I think this is a pattern we are seeing in the Labour leadership content, where new Labour party apparatchiks are paying the penalty for their arrogant, condescending, patronising tone. Corbyn has cut a welcome fresh tone, not just for his substance, but also his style. He speaks to people as intelligent interest beings and that style is cutting through.

    In short I think it’s the wrong lesson and a fatal mistake to think the answer is to respond to bullshit with more bullshit of your own colour. Yes think about how to communicate the message clearly and concisely, but don’t assume you can spin people any old rubbish. That belief is why New Labour is crumbling before our eyes.

    As for the election the seats that the Conservative’s picked up that got them the majority were almost entirely rural/ market town type constituencies. Whereas outside of Portsmouth, Southampton and a few London seats they were pretty much wiped out in big genuinely urban metropolitan areas. This is what I would call the ‘Little England’ effect, as Labour was caught between the wrecking balls of two nationalisms. Wiped out in Scotland for being Tory austerity lite and for being incredibly patronising and doing too much ‘bullshit’. Hit in little England by a swing to UKIP amongst more traditional Labour voters, dismayed at the lack of an alternative, while Tory UKIP voters flooded back to the Tories in fear at the SNP threat in Scotland. Some have been spinning with more bullshit that the lesson is to move to the right and appeal to middle England if Labour is to build an electoral majority. That is a very perverse reading of the evidence.

    I agree the austerity myth can be dispelled but that is because I think bullshit has limited returns. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but unless you come out and give people an alternative, and I agree Labour didn’t, they can’t vote against the bullshit. Corbyn is also making gains by recognising and responding to precisely this point.

    The remaining question is why Labour felt unable to challenge the austerity narrative. The answer I think is that Labour has been suffering from a massive New Labour hangover for the last five years. The party machinery was still a prisoner of largely facile focus group data, which told them not to push the anti-austerity case too hard. A very simple point would be to say this is a private debt problem not a public debt. Most people could understand that and it largely neutralises the Tory rhetoric by confronting it head on. They felt unable to say it (see Milliband’s question time travails in Yorkshire that you refer to) because that’s what the focus group data was telling them. This is a Blairite hangover. Second to manage the factions, keep the party together, and build a broad church of support for his leadership, Milliband had to let Balls have his head as shadow Chancellor, and Balls softened his line on deficit reduction, because that’s where his intellectual instincts lay and because he was still obsessed with the nonsensical new Keynesian notion of ‘credibility’, both with the markets and the electorate.

    So the lesson is if Labour want’s to challenge and wash out all of the above dysfunction – Corbyn is the only alternative. He’s got an alternative, he isn’t afraid to present it in straight forward terms, and most importantly of all he isn’t tainted by being a patronising and condescending new Labour apparatchik prone to bullshit.

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