Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Construction of Facts: Election 2006 and the Economy

Published at Blogcritics Magazine

“It’s the economy, stupid,” James Carville is credited with having said, summarizing one of his talking points prior to the Clinton victory in 1992. Despite its overly simplistic explanatory value, it’s become a household phrase. Another piece of popular political wisdom holds that when you have the power to circulate and repeat such a slogan to the point of media saturation, many come to believe it, however true or false the reality to which the slogan refers. Indeed, if it doesn’t immediately refer to reality, it supposedly can sometimes create that reality in its crystallization as belief.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we find politicians and their pundits struggling to present the economy in a way that will benefit their interests. Of course, when one has no flexibility in perception but becomes an ideological robot that chants the same position on the economy, any economy, anywhere, any time, then it is not even an attempt to misrepresent; it’s just what one believes when his or her team is winning.

This deliberate rhetorical straitjacketing of reality to suit one’s ideological goals or the robotic ideological script deprive serious and concerned citizens of the careful debate they deserve.

In the spirit of such exchange and debate, I want to take a look at some of the claims that have been circulating on the net and in the mainstream press about the economy as an issue in this fast-approaching election.

Why not begin with the very idea that people vote with their pocket books ("it's the economy stupid")? First, do Americans really always vote based on their perception of the economy? Not according to this Pew study of the last election:

Among those offered the seven-item list, a plurality of 27% selected moral values, followed by 22% who chose Iraq and 21% who selected the economy and jobs. Terrorism was chosen by 14%; education and health care were chosen by 4% each and taxes by 3%....

The responses were significantly different among those who were not offered a fixed list of choices. The war in Iraq was mentioned as the single most important issue by a similar number (25%), but the economy and jobs were mentioned by only 12%; and only 9% mentioned terrorism. Notably, just 9% used the terms "moral values," "morals," or "values." Specific social issues ­ including abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research ­ were volunteered by 3%, while another 2% cited the candidates' morals.

Nevertheless, political talk maintains the common wisdom about the influence of economic perception on election outcomes, which can possibly have a bandwagon opinion effect. Recently, a column in Blogcritics spotlighted Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi’s attempts to contradict President Bush's portrayal of a strong economy and a prosperous America. About Pelosi, the columnist writes:

Rather than many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, savings and investing rates are rising for the first sustained period since 1982, suggesting that more Americans than ever before have excess income…. Her numbers are also fishy on median family income. HUD estimates that median family income has increased by $7100 during the tenure of the Bush administration. Her number for the increase in household costs is not far off, so perhaps she 'accidentally' transposed the 7 and the 1 in the income figure.
The article makes similar claims about recent descriptions of the economy by Howard Dean. Contrary to Dean, Pelosi, and others, income and wages are supposedly up. How can there be such a gross misunderstanding (or diabolically deliberate distortion)? A thing called “inflation-adjusted income” may have something to do with it, more about which in a moment.

Politicians like Pelosi and Dean are accused of dumbing down political discourse by parroting talking points, like the ideological robots I maintain are dangerous for democratic political practices generally. Even more strongly, though, such talking points have been attacked as “half-truths, gibberish and straight-out deceptions,” which people supposedly believe because the news media simply put such claims on a conveyor belt to their audiences.

I agree that these are talking points, as are the points we get from the Bush administration and nearly every person running for office. It's even true of points from people speaking in more open media, such as websites and blogs. This is the style of our political culture, and I hate it. Soundbites are a way of life, encouraged by the price of print space and air time, fear of rational argumentation and embrace of techniques learned from war propaganda, advertising, and public relations.

So the question, I think, is not that talking points hide complexity but whether more developed arguments exist to support those soundbites? Going back to my original framework for thinking about how the economy is used in current political persuasion, one may ask if pundits criticize politicians like Pelosi and Dean for allegedly just not getting it (the facts), or, more seriously still, for deliberately distorting "the facts" for political gain. Everyone (including me) wants to lay claim to facts, but most facts require interpretation; their precise meaning is not obvious. Matters are further complicated when we realize that political marketing is a field that specializes in obfuscation, seduction, and distraction, but it is often difficult to prove that particular communicators are deliberately, ignorantly, or wishfully misrepresenting any number of things.

How does one put information and claims about the state of the American economy like the following into conversation with those already mentioned as a contradiction of Dean and Pelosi? The point in offering the following citations is that different research groups, some quite ideologically motivated, produce different data and then present it with different emphases and appeals.

The presentation of that data can be critically analyzed, but usually there is no conversation between those who have different data and interpretations of it. Keep in mind also during this exposition, please, that I am saying the current U.S. political culture discourages engaging the strongest arguments of one’s opponents, choosing instead to name-call or deliberately misrepresent the opposing arguments. These communication motives to win and govern by any means make serious citizenship all the more difficult. This citations are hardly meant to be exhaustive; rather they might help start to dialogue about why one gets wildly varying statistics and claims about the economy.

Take for example, information on the Economic Policy Institute's Homepage, updated in the last week, which just came up in a quick search I did on the state of the American economy. Compare it to the contrasting information I have quoted above.

The federal minimum wage has not seen an increase since 1997 and its value has dropped by 20% since then. In inflation-adjusted dollars, it is at its lowest value in 50 years. Automatic annual adjustments to the wage, or indexing, has gained increasing support and is becoming more common among the U.S. states that have their own minimum wage laws.
Perhaps those accusing Pelosi and Dean of misunderstanding or misrepresentation disagree with the claims and information just cited? The same research institute claims there are an estimated 14.9 million Americans receiving minimum wages.

On the other hand, the Heritage Foundation claims there are 1.9 million Americans working for the minimum wage. What to make of the discrepancy? Actually there are key words in the presentation of both of these "facts" that point to differently named realities ("estimated" vs. "reported").

The same EPI page continues its "gloom and doom," as Reagan would say: "The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that the economy added only 51,000 jobs in September, the fewest in nearly a year, with housing continuing to flatten and blue-collar manufacturing suffering its biggest loss of jobs since July 2003."

That doesn't sound like a thriving economy, but is it just misrepresenting the facts?

Two more samples from the same source:
For the fifth year in a row, the number of Americans without health insurance grew significantly. Nearly 46.6 million Americans were uninsured in 2005--up almost 7 million since 2000. From 2000 to 2005, the uninsured share of the total population grew from 14.2% to 15.9%, while the share of those with employer-provided coverage dropped.
Back to rising incomes and inflation-adjusted income.
The "negative trends affecting working families, and second, the way the administration has tried to spin those trends" keep the economy on the issue agenda, says EPI contributor Jared Bernstein in a recent editorial.

Bernstein continues, "When asked recently about why the administration's good news on the economy was failing to reach the public, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson responded 'That's the $64,000 question.'" Bernstein responds that
"Paulson's $64,000 question has a $3,000 answer. That's how much the inflation-adjusted income of the typical working-age household is down since 2000."
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