Manufacturing Consensus

Building a bipartisan truth one questionable 'fact' at a time


The Aspen Institute, an international public policy nonprofit founded in 1950, describes itself as a "convener." Rather than push for a specific ideological agenda, the organization brings together elite politicians and journalists in a "neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues." What happens in Aspen (and Washington, D.C., and other cities where the institute facilitates debates) does not stay in Aspen; the whole point is to influence policy wherever it is discussed and manufactured.

So it was with keen interest that I received an invitation to attend an October 27 Aspen Institute confab in D.C. on "The Role of Government in the Economy." Libertarians, after all, tend to hold the view that the greater the role of government, the worse the economy. Of even keener interest was the lineup: on the left, recently departed chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden Jared Bernstein; on the right, former Bush administration Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation executive director Bradley Belt, and moderating between them the New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington bureau chief and former economics columnist David Leonhardt. Surely there would be some wide-ranging disagreement on the federal government's role in precipitating and exacerbating the economic malaise of the past four years.

No such luck. In his introductory remarks, moderator Leonhardt laid out as a factual starting point the government's "extraordinary and largely successful moves to spare us from another Great Depression." Bernstein went on to decry the "irrational fear of budget deficits at a time when the budget deficit really should be very large." And Belt repeatedly declined to enumerate a specific appropriate size and scope of government. So much for the debate.

Even more interesting than the soft consensus in favor of government intervention was a strong undercurrent that those who disagreed with it were guilty of denying basic truths. One of the questions from an audience full of Senate staffers, policy wonks, and journalists was how can we even have a rational policy discussion with all these denialist Republicans who disregarded Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous maxim that "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts"? Jared Bernstein couldn't have been more pleased. 

"I feel like we're in a climate in which facts just aren't welcome," he said. "I think the facts of the case are that we know what we can do to nudge the unemployment rate down.…I think the consensus among economists is that this is a good time to implement fiscal stimulus that would help create jobs and make the unemployment rate go down. I consider that a fact."

In science, you insist most loudly on a fact based on how much it has withstood independent peer review. In politics, it's closer to the opposite—the more debatable a point is, the more it becomes necessary to insist (often in the face of contrary evidence) that the conclusion is backed by scientific consensus. 

President Barack Obama is a serial peddler of phony consensi. To sell his 2009 stimulus package, the president claimed, falsely, that "there is no disagreement that we need action by our government, a recovery plan that will help to jump-start the economy." (The libertarian Cato Institute quickly assembled a list of 200 prominent economists who signed a statement begging to differ.) And in December 2009, during the final political deliberations on his signature health care reform bill, Obama brazenly countered alleged disinformation by spreading some of his own. 

"Now, I just want to repeat this because there's so much misinformation about the cost issue here," he said. "You talk to every health care economist out there and they will tell you that whatever ideas are—whatever ideas exist in terms of bending the cost curve and starting to reduce costs for families, businesses, and government—those elements are in this bill."

Look no further than Peter Suderman's excellent primer on page 40 ("Medicare Whac-A-Mole") not only for health care economists who were never part of that "consensus," but also for a depressingly detailed history of Washington's structurally inevitable failures to deliver on presidential promises of reducing health care costs. This is the bipartisan lie that is driving the country toward bankruptcy.

It is an enduring curiosity and frustration that even as the president's rosy health reform scenarios fall by the wayside one by one (see "CLASS Dismissed," page 15), the journalism navel-gazing crowd continues to beat itself up over its coverage of Obama-Care assertions made by…Sarah Palin. 

In late May, the Nieman Journalism Lab re-published a much-publicized academic study of more than 700 news articles and 20 network news segments from 2009 that addressed a single controversial claim of the health care reform debate. It was not President Obama's oft-repeated whopper that he was nobly pushing the reform rock up the hill despite the concentrated efforts of health care "special interests," nor his constant promises that "If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan." No, it was Palin's claim, on Facebook, that ObamaCare would lead to "death panels" composed of government bureaucrats. "In more than 60 percent of the cases," the authors found, "it's obvious that newspapers abstained from calling [Palin's] death panels claim false." How many times did they abstain from calling the president's claims false? The study did not say.

Libertarians live in an often-infuriating world in which elites agree on facts we know or suspect to be untrue, and then bathe themselves in sanctimony for being above the fray of ideologues who let politics poison science. (For more on the subject, read Ronald Bailey's "Who's More Anti-Science: Republicans or Democrats?" page 50.) In a political universe where "green jobs" fantasia leads to predictable wastes of taxpayer money (see Tim Cavanaugh's "I, Panel," page 70), where the worst kind of hysteria and cowardice governs the scientific classifications of disfavored substances (see Christopher Snowdon's "Modern-Day Prohibition," page 60), and where the pernicious practice of baseline budgeting builds spending increases into government budgets while leading to phony-baloney claims of "cuts" (see Veronique de Rugy's "The Never-Ending Budget Battle," page 21), it's tempting to replace one set of prematurely asserted facts with another.

It's a temptation that should be resisted. David Leonhardt may be wrong about the Troubled Assets Relief Program preventing another Great Depression, but we don't really know what would have happened if we had let deserving financial institutions fail in the fall of 2008. I believe we would have experienced sharper pain up front but a quicker recovery at the end, but this is not the kind of thing you can easily prove.

What you can do is measure government intervention against the claims made while selling it, marshal as much historical data as you can find, and try to fact-check policy discussion as it happens. This is where the elite faux-consensus in favor of bailout economics begins to unravel.

Not a day goes by when George W. Bush's deregulation is not blamed for the financial crisis, and yet he hired 90,000 net new regulators, passed the largest Wall Street reform since the Depression, and increased fiscally significant regulations by more than any president since Richard Nixon. We are told by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and his friends in The Nation that the country is being ruled by a ruthless "austerity class," yet federal spending has continued to increase even after the summer's debt-ceiling agreement. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the (mostly Democratic) politicians who support it have shifted the national conversation to the "fact" that the middle class is worse off than it was three decades ago, yet as University of Chicago economist Bruce Meyer and Notre Dame economist James Sullivan found in a recent paper, "median income and consumption both rose by more than 50 percent in real terms between 1980 and 2009."

We are entitled to facts, yes. Just not theirs. 

Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason and co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs).