Politics, Governing and Ever-Elusive Truth

Even with fact-checking at an all-time high, we're finding it harder and harder to agree on basic facts. How can we ever agree on effective policy?
by , | November 14, 2012

This year's presidential campaign might become known for many things. For me, however, it was most notable for the rise of the fact-checkers. Seemingly every news organization had someone, or an army of someones, devoted to checking out claims made by the candidates. PolitiFact, the site that kicked off the craze for news-media fact-checking and now has affiliates in 11 states, was seemingly everywhere, as was FactCheck.org. The Washington Post updated its Fact Checker column--awarding its Pinocchios to those it deemed to have been less than truthful--virtually every day. NBC trotted out Andrea Mitchell after each presidential debate to tell us who had shaded the truth and by how much. This was repeated in the media coverage of countless national, state and local races.

There is a real need for such a reality check. Candidates make competing claims about similar events that are so breathtakingly at odds with each other that many ordinary citizens quite understandably want to know which one is correct (the usual answer: neither) and thus want to turn to some trusted source for the "truth." In turn, these fact-checkers do not usually do their own research. Instead, they often turn to organizations that have developed a reputation for objective and nonpartisan analysis.

And just as there are more fact-checkers than ever before, there are more of these data-driven analysis organizations. Some, like the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) at the federal level and the California Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) at the state level, have been around for a long time (LAO was actually a model for CBO). Others are more recent arrivals on the scene. In 2008, the Government Performance Project specifically cited the increase in performance-auditing capacity as one of the major developments in state government over the previous decade.

Having access to such credible, objective information, however, does not necessarily resolve disputes over what would seem to be fairly basic facts. Take Mitt Romney's claim that he could cut tax rates to the tune of $5 trillion without adding to the deficit. The Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, which many mainstream organizations relied on for fact-checking this particular claim, said the math didn't come close. (Lest we think that this is a new phenomenon, or an exclusively Republican one, there were similar doubts expressed by highly credible organizations about presidential candidate Bill Clinton's budget plan in 1992.)

In responding to those who questioned his math, Romney said he had six studies that backed up his assertion. Since we all can do enough math to know that six is greater than one, this could lead some to conclude that he must be right. Many of these "studies," however, were authored by people who supported the Romney candidacy or hold ideological beliefs that might have colored their analysis--in other words, people who are not, by the usual definition of the word, independent.

This, of course, is all part of a broader phenomenon that is not new, but that certainly seems to be growing. It is hard to identify any claim that a candidate might make where that candidate could not find some source to back it up. Politicians learned a long time ago that it sounds better to say "a study says that" than simply "I want to" or "my contributors want me to." The end result is an overload of information where facts are not facts at all, but political argument disguised as fact.

Therein lies the great irony. It certainly is true that we have more and better information about the effects of policies and their costs than ever before. We are much better able to separate programs that work from those that don't and programs that are likely to cost a lot of money from those that will cost less. There is much less evidence, however, that this information makes its way into the political process or, later, into the governing process.

Other countries may be faring better on this score. There is practically an epidemic of CBO-like organizations being created. I just returned from a trip to South Korea, where the National Assembly Budget Office, only nine years old, is an impressive virtual carbon copy of CBO. The difference is that the appreciation for objective, expert-based analysis seems much greater in South Korea, and in many other countries, than it is in the United States. Our distrust of authority appears to have led to a distrust of expertise in general.

As an academic, this leads me to an uncomfortable question: Are we really better off with all of this analysis than we would be without it? I would like to think that we are, but at the point where the result is just that our political wars are fought with shinier bullets, it does make one wonder. It is hard enough to agree on policies when we agree on the facts. When each side brings its own facts, an informed consensus on policy solutions becomes virtually impossible to achieve.

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