Monday, July 18, 2011

Evidence, Ideology and Partisanship

George Packer has written an excellent column in the New Yorker about the debt limit debate and I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading some good commentary on the general dysfunctional contours of our parties incentives. I must confess that I was nodding my head in agreement with Mr. Packer right up until the very end, when he wrote this:
More important, [President Obama] no longer uses his office’s most powerful tool, rhetorical suasion, to keep the country focussed on the continued need for government activism. His opponents’ approach to job creation is that of a cargo cult—just keep repeating “tax cuts”—even though the economic evidence of the past three decades refutes such magical thinking.
Now, on the substance of Mr. Packer's point we are very much in agreement: the endless drumbeat for tax cuts irrespective of the economic context is financially damaging to our country. Serious economists and serious people in general have a tendency to understand that fiscal policy is poorly devised if those drafting it blithely ignore circumstances such as the Federal government's receipts versus its outlays, and what the current drivers of our budget deficit really are.

That being said, commentators like Mr. Packer continue write and act under what Jamelle Boiue termed "The Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power." Basically, if President Obama simply used his Green Lantern ring, took more time to explain why tax rates should be higher relative to current rates, that serious budget cutting would be harmful to our still fragile recovery, more average Americans would understand and demand a more progressive economic agenda.

What Mr. Packer, and other commentators like him keep eliding by, is the issue of how ideology shapes a person's conception of empirical evidence. As an economics professor once told my Economic Development class, "There is no view without a viewpoint." Partisanship is a filter that people use to categorize and interpret facts; and for better or worse, how those facts fit within their (partisan) worldview. So when Mr. Packer makes the case that President Obama simply needs to "use his office’s most powerful tool, rhetorical suasion," he is failing to account for the fact that ideology is a huge driver not only in how facts are processed, but which facts are integrated into a person's opinion. Simply put, the people who believe in their Voodoo Economics have their own graphs and their own economists telling them what they want to hear. No amount of Presidential oratory is going to change their minds.

Now, I'm open to the argument that if Obama made a more forceful case for more deficit spending, we could see some movement on the margins tilting toward a more robust Keynesian fiscal policy. But we're not in a legislative situation where some play around the margins is going to make a significant impact on how the House of Representatives will vote. The structure of government institutions has a significant and meaningful effect on the legislative process. We cannot ignore these facts simply because they are inconvenient to our preferred policy outcomes.

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