Thursday, 21 September 2017

Bullshitters Paradise

It was always on the cards that deceit would play a big role in New Zealand's election, having been so successful in the 2016 Brexit referendum and US elections. Britain's experience showed us that egregious bullshit can be very effective, using this bus to pretend that the public health system would be massively better off under Brexit.

Around the same time, in the US, highly-targeted deceit services were being sold to the Russians by Facebook, and the establishment candidate was making a ridiculous claim that his administration would build a southern border wall paid for by Mexico.

Both of these claims blur the Frankfurt boundary between bullshit and lies. Even if they start out as bullshit, once the questions start being asked the lies emerge.

I once worked with an economist who built an expert witness business this way. He took it as a challenge to support outrageous ideas for well-heeled clients. These reports would usually feature a bold claim, backed by plausible rhetoric, lots of literature citations and plenty of tables and charts: weighty. Questioned, he'd first stick to his guns until things got too intense, at which point a different second order claim would be advanced as if it were support for the first. Nail him on that one and you'll get a third order claim, and so on. This strategy often works, so he got lots of work. Eventually he got caught out under a cross-examiner's blowtorch and called out in the judge's decision as an advocate rather than an independent expert: end of career.

Political process are much less intense. Bullshit can morph into lies without being exposed because there is no judge solely charged with determining the truth. The news media does its best, but is ill-equipped to cope with the flood of bullshit and indeed relies for its content on access to the bullshitters.

This is why we are still seeing big lies put about, long after they've been thoroughly debunked, such as:

  • Britain's 350m pounds/week for the NHS;
  • Trump's stupid border wall & its funding by Mexico; and closer to home
  • Steven Joyce's mythical $11.7bn.

Let's give the Minister of Finance the benefit of the doubt and assume that he made an honest mistake when claiming Labour had an $11.7bn hole in its fiscal plan. It was a bold claim and he got it wrong according to every independent economist willing to comment publicly. He got confused about what was in the different budget lines. Mistakes happen: we've all made them. No big deal.

Except if you're unwilling or unable to admit it, like the economist described above. Then you head off down the rabbit holes looking for salvation in second- and third- order arguments. Which is where we are now, on Mr Joyce's account.

Last night, the PM repeated the $11.7bn lie on national television and this morning, the blogging wing of the ruling party posted this report based on work by some un-named economist, who reckons there is still $10.7bn missing.

Having looked at the figures, I can see why this economist is so shy. They've somehow forgotten that the three big line items in government spending (welfare, health + education), which account for 60% of all government spending, are already inflation indexed in Labour's fiscal plan. The allowance required to cover "additional line item spending" is therefore $4.2bn, not $23.5bn. Instead of having a shortfall of 10.7bn, Labour has headroom of $8.6bn.

Are you mesmerised yet? Because that's the aim: you're supposed to get so sick + tired of all the detailed argument that you declare a pox on the whole issue while retaining a suspicion that maybe Labour can't actually do basic arithmetic.

Welcome to the bullshitters paradise.

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