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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Insubstantial 'Truth'

Scene from 'Simpsons'Lionel Hutz: We've been getting a lot of calls about you, Marge. People love your hands-off approach!
Marge: Well, it's like we say: the right house for the right person.
Lionel Hutz: Yeah, about that... "the right house" is the one that's for sale; the "right person" is anybody.
Marge: Mr. Hutz! You're not suggesting that I bend the truth!
Lionel Hutz: Marge, there's "the truth" (frowns) and there's "the truth!" (smiles wide). Just take a look at some of our properties.
Marge: That house is tiny.
Lionel Hutz: We prefer to say "cozy".
Marge: That house is dilapidated.
Lionel Hutz: "Handyman's dream".
Marge: That house is on fire!
Lionel Hutz: "Motivated seller".

-The Simpsons, "Realty Bites"

Most of us know about the truth and "the truth." After all, we live in a world where "spin" is seen as acceptably dishonest. Truth is a slippery commodity in the United States and, when it shows up, it's generally pulled and twisted like taffy until it doesn't resemble truth at all. You yank it and mash it up until it looks like a wad of chewed bubblegum.

When the Washington Post reported that the US Chamber of Commerce seemed to be up to something shady, we got a glimpse of how "the truth" is manufactured:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an assortment of national business groups opposed to President Obama's health-care reform effort are collecting money to finance an economic study that could be used to portray the legislation as a job killer and threat to the nation's economy, according to an e-mail solicitation from a top Chamber official.

The e-mail, written by the Chamber's senior health policy manager and obtained by The Washington Post, proposes spending $50,000 to hire a "respected economist" to study the impact of health-care legislation, which is expected to come to the Senate floor this week, would have on jobs and the economy.

Step two, according to the e-mail, appears to assume the outcome of the economic review: "The economist will then circulate a sign-on letter to hundreds of other economists saying that the bill will kill jobs and hurt the economy. We will then be able to use this open letter to produce advertisements, and as a powerful lobbying and grass-roots document."

That's right, the Chamber is going to do a big economic study on healthcare reform, the findings of which they magically already know. "The truth."

For their part, the Chamber is shocked to be accused of cooking studies to match their anti-reform agenda. At their blog, The ChamberPost (yeah, I misread that as "chamberpot," too), Chamber minion Brad Peck sets the record straight. "A study of job impacts resulting from mandates is NOT a new idea. Now that final bills are emerging from both chambers an updated review is warranted..." he writes. "It is highly likely that this bill will increase costs for business and cost jobs... If it shows the opposite, so be it."

Remember the last time the business lobby released a study showing that they were totally wrong? Me neither. But I guess there's a first time for everything. No word on who this "respected economist" might be, but anyone who jumps in on this project can stop calling themselves "respected" and an "economist" and start calling themselves an "advertising executive."

Having caught the Chamber of Commerce pushing hinky data (before the data was even collected), WaPo was ready for the business lobby's pushback. At the paper's 44 blog, which covers policy and politics under the Obama administration, writer Alec MacGillis fires the ammo the paper kept in reserve. Turns out that not only has the Chamber done things like this before, but that they'd bragged about pulling this sort of PR stunt before.

[E]arlier this year, [Chamber senior vice president Randy] Johnson was far more candid about the nature of the studies commissioned by business groups to buttress their side in legislative battles. At a breakfast meeting at Chamber headquarters, Johnson urged the business people to tout the findings of a report that had been released just the week before by the Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs, a business coalition.

"We spent a lot of money to come up with this study," he told the business leaders. "It's not what these economic studies say -- it's the cover they give to members who are going to be with us."

The report, written by Anne Layne-Farrar, an economist from LECG Consulting and titled An Empirical Assessment of the Employee Free Choice Act: The Economic Implication, found that an increase in 1.5 million union members in one year would lead to the loss of 600,000 jobs by the following year. "Jobs losses directly attributed to the passage of card check legislation would be equal to the entire population of Boston or seventy-five percent of San Francisco," the Chamber's press release on the report stated.

In the confines of the Chamber hall, though, Johnson was refreshingly open about the "empirical" nature of the card-check report. The unions had ordered up their own studies, Johnson noted, and this was the business community's counter.

There's the truth and then there's "the truth." In a week or two, handsome and/or pretty representatives of the US Chamber of Commerce will be able to go on talking head show and wave around a glossy ad flier -- I mean, a "study by a respected economist" -- saying that healthcare reform will lead to a new dark age for American consumers. It cost them a lot of money, but it's totally worth it. For the media's part, they'll be "unbiased," which is news-talk for "credulous," and leave any analysis of the study to a talking head from the other side of the debate. This will all turn into a shouting match, the anchor will say they're out of time, and when the smoke clears, the only thing you'll know about the issue is what you came in with -- you'll have learned absolutely nothing.

That's how "the truth" gets traction.


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vet said...

Outstanding piece, Wisco.

There's no real way to avoid this abuse of the idea of "truth". People have always done it, and all parties do it now; only a very small minority is really interested in "truth" for its own sake, and they mostly don't take much interest in politics. People who do take an interest in politics know that all truth is relative; even the simplest statement becomes spin, once you use it to try to persuade people of something else.

The real problem is the idea of truth, the idea we teach children, which works well enough if your biggest ethical decision is "should I admit I took the cupcake?", but breaks down thereafter. If only more people understood how "truth" works in the grown-up world - which this piece describes well, albeit one-sidedly - then politics could maybe graduate beyond the shouting-head matches you speak of.

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