A Philosopher's Blog

Are the Politicians Just F@cking With Us?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 5, 2012

Official portrait of Congressman .

As I have noted in other posts, both the Democrats and the Republicans seem to be somewhat truth averse. Or, at the very least, willing to take a flexible approach to matters of fact. A quick look at Politifacts shows this to be the case.

While some non-truths can be attributed to honest errors or ignorance (especially ones that occur in spontaneous or otherwise unprepared remarks), this surely cannot be the explanation for all cases. Unless, of course, politicians are to be attributed sweeping incompetence and broad ignorance.

In some cases, politicians no doubt fall victims to their own narratives and cognitive biases and they no doubt feel that what they are saying is true, even when it is not. While this is still a problem, it can be somewhat forgiven on the grounds that these biases are difficult to counter, we are all subject to them and they are typically not intentional deceits (unless the person is also intentionally deceiving himself/herself).

In other cases, the politicians are no doubt aware that they are saying things that are not true and they are doing so with an intent to mislead. That is, they are lying. As noted in an earlier post, Paul Ryan’s speech contained numerous untruths and distortions. Not surprisingly, some of his fellow Republicans came to his defense and said that what mattered were his broader points and larger message.

On the one hand, they do make a reasonable general point: when considering a matter it is rather critical to sort out what is important and what is a minor point. After all, pointing out errors or defects in some of the minor points need not show that the whole is defective in significant ways. For example, if Ryan had said that Obama had cut $771 million from a program and he had actually cut $717 million, then pointing out this error would hardly show that Ryan’s overall narrative was flawed.

On the other hand, Ryan’s overall narrative seemed to be supported by critical claims that were untrue or distortions. That is, his evidence for his main claim turned out to be mostly defective. While this does not prove that his main claim is not true, it does show that his defective evidence should not be accepted as evidence for his claims. Obviously enough, if Obama is as bad as Ryan claims, then he should have been able to present true and un-distorted evidence for his view. After all, why lie and bend the truth if the facts would suffice?

One possibility is that the facts would not suffice-that is, in reality Obama is not as bad as Ryan claims. In short, Ryan needed to support his straw man and alternative reality with fictional “evidence.” This, obviously, is rather unethical.

Another possibility is that Ryan and other politicians are f@cking with us. That is, they think that they have no real need to tell the truth, that they can spin a narrative with impunity and that there is nothing the critics can do about it. This might well be the case. After all, I infer that Ryan knows that he was making false and misleading claims (the alternative is that he is willfully ignorant or detached from reality) yet he does not seem to think it matters. He might be right. After all, many folks in the Republican party defended him, essentially saying that the facts do not matter, just the narrative (which they, oddly enough, claim is true). Other folks just accept what he says and if questioned attribute the criticism to the biased media. As such, he can just lie to these people and not worry about any consequences. The Democrats who reject the narrative are note going to vote for Ryan and Romney so he probably does not care what they think.  In fact, it might be sort of funny to lie blatantly and get away with it just because he can. As far as the independents go, perhaps he figures that they will not bother to check the facts, they will just forget about the deceit when the election arrives or that they will not care.

As might be imagined, this sort of lying and distortion bothers me. First, there are the ethical concerns about lying. Second, there is the damage it does to the democratic process. Third, there is the practical concern: if Paul Ryan will lie about matters that can easily be checked, how can he be trusted as vice president?

Naturally some folks will accuse me of bashing Republicans and giving Democrats a pass. While I do contend that the Republicans lie and distort more (check out Politifacts), the Democrats also lie and distort. This is not to say the Democrats are as bad-they are not. However, they are still bad and that is still a problem.

When the DNC rolls around, I will be critical of their lies and distortions as well.

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36 Responses

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  1. charlton said, on September 5, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Great work, your courage to point out lies and deceptions amongst political candidates is commendable.

    • T. J. Babson said, on September 5, 2012 at 8:24 am

      Except that he didn’t, er, actually point out any lies and deceptions.

  2. Edward Carney said, on September 5, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you are professionally responsible for leading or informing the public and you go onto the floor of Congress or in front of television cameras or into the pages of a newspaper and either lie outright or simply make things up to support your positions, there should be an immediate referendum or review of your job. The truth cannot be a casual thing for politicians, journalists, or teachers. It is absolutely fundamental to the functions they perform, and their roles in society contribute to the level of understanding of the entire citizenry.

    If voters don’t mind being represented by liars and ignoramuses, so be it. But at the very least, that decision ought to be made in full and immediate knowledge of the most recent lie or lack of concern for the truth. I honestly believe it would be reasonable to demand this as a constitutional change – that politics would be much improved by instantiating at least the unavoidable threat of potential consequences for deliberately or carelessly misleading the public. As it stands, what is there to demand respect for the truth from politicians or journalists if so few of them are held to account for lies and buIIshit?

  3. T. J. Babson said, on September 5, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Here is a good place to start if we are discussing lies. Politifact Lie of the Year for 2011. Even before Paul Ryan was the VP candidate the Dems were already lying about him.

    Lie of the Year 2011: ‘Republicans voted to end Medicare’

    Republicans muscled a budget through the House of Representatives in April that they said would take an important step toward reducing the federal deficit. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the plan kept Medicare intact for people 55 or older, but dramatically changed the program for everyone else by privatizing it and providing government subsidies.

    Democrats pounced. Just four days after the party-line vote, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a Web ad that said seniors will have to pay $12,500 more for health care “because Republicans voted to end Medicare.”

    http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2011/dec/20/lie-year-democrats-claims-republicans-voted-end-me/

  4. T. J. Babson said, on September 6, 2012 at 7:50 am

    Democratic vote fraud on national TV.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm

      The fools! If only they had been forced to show IDs, then the fraud would have been prevented.

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 6, 2012 at 10:37 pm

        Just more evidence that the Dems don’t respect the voting process. Was the 2/3 majority obvious to you, Mike?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 7, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      I’d characterize it as tyranny rather than fraud. After all, the leadership just decided regardless of the actual vote.

      It was an interesting tactical error-after all, they should have known they were on TV. They should, of course, have held an actual vote. I suppose they got flustered by the cruel taunting from Fox and rushed to bring God and Jerusalem back in to avoid the wrath of the interest groups.

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 7, 2012 at 10:35 pm

        Why not just reveal what they really think?

        • T. J. Babson said, on September 7, 2012 at 11:12 pm

          Sadly, I doubt if the Dems would agree with Pat Condell.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 8, 2012 at 11:19 am

            Do you mean all Democrats? There are probably some who do.

            One obvious problem with saying that the Dems believe this or the Republicans believe that is that there are effectively only two parties in the United States. It would be rather amazing if these parties had uniform beliefs. In fact, I know it is not true-I know pro-choice Republicans, anti-same sex marriage Democrats, pro-gun Democrats, pro gay marriage Republicans and so on.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 8, 2012 at 11:17 am

          Who?

  5. T. J. Babson said, on September 7, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Biden:

    Biden also demonstrated either poor reality testing – or a propensity for lying – when he claimed in 1987 that he “went to law school on a full academic scholarship – the only one in my class to have a full academic scholarship,” and that he “ended up in the top half” of his class. He also said that in college, he was “the outstanding student in the political science department” and “graduated with three degrees.”

    However, after inaccuracies in his statements were exposed, Biden made this admission on Sept. 22, 1987: “I did not graduate in the top half of my class at law school, and my recollection of this was inaccurate.” He had actually graduated 76th in a class of 85 from the Syracuse College of Law. And in college, Biden had received a single B.A. degree.

    Age appears not to have improved either Biden’s memory or his IQ. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he observed: “When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on television” and explained it to the American people.

    Oh, really?

    In fact, Roosevelt did not become president until 1933 and his first appearance on TV was in 1939. Since that gaffe, Biden, who will be 70 in November, frequently has fumbled and bumbled in his public remarks. And his boss reportedly doesn’t like it. According to the authors of the 2010 book “Game Change,” Obama asked angrily, “How many times is Biden gonna say something stupid?”

    http://www.ocregister.com/articles/biden-368893-obama-campaign.html

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 7, 2012 at 7:13 pm

      It looks like the parties are tied in terms of their VP picks in this regard. Just as I remember my marathons, I also remember my college performance. I guess I am disqualified from being a VP, unless I can start forgetting things.

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 7, 2012 at 8:43 pm

        Except that Ryan, as VP candidate, knows that everything he says will be picked apart and examined under the microscope, so it is unlikely he would think he could get away with a lie involving records that could be checked (as Runner’s World did).

        Biden in pre-internet 1987, however, could probably believe he would get away with it.

        • T. J. Babson said, on September 7, 2012 at 10:33 pm

          Will you hold Obama to the same standard as Ryan?

          During the 2008 campaign, Obama frequently suggested his mother had to fight with her health-insurance company for treatment of her cancer because it considered her disease to be a pre-existing condition. In one of the presidential debates with GOP rival John McCain, Obama said:

          “For my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they’re saying that this may be a pre-existing condition and they don’t have to pay her treatment, there’s something fundamentally wrong about that.”

          But then earlier this year, journalist Janny Scott cast serious doubt on this version of events in her excellent biography, “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s mother.” Scott reviewed letters from Dunham to the CIGNA insurance company, and revealed the dispute was over disability coverage, not health insurance coverage (see pages 335-339).

          Disability coverage will help replace wages lost to an illness. (Dunham received a base pay of $82,500, plus a housing allowance and a car, to work in Indonesia for Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, according to Scott.) But that is different than health insurance coverage denied because of a pre-existing condition, which was a major part of the president’s health care law.

          Scott writes that Dunham, who died in 1995 of uterine and ovarian cancer, had health insurance that “covered most of the costs of her medical treatment…The hospital billed her insurance company directly, leaving Ann to pay only the deductible and any uncovered expenses, which, she said, came to several hundred dollars a month.”

          Dunham had filed the disability claim to help pay for those additional expenses. The company denied the claim because her doctor had suspected uterine cancer during an office visit 2 ½ months before Dunham had started the job with Development Alternatives, though Dunham said the doctor had not discussed the possibility with cancer with her. Dunham requested a review from CIGNA, saying she was turning the case over to “my son and attorney Barack Obama.”

          When Scott’s book was published, the White House did not dispute her account. “The president has told this story based on his recollection of events that took place more than 15 years ago,” a spokesman said.

          http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/the-road-weve-traveled-a-misleading-account-of-obamas-mother-and-her-insurance-dispute/2012/03/18/gIQAdDd4KS_blog.html

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 8, 2012 at 11:17 am

            Of course. One says true things or one does not. Naturally, Obama could be remembering things in error and that would hardly be a surprise. Also, I’ve gone over the “debunking” before-it does not seem that Obama was lying so much as the analysis given shows that what Obama said did not match the person’s interpretation of the situation.

            My general principle is to take into account memory errors. So, when someone is speaking “off the cuff” about a matter that could plausibly be forgotten, then I’ll give the person the benefit of the doubt. I’ll even allow that a person can have a brain flat about almost anything at anytime. However, a prepared speech should be held to a higher standard-after all, the minions should be checking the facts. Naturally, people can still make errors and they should be excused to the degree they are excusable.

            So, if Ryan, Biden or whoever is just talking free form about stuff and they get some points wrong, then it is worth considering that the mistake is an honest one.

            However, the marathon remark doesn’t seem to fit this. I had a 5K race this morning and was warming up with one of my conservative Republican friends. Ryan came up and my friend said “you don’t forget a marathon. Especially when you just did one.” That seems true.

            • T. J. Babson said, on September 8, 2012 at 1:10 pm

              So your position is that Obama is forgiven for getting details about his mother’s death in 1995 wrong, but Ryan can’t be forgiven for forgetting the time of a race he ran in high school in 1980.

              Providing anecdotal evidence from other nutty runners such as yourself proves exactly nothing. Don’t forget that Ryan says he hasn’t been a runner for a very long time and doesn’t consider himself a runner, but he has a recollection that in high school he was a good runner. Have you see the bumper sticker: “The older we get, the better we were…”

              Furthermore, Obama’s “mistake” affected public policy, whereas Ryan’s “mistake” affected absolutely nothing. And Ryan was talking free form about stuff, by the way.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm

              Here is what seems to be a fairly balanced assessment of Obama’s narrative.

              As PolitiFact noted, his original narrative was mostly false. He changed the wording for the DNC, which also received criticism. It does appear true that his mother was struggling with the insurance company, but over disability rather than health insurance. As such, that detail is in error. Given that Obama used the narrative as an anecdote in his case for health insurance reform, it might be claimed that he changed the story to match his objective. After all, a problem with disability insurance is an insurance problem, but not a health care insurance coverage problem.

              As to whether or not Obama was lying, that is a fair question. Also, there is the matter of his motivation. If his motivation was to coldly change the story to exploit his mother’s death for political gain, then that would be…horrible. If his motivation was to bend the narrative for, as defenders of Ryan’s RNC speech said, for a “big idea” or, alternatively, to bring about what he saw as a good, then that might be something that could seen as more morally tolerable-though a lie should still be condemned. If he honestly got the details wrong (that is, he believed his own narrative) then he would not be a liar-he would just be in error. However, it could be argued that he should have checked the facts (as Ryan should have in his RNC speech).

              True, my view and my friend’s view are anecdotes. However, the argument can be expanded to include more examples. Runner Jeff Pearlman wrote this for CNN, Nicholas Thompson (also a runner) wrote about it for the New Yorker and he even contacted the runners who finished at about the same time as Ryan. I know many runners of various political stripes and abilities and the general consensus has been that a person would remember their only marathon. This goes beyond mere anecdote to what can be regarded as a reasonable inductive argument.

              That said, inductive arguments are not valid arguments, so the conclusion can always be false. To be more concrete about it, Ryan might differ from the majority of folks who have run one marathon and he might have, in fact, just forgotten that he ran a 4:01 marathon when he was a college Junior. That is an odd sort of memory failure, but I have seen odder ones over the years.

              As you note Ryan being wrong about the number of marathons he ran and his time did not impact national policy. It is, of course, not clear that Obama’s claim was the sole or even primary reason for health care reform. Rather, it seems to mainly be intended as a persuasive story. It being untrue would remove one example from the overall argument, but given that arguments have been given for reform long before his mother died, this one story hardly seems a decisive point. It would be odd to infer that his policy is in error because of the one story. Now, if it can be shown that the significant reasons advanced for the reform are mostly in error, then the case would be undercut.

              In Ryan’s case, his being wrong about his time has little significance by itself, although some might say that this is yet another example of lying that should be added to his deceptions/errors/lies at the RNC. Also, some might say that one who will lie needlessly about the small things will lie about the big.

              In any case, both Obama and Ryan have fared poorly under the examination of PolitiFacts and other fact checkers. As such, it is reasonable to have concerns about the credibility of both men. My main point is not that the Republicans lie more, but that the deception in politics is morally unacceptable. Rather than saying “well, the other guys lie, too”, “well, my guy just forgot”, or “my guys are talking big ideas” we should say “enough is enough, stop lying to us.”

            • biomass2 said, on September 9, 2012 at 8:31 pm

              .But, if there is supposedly some advantage to be gained by lying, and one side is obviously lying , the other side has little to gain (except, perhaps, some abstract claim to moral superiority) if it does not lie as well. It may be reasonable to strive for that superiority—if anyone but philosophers and madmen really cared.

            • WTP said, on September 10, 2012 at 12:22 pm

              Some facts about fact-checking from Democrat Mickey Kaus:

              http://dailycaller.com/2012/09/02/credulous-fact-checkers-fall-for-20-scam/

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 10, 2012 at 1:48 pm

              As one should ask “who watches the watchmen?”one should also asks “who checks the checkers?” So it is good to be critical of the claims and the checking of the claims.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 8, 2012 at 11:11 am

          But it is obvious that people do lie even when they are well aware that they can (and probably will) be exposed. Remember Weiner? He lied and lied and then lied some more, despite the fact that he had to know that he would eventually be exposed. So, the fact that one can get caught hardly seems to deter lying.

          Also, as I have noted in other posts, when a lie/error that fits a person’s ideology is exposed, people with strong ideological commitments actually believe the error even more after it is exposed. So, weirdly, lying and being caught is actually a way to reinforce the beliefs of the base.

        • Anonymous said, on September 8, 2012 at 4:39 pm

          I think the 1980 should be 1990.

  6. WTP said, on September 7, 2012 at 9:20 am

    More lying, deceptive Republicans…or, Tell Us What You Want, What You Really Really Want:

    http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/timblair/index.php/dailytelegraph/comments/ban_profits/

  7. WTP said, on September 8, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Why?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 8, 2012 at 11:20 am

      I was just wondering what point you were trying to make with the video link.

      • WTP said, on September 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm

        And I was wondering why you failed to see the point. You being so good with sarcasm and all.

  8. T. J. Babson said, on September 8, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Have we reached the point of no return?

    On paper, given Obama’s record, this election should be a cakewalk for the Republicans. Why isn’t it? I am afraid the answer may be that the country is closer to the point of no return than most of us believed. With over 100 million Americans receiving federal welfare benefits, millions more going on Social Security disability, and many millions on top of that living on entitlement programs–not to mention enormous numbers of public employees–we may have gotten to the point where the government economy is more important, in the short term, than the real economy. My father, the least cynical of men, used to quote a political philosopher to the effect that democracy will work until people figure out they can vote themselves money. I fear that time may have come.

    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2012/09/why-is-this-election-close.php?ModPagespeed=noscript

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 9, 2012 at 8:20 pm

      Depends on what one might be returning to.

      As far as the lack of cake walking, one reason might be that Obama is charismatic and has influential allies. Another reason is that some people believe that he has made meaningful accomplishments. And, of course, there is the “not-Romney” factor. A fair number of Republicans were not enthusiastic about Romney, so it is not surprising that Democrats and Independents would see Obama in a better light by contrast.

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 9, 2012 at 8:52 pm

        “Depends on what one might be returning to.”

        Returning to a time when there are more givers than takers.

  9. abjectbooks said, on September 20, 2012 at 12:57 am

    I am actually going to vouch for the politicians being more ignorant than they may be actually deceptive — personally, anyway. These men are very busy shaking hands and kissing babies. They are not reading the paper in totality every morning. Congressmen do not read all of every bill they vote on, or even submit. There would never be enough time for that. The major politicians are more like the charismatic front men of a band than the evil geniuses running the show. In a major election, they are busy playing their own role. They provide the current face for their party’s every shifting ethos.

    I’m not saying they are idiots, but they are put in a position to maximize their strengths. What is really ruining the political process is that it is being handled as a marketing campaign. The parties are running like corporations, and “our” representatives are consummate company men, towing the party line. A united front is what is really being rewarded. With conformity and unconditional loyalty as qualifiers there is no hope for much progress or reworking. Only tokens of such will be achieved, rather than anything fundamentally significant.

    We are not seeing two individuals in ideological combat with the benefit of a political party for support and organization. What we are really seeing is more akin to a showdown between something like the Coca Cola Polar Bear\Old Time-y Santa, and Pepsi’s Current Pop-star X vying for holiday sales. What’s being offered is more similar than either side would like to admit, and it’s never going to come down to a blind taste test. The key here is to out-American each other, to present an image that is both classically American, but appropriately rebellious — as anything classically American should so rightly be.

    In the end people will vote for whomever fits their idiom because their friends/favorite celebrities did, or their parents did/didn’t (depending on their demographic), because they identify more with dominance/victimization, because they are squarely-secular/centered-on-faith. Which sides of what they land on will probably come down to where and how they are exposed to advertising by both sides.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 20, 2012 at 12:08 pm

      The ignorance hypothesis does have some appeal.

      As you point out, the political process these days does greatly resemble the marketing of any product. There do seem to be some substantive differences between the parties, though. Interestingly, one of the pushes for the difference has been the Tea Party and the folks that are behind that movement. Governors like Walker and Scott have certainly done things in ways very different from the past governors and the new Republicans seem to be pushing an agenda that is rather different from what the Democrats or the “classic” Republicans would accept.

      One thing about democracies is that they give the people the government they deserve. So, if we want something better, we need to earn that by being better citizens. One step would be to stop tolerating the marketing approach to politics. Another would be to do some homework regarding the candidates.


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