Bryan Caplan  

The Presumptive Puritan

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Tyler on GruberGate:
It's hardly news that intellectuals who hold political power, even as advisors, very often do not speak the truth.  If anything, I feel sorry for Gruber that he has subsequently felt the need to so overcompensate by actively voicing such ex post cynicism, it is perhaps the sign of a soul not at rest.
These two sentences elegantly illustrate how Tyler and I start at the same place yet end continents apart.  We see the same facts: Lying politicians and the elite intellectuals who craftily decorate their masters' lies.  But Tyler starts with a strong moral presumption that Whatever People in Our Society Routinely Do is morally acceptable.  Indeed, he bends over backwards to see the world from their point of view. 

I, in contrast, start with a strong moral presumption in favor of scrupulous honesty.  Unless you have strong reason to believe that lying will have awesome consequences, you shouldn't lie.  Instead of bending over backwards to make excuses for liars, we should bend over backwards to tell the truth.  The fact that most people fall short of this puritanical standard shows that most people ought to shape up and fly right. 

And when people fleetingly realize that every society is ruled by liars, they are right to shudder. 


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Michael Stack writes:

I think Tyler is a born contrarian among a group of the most hard-core contrarians, which must make life extremely difficult for Professor Cowen.

His positions often cause me to re-evaluate my own beliefs, but sometimes in his desire to show the unexplored side of an issue, he goes too far. This is one of those instances.

I was having a difficult time articulating exactly what bothered me about his position but I think you've done a great job of explaining it. THIS issue, more than anything I've ever read, highlights the divide between you and Professor Cowen.

One quibble I have with what you wrote Professor Caplan is that I don't think Professor Cowen's intent was to morally defend Gruber. I think his intent was to move the discussion away from Gruber's commentary and back to the policy it concerned. That said, Gruber's blatant lies and manipulation of the CBO's scoring methodology is disgusting. People who clamor for more government would do well to follow this story.

Long ago, an outright lie damaged a politician. The story was that politicians were almost all honorable, truthful men working for the common good.

Political entrepreneurs like Obama found, amazingly, that lies work, even outright lies, even lies which contradict statements made two weeks earlier. Politicians now lie openly while smiling and accusing their opponents of hiding the truth. The wider good doesn't exist. A large part of the public congratulates itself for being sophisticated. "Of course my politician lies to gain advantage over the opposition. But, he doesn't lie to me; I know what he means and I understand his loyalty to the cause."

A small problem. There is no reason or analysis in a world of lies. All loyalty and support becomes tribal. "My guys are angels and your guys are filth." The people are betrayed in the end. They think that crooks and liars are somehow working for their benefit.

I Invested With Bernie Madoff Because I Knew He Was Cheating
=== ===
[edited] Many Wall Streeters suspected Bernie Madoff was cheating, so why did these smart and skeptical investors give money to him? They assumed Madoff was illegally trading for their benefit on inside information from his market-making business. They didn't consider that he was running an old-fashioned Ponzi scheme, stealing their money.
=== ===

The city of Detroit was a Democrat paradise of strong unions, generous city pensions, welfare benefits, and public projects employing the connected. Why did it suddenly collapse into bankruptcy and physical ruin?

No one can spread the truth in an organization of lies. An individual may see something important that is clearly false, but he can't know if this is an error or a protected lie of upper management. The more false it is, the more likely it is protected. He will be silent. Someone else will have to correct the problem. Obvious problems multiply. The company or government eventually fails.

Is this a problem for you personally? Think of the advice about poker games: If you don't know who the patsy is after 30 minutes, then you are the patsy. The average American is not an intellectual, but he thinks that he is street smart. Politicians are lying to him. He's the patsy.

Edogg writes:

Did Gruber lie? I didn't really pay attention to the ACA news back then. For instance, did Gruber say that community rating had no costs for healthy individuals?

Bryan, what do you think of lies of omission? Should the standard be such that Gruber should have publicly emphasized his criticisms of community rating?

The Ultimate Philosopher writes:

hear, hear.

Handle writes:

Well, there seem to be too kinds of lies here.

The most recent one is pretty mundane - purposefully using parliamentarian gymnastics to avoid counting certain forms of revenue as a tax for CBO scoring, and also to avoid the requirements of the Origination Clause with the infamous deem-and-pass, but then switching tunes and calling it a tax for purposes of sourcing Constitutional authority in from of the Supreme Court.

A more than usually ugly way to make the sausage; but no one really disputes that ugliness.

And anyway, these are words games, and don't do anything to change the accountant's sums at the bottom of the full follow-the-money spreadsheet, only the official legal-fiction titles of the particular rows.

What Gruber said is that many voters are irrationally oversensitive to a particular presentation of the issues using one set of valuations and definitions of these legal-fictions, and that doing the legal gymnastics, while unfortunate, was something of a necessary proportional countermeasure. That's pretty shady, no doubt about it, but it's like a prosecutor and defense counsel arguing about the admissibility of a particular piece of evidence likely to 'inflame the jury' because ordinary citizens can't be trusted to weigh it dispassionately. The remedy is pretty harsh - less actual evidence - but it's still routinely applied.

The other lie is more serious. It's pretty clear in Halbig that the subsidies were written to apply only to the state exchanges, and that this was done consciously and on purpose in the same spirit as Medicaid and other grants, in order to provide an overwhelming political incentive for states to 'voluntarily' join the program, lest they forsake their own citizens tax dollars to subsidize other states.

And Gruber was recorded freely admitting such when it seemed like an obviously uncontroversial measure.

But when large numbers of low-income (otherwise subsidy-eligible) people joined the federal exchange it became a big issue, and the ACA advocates had to go into full-on spin mode to try and salvage the expenditures by pretending it was an inadvertent 'typo' that should be erased by the courts through legal reinterpretation. Gruber carelessly assumed (in this day and age?!) that his previous statements wouldn't come back to haunt him if he reversed himself and joined the spin-party, but he got caught, which is not just bad for him, but bad for all the other federal-subsidy advocates (like Krugman) who are still trying to spin now and yet don't want to throw Gruber under the bus.

And that's why Lying and Morality is not really what the downslope of the Gruber boom-and-bust is about. It's not really even about Gruber so much.

It's just an instance of a long-running feud regarding the reliability and objectivity of academic experts in public consideration of policy. The left will trot out some bright, well-credentialed scholar, or some fundamentally-mutilated CBO report, and not only treat it as irrefutable, neutral, disinterested, objective gospel ('The Science Is Settled!') but also claim that anyone on the right who tries to question it is anti-science, anti-intellectual, and evil, stupid liars whom every right-thinking respectable person should constantly mock and ridicule. How can you doubt Harvard and peer review?

The right will claim that being a smart-academic authority on a subject does not mean that one isn't also a partisan hack and completely willing to sacrifice every last shred of intellectual integrity as one of the means justified by the policy end. And in fact, academic credentials are particularly dangerous if abused because they are like stealth technology that gets under our radars and makes us lower our shields and let the lies right into our brains. The market for confirmation-bias means that such hacks will always be found and promoted as prime evangelists for any particular policy.

But, naturally, whenever anyone of the right says this, they are pilloried with insults calling them an ignorant conspiracy nut or worse. That's frustrating.

So, when any good evidence of a particular egregious example of this very common phenomenon comes into public view, the exasperated right can barely contain itself as it points and shouts, "See?! See?! We told you we smelled a rat. That the public square was completely infested with rats. They called us crazy liars, like they always do, just because we can't usually see them because they are so careful to crawl hidden in the dark sewers out of view. But dear God, just look at this giant vicious rodent we caught! Look at those teeth man! You think this is the only one? Remember the last one we caught last year?"

The economic analogy is to crime. If there is a small chance of detection, there probably should be a corresponding large punishment, to accomplish the desired deterrent effect.

So, every time a rat is caught, it is perfectly appropriate and rationale for the amount of harping and other negative publicity it generates to simply be all out of proportion to the actual case at hand.

Because it's not about that rat. It's about trying to show that the whole public square is completely infested with nothing but rats.

In other words, it's about the public perception of the legitimacy of the system itself. Those are huge stakes!

So, when Cowen tries to minimize the fuss over a case, it is like someone trying to argue that a particularly harsh sentence does not fit a relatively minor, but hard to detect, crime, at least when considered in isolation. That's a legitimate argument from a certain jurisprudential perspective, but not if you prioritize your concern for the aggregate social harmful impact of all the crime that would continue to go on for lack of a harsh response.

If you like, you can look at it as if the rat that gets caught and punished pour encourager les autres is taking an only partially-deserved, scapegoat-like fall that is a sacrifice he is asked to make for the sake of his country.

Nick writes:

> Unless you have strong reason to believe that lying will have awesome consequences, you shouldn't lie.

To the extent that Jonathan Gruber lied, (it's not clear to me that he did) I think he believed it would have awesome consequences.

Criticizing Jonathan Gruber for speaking his mind seems like a good way to encourage a world where nobody ever speaks their mind. We have a political setting where voter ignorance constrains good policy. So as long as people are trying to write good policy, we're necessarily going to have people trying to work around those constraints.

Now our only choice is whether we want policy makers to be honest or not about these constraints. I choose honesty, and it seems to me Gruber has been one of the few people willing to be honest about it.

Jeff writes:

I just want to agree with Andrew above. When I was a kid, I remember that people were outraged about Nixon lying. Politicians caught in lies often had to resign.

But this seemed somehow to change between the Reagan and Clinton administrations. When Reagan aide Mike Deavers was called a "spin doctor" it was an insult. For George Stephanopoulos and those who came after him, it was apparently a compliment.

The network news reporters and anchors who did this have much to answer for.

Philo writes:

I second Nick's comment. Gruber probably thought that *to achieve his wonderful ends* he had to lie, because of the stupidity and irrationality, as well as the inattentiveness and *rational ignorance*, of the voters. Is it clear, then, that his lie was unjustified?

magilson writes:

Being mad, even yelling at someone, is a pretty ancient as well as tried-and-true way of calibrating someone's behavior within a society.

Maybe Gruber thought it was worth the lie because it was going to be awesome. But he was wrong. So now some of us yell and maybe he'll recalibrate. He could do so by keeping his thoughts to himself. Or he could do so by changing his understanding about when it's okay to lie. Only he has control over it. But that has nothing to do with whether or not I or anyone else should be upset with him and express it outwardly.

I seriously can't believe this is having to be reiterated. But we give consent for our governance. If you lie about the governing, then the consent was artificial rendering it illegitimate. Gruber was a part of that lie. Why anyone cannot understand the reaction is beyond me. I'd love someone to go into greater detail about their confusion over this.

W Lied, People Died. Has everyone really forgotten this? Does everyone who thought that now feel bad or silly having thought it?

Nathan W writes:

If you can't explain what you are doing and why in clear and concise words on paper, then either you need help to improve communication skills or are doing things in a way that is wrong as proven by the fact that you won't explain yourself.

The list of exceptions include ...??? When we plan on nuking the Russians? Why we need to brainwash people by subterfuge instead of resorting to traditional moral education (the please and thank you, help your neighbour sort) which can be proudly explained in detail on paper by good parents? Really, what is there that we do not want our leaders or their intellectual aides telling us? Really.

The best exception I know of is that doctor's should maybe exaggerate risks of pandemic because people will under-respond in a highly sub-optimal manner unless they exaggerate.

The problem is that we keep on electing liars who will tell us (or at least enough of the population to win elections) whatever we want to hear instead of a) the truth, or b) whatever would be conducive to active citizen involvement on touchy issues.

Consider fall 2008. The Canadian PM says "no, no, no, there's no economic problem. Vote for me", while the opposition says "there's a problem, and we need to act NOW!". Nevermind that it was a snap election which broke the government's own fixed elections date law, it also told the public the comforting lies that they wanted to believe. Anyways, there were a truckload of other dirty tricks. You can't outlaw dirty, per se, but a) you can try, and b) you can try to do better, but there is the raw reality that probably much better citizenship education would be required to avoid the status quo of lying politicians.

I would add that politicians who change their mind on something should be seen as strong for doing so, not weak for flip-flopping. True leaders seek middle ground except on some handful of key issues they are determined, and have a mandate to openly press forward on. Giving in on some things is a sign of strong leadership, especially in a non-authoritarian political culture.

MikeDC writes:

As much as possible, we should try to escape politics as a pooling equilibrium.

Also, my I've got a fundamental hypothesis that the necessity of lying is directly proportional to the legitimacy of government action.

Obviously there's no need to lie about a generally legitimate action, supported by nearly unanimous consent of a body politic.

Thus, we should conclude that the more lies are told about a policy, the more illegitimate.

If only we would reduce the scope of government to that which we can be honest about, we'd be much better off.

Nathan W writes:

[Comment removed for crude language. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to discuss editing your comment. We'd be happy to publish your comments without the instances of crude language.We've emailed you and warned you many times. This is your final notice.--Econlib Ed.]

B.B. writes:

A philosophical question for the professor:

If lying promotes the greatest good for the greatest number, shouldn't a utilitarian lie when he has influence?

BTW, I am not a utilitarian.

weareastrangemonkey writes:

Given that Caplan thinks proper democracy is bad he should be in favour of elites manipulating the process. In fact, he has said that the only reason the results of American democracy are not so bad is because American democracy reflects the interests of the elites rather than the median voter.

How are the elites supposed to ensure such outcomes without lying to the masses? Oh I see, its only okay when they lie to push through policies he agrees with.

If you think that voters don't know what is good for them, and it is okay to go against their democratic will, then lying to get your way should not be a problem. Caplan just doesn't agree with the policy. He uses the fact that others don't think anti-democratic behaviour is acceptable to beat Gruber over the head, but it is not because Caplan takes issue with being anti-democratic.

If Caplan were being both honest and consistent he would say something along the lines of "Sure it was okay to try and manipulate policy, but his policy was awful and so he should be criticised for that instead.".

Floccina writes:

@Jeff and Andrew_M_Garland

Then why the strange structure of SS. I say SS is structured the way it is to scam the voters.

SS is a welfare program disguised as a ponzi scheme to make it palatable to voters.

What about all the congressmen whose lists of achievement include the port they used to buy votes.
Most government programs are designed to hide the taxes and costs and show the benefits to their voters.

The best return on health care spending is from that spend on babies and young people the worst on old people but old people vote thus medicare.

RPLong writes:

I don't think Gruber's comments belie cynicism, I think they belie misanthropy. Professor Cowen does not appear to be as alarmed as I am that federal policy tends to be crafted by people who generally despise those they legislate. Nothing about that kind of relationship could be considered healthy.

David Condon writes:

I can't think of a single major politician whom I would consider a beacon of honesty. If your goal is to improve on the poor quality of our government, clearly not lying has awesomely negative consequences since you'll never get into power. This is not something new. Honest Abe repeatedly lied about being an abolitionist in order to become President. Our awareness of it has simply changed due to the rise of the internet. Nobody thought twice about FDR or Kennedy having a mistress, but they certainly cared when Clinton did it.

MikeDC writes:

By any reasonable interpretation of the time, Lincoln was not an abolitionist.

Yancey Ward writes:

First, I commend both Caplan and Handle (a great comment, Handle) for their explanation for why this was an important issue to drag out into the open.

RPLong is correct- Gruber's comments weren't cynical. Some people above are unaware or deliberately omitting a fact- Gruber was involved in designing and selling the bill to the public. For Gruber's comments to be cynical, they would have had to be said by someone who wasn't involved in passing the bill- a good example is Cowen's own assertion about how Gruber understates the matter about the electorate. Gruber then went further in his spinning after the Halbig case was filed- that isn't cynicism, it is bald-faced lying. Cynics are not liars by definition, though they can be so.

Cowen is seemingly blind in this regard. He wrote:

I’m not so interested in pushing through the mud on this one. It’s a healthy world where academics can speak their minds at conferences and the like without their words becoming political weapons in a bigger fight.

Well, academics are free to speak their minds at conferences, but if it becomes a political weapon in a bigger fight, perhaps the academic in question shouldn't have been participating in the political arena.

Edogg writes:

On my previous comment, I didn't think to search for previous posts on Gruber. My bad. Here's Bryan's criticism of Gruber's salesmanship.
http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/01/sins_of_omissio.html
(I would quibble with some of what Bryan says.)

David Condon writes:

"By any reasonable interpretation of the time, Lincoln was not an abolitionist." - MikeDC

Since he was clearly acting as an abolitionist when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and later passed the 13th Amendment to include border states, I'll assume you mean he wasn't an abolitionist when he was elected; not that he was never an abolitionist. The Emancipation Proclamation was announced in September 1862, but written back in July 1862, which already proves my point that Lincoln hid the truth from the public, but, to your point, it's possible he changed his views between November 1860 and July 1862. In my experience, people don't make radical changes in their viewpoints all that often. Lincoln switched his public stance on slavery at least twice in 4 years of public office; first with the Emancipation Proclamation and then again with the 13th Amendment, which he passed immediately after his re-election. Those coincidences stand out just a little too much for me to believe them to be coincidences.

Roger Koppl writes:

Hear! Hear!

Hazel Meade writes:

But this seemed somehow to change between the Reagan and Clinton administrations. When Reagan aide Mike Deavers was called a "spin doctor" it was an insult. For George Stephanopoulos and those who came after him, it was apparently a compliment.

One can practically pinpoint the exact moment that happened. It was the Clinton "comeback" during his first primary election season. The news media just went gaga for him over what a skilled manipulator he was. And ever after they covered the Clinton presidency with a shade of admiration for how great he was at spinning.

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