Trust and False News

January 26, 2017

The quality and extent of interactions among people (neighbors, companies, governments) profoundly affect our quality of life. Trust is a critically important element of such interactions and of “The Wealth of Nations,” to quote Adam Smith. No society, beyond (perhaps) the family and relatives, enjoys total trust. The willingness to and low cost of dealing with others in such a society would surely make it the richest one on earth. The more distant our relationship with someone, however, e.g., hiring a contractor to add a room to the house, the more formal our understandings need to be. But the deeper and more reliable is trust within a society, the simpler such contracts and their enforcement can be. This goes well beyond the obvious costs (effectively taxes) of doing business of security guards and surveillance cameras at department stores. More Trust frees up resources to produce the goods and services that we really want.

As part of its attack on Europe and the United States, Russia for some time has systematically worked to undermine trust in the West. For example, it generates and distributes “false news” in a variety of ways. It has become more difficult to judge when news is true or deliberately made up. As a result, the public’s trust in public institutions and performance is eroded to some, hopefully still limited, extent. As I argued above, a decline in the level of trust in Western societies reduces their economic efficiency and output.

False news must be distinguished from biased reporting and from disputed facts, unfortunately labeled “alternative facts”, by Trump senior advisor Kelly Anne Conway. Bias, or priors as we economists put it, reflects our inner beliefs and tentative understandings about what is true and can influence what a reporter chooses to report or emphasize. It does not reflect a willingness to report or repeat knowingly false information. The strange case of the size of the viewing audience for Trump’s inauguration ceremony illustrates bias and a few other things on all sides.

Trump was angry that the press reported mediocre attendance to his inauguration. The highly respected conservative economist Tyler Cowen provided an interesting analysis of why he thinks Trump forced his poor press secretary Sean Spicer to launch an attack on the Press for its “misreporting” of this matter: Why trump’s staff is lying. During his first official press conference on January 23, Spicer stated very clearly several times that his assessment that Donald Trump had the largest audience for his inauguration in history referred to total viewers “both in person and around the globe”. After apologizing for having reported the previous Saturday incorrect numbers for subway ridership he proceeded to present his estimate of TV and Internet viewers along with mall attendants and asked the press to correct them if wrong. USA Today reported that “On that point, Spicer may be correct…. But there is no comprehensive measurement available that would prove or disprove this claim.” The attending press persisted in referring to the size of the crowd on the mall. That reflects bias by the Press to the point of blindness. That Trump felt compelled to speak out about the size of his audience is sad evidence that he has not yet properly transitioned from candidate to President (that the thin skinned, megalomaniac we watched during the campaign has not yet grown up).

Alternative facts abound and refer to a lack of consensus on what the facts are. These are the bread and butter of scientific investigation and debate. Whether global temperatures last year were higher or lower than the year before depends on the measurement instruments used (surface instruments of one type or another, satellite systems, etc.), their location (country side, urban areas, ocean, etc.), frequency of measurements (daily, hourly, etc.), etc. Meteorologists debate this “fact”.

Candidate Trump lied so frequently and so freely during his campaign that I can only assume that he did so deliberately as a part of a general disinformation campaign. His claim, for example, that President Obama was not native born was so irrefutably disproved that Trump eventually (but very late in the game) withdrew it. President Trump sadly continues the practice by following up his ludicrous claim that he won by a landslide, with the claim for which there is no factual support at all of wide spread voter fraud. Trumps-disregard-for-the-truth-threatens-his-ability-to-govern.

Poor Sean Spicer was forced to announce Trump’s voter fraud lie to the press. When asked for evidence he cited “A 2012 Pew study [that] found that about 1.8 million deceased people were still on the rolls and that 2.75 million people were registered in two states. The study called for states to clean up their voter rolls but did not draw conclusions about voter fraud.” Trumps-voter-fraud-claims-undermine-the-voting-system-and-his-presidency/2017/01/24/. In fact, Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon is registered in both New York and Florida, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is registered in New York and California, and Trump’s daughter Tiffany is registered in both Philadelphia and New York though neither voted twice. Bannon-was-registered-to-vote-in-two-states. Recidivism-watch-Spicer-uses-repeatedly-debunked-citations-for-trumps-voter-fraud-claims.

Trump’s lies, whether he believes them himself or not, along with false news perpetrated by Russia and others, are increasingly undermining public trust in the information so freely available on the Internet and elsewhere. This is bad for our democracy. It is not obvious what motivates him.

“Is Trumpism a scam? And if so, whom is Donald Trump scamming?

“Or is the country confronting something even more troubling: a president unhinged from any realities that get in the way of his impulses, unmoored from any driving philosophy and willing to make everything up as he goes along, including “alternative facts”?

“Of course, there’s another possibility: that there’s a method in all of this.” E. J. Dionne, Jr. What’s-the-method-in-trumps-madness/2017/01/25/

It is one thing to disagree with the President’s policy proposals—we can discuss and debate the reasons for our differences—and quite another when we cannot trust the integrity of the President or his administration. When the President proclaims over and over that he will insure that we “Buy American and hire American” (so much for shifting power from Washington to the people), rather than explaining why this is such a bad policy—save-trade—we turn immediately to the President’s hypocrisy rather than the substance of his policy. In Trump’s own business dealings he buys his materials where they are cheapest—steel and aluminum from China (Newsweek), furnishings for his new Hotel in Washington DC from China (The-new-Trump-hotel-in-D-C-hotel-is-filled-top-to-bottom-with-goods-made-in-China), the clothing for his signature Donald J. Trump Collection from Mexico (Trumps-hypocrisy-on-trade-he-outsources-and-invests-globally-but-doesnt-want-Ford-to-do-the-same/), and the long list goes on (Trump products).

Trump’s business career is full of shady dealings (The-myth-and-the-reality-of-Donald Trumps-business-empire). Why would we have expected him to be different as POTUS? Trump the terrible. Lying has worked for Donald Trump—so why should he stop now? Why Trump lies.

Trump is very quickly running out of time to save his administration. His tweet this morning stated: “The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers… of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.” As a result, the Mexican President cancelled his planned visit. Our current account deficit with Germany in 2015, by the way, was $285.2 billion, about the same as with China. Putting his economic ignorance (or blatant lying) aside, his conduct of foreign policy, trade or otherwise, is simply dangerous. We must stand up and yell STOP. STOP!!!

A glimmer of hope is offered by the fact (a real one) that orders for George Orwell’s classic novel of tyranny “1984” have soared in recent weeks.

About wcoats

Dr. Warren L. Coats specializes in advising central banks on monetary policy, and in the development of their capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy. He is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where, as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, he led missions to over twenty countries. Before then, he served as Visiting Economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and to the World Bank, and was Assistant Prof of Economics at the Univ. of Virginia from 1970-75. Most recently he was Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq; an IMF consultant to the central banks of Afghanistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe; and a Deloitte/USAID advisor to the Government of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review and until the end of 2013 was a member of the IMF program team for Afghanistan. His most recent book is entitled "One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
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3 Responses to Trust and False News

  1. James Roumasset says:

    I think Trump actually believes that stuff. His people don’t correct him because his rants shore up his base and because they are currying favor.

    What does “Mexico will pay for it” mean? Since Trump thinks in terms of zero sum (remarkable for someone who’s supposed to be a good negotiator), lowering the Mexico trade deficit from 60 to 45 billion means that Mexico will have “paid” 15 billion.

  2. Sergio Pombo says:

    Warren, this blog is very good and correct. Thanks for sharing. I just read the Administration is considering imposing a 20% import tax to Mexican goods. Not a great idea toto begin a negotiation with neighborgs. Greetings from Colombia!

  3. Tim says:

    Always insightful and informed, thank you, Warren. I love reading your blogs.

    Bring back the 90s when I first met you: life seemed genuinely pleasant and promising, we were hegemonic yet respected, and leadership emotionally intelligent and diverse. Our mutual friend Nelson often remarked I am too sentimental, so I believe he is accurate, as I post this…. 🙂

    Happy new year, my friend – Tim

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