Fake News Isn’t New

Long before “fake news” entered our vernacular, the late historian and former Librarian of the Library of Congress, Daniel Boorstin wrote The Image:  A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.   Boorstin defines pseudo-events as ones that are fabricated as opposed to those that are real.  These are fabricated by press conference, surveys, press releases, interviews, and leaks that represent synthetic news that creates or foster illusions to influence how we think about specific topics.  He wrote about this phenomenon in 1962 long before twitter, Facebook, blogs, social media, issue advertising, electronic news, and the 24/7 new cycles that reinforces our biases.  All of these mechanisms are used to shape and reinforce our beliefs.

The supply of illusions and pseudo-events has gotten greater because the demand for them keeps increasing.  Boorstin says that “we believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations.”  As our expectations increase but our capability to separate the real information and facts from illusions and synthetic news does not.  To manage an excess supply we engage in mental triage by shutting out sources that don’t conform to our beliefs and relying on summaries and digests because we suffer information overload.  Our tendency for confirmation bias has become a barrier to finding common ground as our sources push us further from the center and to binary choices.

Almost 60 years ago, Boorstin observed that consumers of information were “less interested in whether something is a fact than in whether it is convenient that it should be believed”.  What would he say today?  Then he concluded that we had become use to using the image to test reality, making it hard to regain the ability to test the image with reality.

In the Introduction to The Image  Boorstin wrote that “To discover our illusions will not solve the problems of our world.  But if we do not discover them, we will never discover our real problems.”  So, what is the solution.  According to Boorstin, illusory solutions are not the cure for our illusions.  There is no easy answer.  Each of us “must emancipate” ourselves.  “Each of us must disenchant himself, must moderate his expectations, and must prepare himself to receive messages …from the outside.”  Most important, “ We should seek new ways of letting messages that reach us…”.

The Image was republished in 1987 as a 25thanniversary edition.  In his commentary on it, George Will wrote,”Boorstin’s book tells us how to see and listen, how to think about what we see and hear.”  He also wrote, “one of the effects …has been to induce in readers a healthy skepticism.  It shows readers how to stand back and squint at the world.”

The Image  may be 56 years old but it is just as relevant today as it was then.  Indeed, it may be more relevant.  A healthy dose of skepticism and an attitude of “I’m not convinced” would go a long way in helping us see more clearly through the fog of illusions and recapturing the ability to find common ground so that once again the influence of the majority will be greater than that of extremists on the right and left.

Looking Backward and Losing

President Trump is attempting to tilt trade in our favor at the expense of our trading partners.  His focus, using national security as the justification as well as the assertion that our trading partners are taking advantage of us, is based on discredited economics and policy.

Other nations are focusing on the fast growing sectors that reflect advances in technology, which is what his predecessors did because new industries contribute to being the world’s leader.   The President is looking backward and focusing on  once iconic industries that are shrinking as a share of our economy.

The President wants to increase exports at the expense of imports.  What he ignores is that increased exports come from increased production.  In a global economy we get those increases by being a more efficient producer than our competitors.  As economists have repeatedly pointed out, we need the market and not government to generate winners.  The president thinks that because we are the world’s largest economy, we can bully our way to achieving his export objective.

He’s wrong, just as nation states of prior centuries were wrong in pursuing mercantilism which is based on the belief that maximizing net exports is the best approach to national prosperity.  To make mercantilism work, nations engaged in protectionism which is what the President’s tariff policy is trying to do. Mercantilism was a flawed and failed policy in the 18thcentury and it just as flawed today. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations demonstrated that trade could be mutually beneficial and that exports should be driven by a nation’s comparative advantage, which is based on productivity.

In 1978, Milton Friedman pointed out that if the Japanese flood us with steel, it will reduce employment in the steel industry but increase employment in industries that use that steel.  The dollars that the Japanese got from selling us subsidized steel eventually found their way back here as demand for US goods and services.  In his concluding remarks, he asked, “ why should we object to their giving us foreign aid.”

In an interconnected global economy, it is a fool’s errand to attempt to protect declining industries.  Attempting to shield them from global competition simply makes them more dependent of government and stimulates crony capitalism.

President Trump and his economic Svengali, Peter Navarro, claim that the tariff policy is being pursued for national security reasons. But that has been widely shown to be totally bogus.  Further, A review of industrial policy initiatives decades ago in the journal Science, ended this way. “Here the historical record seems, for a change, unequivocal. Unequivocally negative.”  Nothing has changed since then.  The President’s policy is producing bads; not goods and the bads will just get worse.



A Different War of Attrition

Steve Hayward’s recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece provides an important reminder of the life cycle of advocacy driven environmental issues and the importance of persistent, fact-based resistance to counter campaigns based on ideology and visions of impending catastrophes.

Going back to the 1960s, we have witnessed an unending series of apocalyptic threats created by ideologues who have tried to use them promote increased political control by entitled elites. In all cases running from the population bomb to the limits of growth, to the war on pesticides, and climate change over the last 30 years, the problem has always been activities promoting economic growth and the solution has always been a reduction in personal freedom, serious constraints on market-based progress, and increased control from the center. Federalism and the Constitutional based limited government are treated as quaint ideals that have long outlived their relevance.

Steve Hayward takes us through the five stages that climate change has passed through to go from the “center of public concern …into a prolonged limbo.” He baes his narrative on a1972 article by Anthony Downs, Up and Down With Ecology.

The stated objectives of climate advocates have been to eliminate fossil fuels from the globe’s energy budget, to bring atmospheric CO2 levels down to pre-industrial levels, to promote wind and solar as substitutes for fossil fuels and reduce the carbon foot print of all. All of these objectives are championed as necessary to save the planet. The real objective has been increased political control of the economy by self-ordained elites. We should not forget that in the early 2000s, French President Jacque Chirac called for a world government. And, Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of UNFCCC, prior to the 2015 meeting in Paris bluntly stated “This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the industrial revolution. “

While some ideologues may have entertained the notion that decarbonization objectives could be achieved in a matter of a few decades, no one who understood how the world works could seriously believe that. Instead, advocate leaders championed lofty and unattainable goals recognizing that incremental progress was the real objective. And since the time of Kyoto, they have promoted actions that incrementally would reduce the role of carbon in the global economy. But over time the costs of forced decarbonization have become more apparent and as they have counter pressures has increased. Germany, the leading advocate for alternative energy, is rolling back its Energiewende in the face of growing emissions and costs and the US is undoing much of the Obama initiatives. Other nations, as evidenced by the Paris Accord, have moved from supporting binding targets and timetables to accepting a voluntary agreement that will be honored in the breach while they pursue economic growth and higher standards of living..

There are two major reasons why the march to global government and rapid decarbonization have stalled. First, the public has never ranked climate change as one of its top priorities. Nor has there been any indication that the public at large is willing to sacrifice the benefits that come from continued economic progress. Second, while those opposed to draconian climate change actions are relatively small in number and underfunded, they have been well focused and persistent in pointing out the flaws in the climate orthodoxy and the folly of mandated decarbonization. Climate advocates have imposed significant cost from their actions and policies but those costs are far less than they could have been. And, as Steve Hayward insightfully observed, “Treating climate change as planet scale problem that could be solved by an international regulatory scheme transformed the issue into a political creed for committed believers. Causes that live by politics, die by politics.”