The invention of lying

When do people get to lie in public life without consequence?  I don’t think public officials lie about facts that often (and when they do, they usually get smacked), but they lie about motives all the time.

A classic example comes about in re-districting time, which most states will go through in 2011 after the 2010 Census numbers come in.  In addition to the normal adjustments involved with population changes, my state is poised to gain its 4th Congressional seat.   This state is completely controlled by Republicans, and redistricting will be all about gaining as much partisan advantage from this additional seat as possible.

Everyone knows that increasing partisan advantage is what redistricting is about.  In fact, it really isn’t about anything else, as any map of the screwed up legislative districts in the US can easily attest.    But politicians invariably say something like, “We are not trying to gain partisan advantage; we are just trying to promote the interests of all the state’s voters”  or “We are trying to get balance between urban and rural voters within districts.”

Another goodie outside the political realm is when university presidents–intelligent people with PhDs–say that the reason the BCS conferences don’t want to move to a national football playoffs in college football is because they are concerned about their “scholar athletes” getting their final exams messed up, or some similar gibberish.  The real reason, which everyone knows, is that BCS conferences and owners of the bowl games don’t want to give up the money and prestige they get from the current system.  This is not a mystery.

Another sports case will be the unsuccessful coach who quits “to spend more time with his family”  (only to pop up in a couple of months in some equally stressful job across the country).

So why is this blatant lying OK?  The media not only don’t care, they expect it and even facilitate it by letting these types of outlandish statements go unchallenged in many cases.  Put a typical Congressman in front of a TV camera, and you are assured of one thing: total B.S.  Congressman Spineless will never say “Ya know, I changed my vote for this bill because the Speaker completely intimidated and threatened me” even though everyone knows that is the truth.  Instead, Congressman Spineless comes up with some lame rationale for his changed tune, and everyone gives him a pass.

We could come up with a simple cost-benefit model of lying.    Motives are hard to prove, so lying about them is relatively low cost.  Winning votes and staying in power has a high benefit.  That explains a lot of it, I think.   But reaching a John Edwards level of sliminess seems to take a certain serious pathology that goes way beyond simple cost and benefits.

We have all become so accustomed to political lies that we barely notice anymore.  We recognize most of the spin for what it is, and we try to uncover actual motives without the delusion that politicians will ever say anything truthful about their motives.

We seemed to have arrived at this strange equilibrium where everyone knows that we are being lied to on a continual basis, but we put up with it.  Indeed, the more outrageous the claim, the less scrutiny it gets sometimes.  Apparently it is OK to lie if  what you are saying is complete balderdash and not a soul believes you.

Strange world.

10 thoughts on “The invention of lying

  1. Sven, what is really striking about this is the contrast with how reputation and integrity matter in most other walks of life. Where people are voluntarily engaging in opportunities for cooperation for mutual benefit, lying is a serious problem, and a reputation for lying often deadly. Credibility and integrity matter. What does it say about these contexts that that normal pattern is so deeply overthrown?

    1. Good point. I’m interested in a theory not only of public lying at the individual level, but also a theory that accounts for the types of contexts and types of lies that are acceptable. Are there contexts in which lying used to be a bad thing, but now it seems to be acceptable. For some reason, I think Senators in ancient Greece were full of as much spin as they are today.

      Another sports example, the post-game interviews (or even more annoying, the mid-game interview) are usually complete nonsense, especially from the players. Someone was trying to get Kobe to admit last night that Artest was a complete idiot for taking that 3-pointer towards the end of the game? Of course he was an idiot (who was then rewarded by getting to make the game-winner!–there is no justice), but Kobe isn’t going to say so.

      Another question: why do the media keep asking questions where they know the answers are going to be complete lies (especially those cases where the player would actually get fined for telling the truth)?

      1. I think the answer to the question about the media has to be a supply-and-demand thing. They keep asking, presumably, because people keep wanting to read what the liars say. Same thing for why there are such dopey post-game interviews. So that pushes back the question another step: why, given that we prize honesty and integrity in so much of our lives, do we have the appetite we do for patent prevarication in these areas? Maybe that’s just the reciprocal of the question you are asking, but in any event it seems to me worth thinking about.

  2. Marc – your view assumes that the media market is efficient. But my guess is that there are a lot of missed opportunities left on the table. Do you really think that inane questions find a bigger viewing audience than the alternative? We just aren’t provided the alternatives for lots of different reasons that are not related to what the consumer wants — and entrepreneurs should be able to take advantage of this if given the chance.

  3. Mr. President: I agree with you in principle. But given that there are so few barriers to entry (when you consider the problem across the various forms of medium that are possible, and that show these same proclivities), and this has been going on so long, and seems to be such a robust phenomenon, what’s the evidence to think that the counterfactual is true? I’d think there would be ample opportunity for an entrepreneur who got behind the counterfactual to have made a mint by now. But where is he or she?

    Not a slam dunk, certainly, but I’d take those probabilities in most cases.

  4. The problem is that market participants have real, unnatural assymetries in power — politicians get softball questions and no hard follow-ups from folks like Larry King because they can deny access and are in charge of the regulators of the industry. Guys like David Stern and NCAA never get called on the carpet for their silly behavior/answers because they are essentially monopoly sellers of the product.

    BTW, just look at how ESPN’s coverage of the NBA changed when they got the contract.

  5. It seems to me that if people really wanted thoughtful commentaries from their sports and entertainment idols, we’d get sports and entertainment idols that give it. But I think most people don’t. Which gets better ratings: Access Hollywood or Crossfire? If we really wanted politicians who were capable of giving credible and thoughtful answers to questions, we’d get them. But we don’t, and we know why not (familiar stories about rational ignorance and public choice).

    There’s a reason why politicians give soundbites: it’s because that’s what the channels of communications want, and that reflects what people want to watch and listen to. I think the monopoly story has the causal story backwards.

    Sadly, I myself gave up on the NBA a long time ago, so I have no insight into your comment on ESPN’s coverage. But if they are sucking up to the NBA, that would not surprise me. All I would say is: how much is it paying them to do so? (Presumably they do not think that on net they will be paying for the privilege of doing so!) And what does that say about their incentives to provide such coverage? Who’s paying for those incentives? (I’m pretty sure it is us!)

  6. Well, I studied redistricting once, and the biggest gain it brought was one-party districts which would be secure for the incumbent, more than changing the party split.

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