Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times保羅·克魯格曼
在一篇廣為流傳、題目令人氣餒的論文《我們只是貌似在思考》中， 政治學家克里斯托弗·艾琛(Christopher Achen)和拉里·巴特爾斯(Larry Bartels)總結了1996年一項選民調查。該調查問道，克林頓總統任期內，預算赤字是增加還是減少了。實際情況是，赤字出現了大幅下降，但不少選民 ——包括多數共和黨成員——認為當時赤字是上升的。
我在自己的博客上問道，在赤字比90年代削減得更快的今 天，類似調查會得出何種結果。果然如《新約》所言，「你們祈求，就給你們」：谷歌(Google)的首席經濟學家哈爾·范里安(Hal Varian)主動提出針對此問題進行一項谷歌消費者調查——這通常是該公司向市場研究人士提供的有償服務。於是我們提問道，自2010年1月以來，赤字 增加了還是減少了。調查結果比1996年還要糟糕：多數回答者稱赤字上升了，而且超過40%的參與者認為上升幅度很大。只有12%的人正確地回答，赤字大 幅減少。
徹底謊言的產生通常受到政治動機推動，這並不出人意料。前 述1996年的數據中，相比民主黨人，共和黨人對赤字問題持有錯誤觀念的可能性要遠遠超出，而現在想必也一樣。畢竟在奧巴馬任期之初，共和黨針對假想中的 赤字飆升，製造了大量政治噪音。而且，即使赤字已經大幅縮減了，他們仍然一直堅持同樣的論調。於是，共和黨的三號人物埃里克·坎托(Eric Cantor)通過福克斯新聞台(Fox News)宣稱，我們出現了「赤字增長」，而參議員蘭德·保羅(Rand Paul)對《彭博商務周刊》(Bloomberg Businessweek)說，我們「每年產生萬億美元的赤字」。
不過，在這種事情上難道沒有裁判——受信任、非黨派、有能 力也有意願揭發謊言兜售者的權威人士？曾幾何時，我認為是有的。但現今，黨派對立已無比嚴重。而且，連那些努力當裁判的人似乎也害怕揭露謊言。難以置信的 是，事實查證網站PolitiFact也給坎托徹頭徹尾的假話打出了「半真」的評級。
現在，華盛頓方面還有一些「智者」，他們能得到媒體的特殊 敬重。可是一涉及赤字問題，我們就能發現，所謂的智者也是問題的一部分。像奧巴馬總統的赤字委員會聯席主席阿蘭·辛普森(Alan Simpson)和埃爾斯肯·鮑爾斯(Erskine Bowles)那樣的人物，在赤字高企的時期對公眾做了不少煽動赤字恐慌的事情。他們的報告起了一個令人不安的標題——《真相時刻》(The Moment of Truth)。那麼，隨着赤字的減少，他們可曾改口呢？沒有。因此，即使預算領域的現實情況已完全改變，「赤字飆升」的說法還深入人心，也就不奇怪了。
Moment of Truthiness
August 17, 2013
We all know how democracy is supposed to work. Politicians are supposed to campaign on the issues, and an informed public is supposed to cast its votes based on those issues, with some allowance for the politicians’ perceived character and competence.
We also all know that the reality falls far short of the ideal. Voters are often misinformed, and politicians aren’t reliably truthful. Still, we like to imagine that voters generally get it right in the end, and that politicians are eventually held accountable for what they do.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York TimesPaul Krugman
But is even this modified, more realistic vision of democracy in action still relevant? Or has our political system been so degraded by misinformation and disinformation that it can no longer function?
Well, consider the case of the budget deficit — an issue that dominated Washington discussion for almost three years, although it has recently receded.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that voters are poorly informed about the deficit. But you may be surprised by just how misinformed.
In a well-known paper with the discouraging title, “It Feels Like We’re Thinking,” the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels reported on a 1996 survey that asked voters whether the budget deficit had increased or decreased under President Clinton. In fact, the deficit was down sharply, but a plurality of voters — and a majority of Republicans — believed that it had gone up.
I wondered on my blog what a similar survey would show today, with the deficit falling even faster than it did in the 1990s. Ask and ye shall receive: Hal Varian, the chief economist of Google, offered to run a Google Consumer Survey — a service the company normally sells to market researchers — on the question. So we asked whether the deficit has gone up or down since January 2010. And the results were even worse than in 1996: A majority of those who replied said the deficit has gone up, with more than 40 percent saying that it has gone up a lot. Only 12 percent answered correctly that it has gone down a lot.
Am I saying that voters are stupid? Not at all. People have lives, jobs, children to raise. They’re not going to sit down with Congressional Budget Office reports. Instead, they rely on what they hear from authority figures. The problem is that much of what they hear is misleading if not outright false.
The outright falsehoods, you won’t be surprised to learn, tend to be politically motivated. In those 1996 data, Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to hold false views about the deficit, and the same must surely be true today. After all, Republicans made a lot of political hay over a supposedly runaway deficit early in the Obama administration, and they have maintained the same rhetoric even as the deficit has plunged. Thus Eric Cantor, the third-ranking Republican in the House, declared on Fox News that we have a “growing deficit,” while Senator Rand Paul told Bloomberg Businessweek that we’re running “a trillion-dollar deficit every year.”
Do people like Mr. Cantor or Mr. Paul know that what they’re saying isn’t true? Do they care? Probably not. In Stephen Colbert’s famous formulation, claims about runaway deficits may not be true, but they have truthiness, and that’s all that matters.
Still, aren’t there umpires for this sort of thing — trusted, nonpartisan authorities who can and will call out purveyors of falsehood? Once upon a time, I think, there were. But these days the partisan divide runs very deep, and even those who try to play umpire seem afraid to call out falsehood. Incredibly, the fact-checking site PolitiFact rated Mr. Cantor’s flatly false statement as “half true.”
Now, Washington still does have some “wise men,” people who are treated with special deference by the news media. But when it comes to the issue of the deficit, the supposed wise men turn out to be part of the problem. People like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the co-chairmen of President Obama’s deficit commission, did a lot to feed public anxiety about the deficit when it was high. Their report was ominously titled “The Moment of Truth.” So have they changed their tune as the deficit has come down? No — so it’s no surprise that the narrative of runaway deficits remains even though the budget reality has completely changed.
Put it all together, and it’s a discouraging picture. We have an ill-informed or misinformed electorate, politicians who gleefully add to the misinformation and watchdogs who are afraid to bark. And to the extent that there are widely respected, not-too-partisan players, they seem to be fostering, not fixing, the public’s false impressions.
So what should we be doing? Keep pounding away at the truth, I guess, and hope it breaks through. But it’s hard not to wonder how this system is supposed to work.