James K. Galbraith

Lies, Dumb Lies, and Sample Statistics


The press has welcomed George W. Bush and well they might. Bush has freed them, at last, from the immense frustration of dealing with that compulsive liar, Bill Clinton.

The problem with Clinton’s lies was not, of course, that they were lies. It was that they were clever lies, intricate lies, artful lies, lies delivered and maintained for months and years on end, lies that were perhaps not of the standard required for perjury but that were certainly far over the heads of the press itself. Even the greatest of them all, the finger-wagging “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” was, in the end, a maddening matter of technical definition. And so it is now, with the furor over the pardon of Marc Rich. Is Clinton lying or not? Who knows?

The new crowd is different. The lies of Bush and his team, so far, are artless. They are transparent. They have a quality of guilelessness, of hour-to-hour inconsistency, that makes them almost endearing. Consider three examples.

First, on the tax cuts. Bush’s campaign advisers cooked up a $1.6 trillion tax cut more than a year ago. Its purpose was simple: to ward off the primary threat from Steve Forbes, the political representative of the anti-philanthropic ultra-rich. The economy was growing and surpluses loomed forever, so the tax cut was a long-term measure, including abolition of the estate tax in a sneak attack on universities, hospitals, and nonprofits. But now, the same tax cut has become a short-term anti-recession tool–in spite of the fact that the big money, 10 years from now, would flow mainly to people whose spending will not increase at all, even then.

Second, the proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) is, and always has been of interest to oilmen and to the state of Alaska. It was, and remains, irrelevant to our current energy issues. Yet now Gale Norton tells us that this oil is needed to relieve the electricity crisis in California–an issue that did not exist when Bush first promised to open the ANWR. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club rightly called Norton’s statement “garbage,” noting that California generates less than one percent of its electricity from oil.

And now, we see that Don Evans, the fundraiser-turned-Commerce Secretary, has stripped the Census Bureau of final authority to decide whether to use statistical sampling to correct for under-voting–excuse me, under-counting–of minorities and poor people in the 2000 Census. We hear that the President believes “actual enumeration” is the fairest way to count the American population. Funny. I do recall James A. Baker III in Florida, just a few months ago, solemnly intoning against the actual enumeration of ballots, and in favor of a machine count–which is of course only a badly biased way to obtain a sample.

Why do these people say such things? They are not stupid. Rather, it is in their nature. This administration is composed of a surface layer of corporate chieftains, and their staffs. These folk have a public relations view of the world–according to which a public statement need not last longer than a news cycle.

That being so, our new leaders don’t worry about the difference between truth and falsehood. The important thing, for most of them, is to meet the need to have said something. The press reports what it is told. Part of the audience, out there in the larger public, will be bamboozled. Others will not be, but so what? Tomorrow is another day.

In the business world, the real work of getting things done does not depend on persuasion. These things depend on intimidation, discipline, and money. And so it is for Bush’s team. The difference is that instead of mergers, acquisition, and competing for markets, the new game involves decapitating the Democrats and disenfranchising their voters. This, the new guys feel, they can achieve when they need to.

And the press, for its part, is very happy. They observe normal business practice–”corporate cool” as David Broder described Dick Cheney. This is the way their own companies work; the journalists feel comfortable, at home. Political reporting takes on the coloration of the business pages; one does not report harshly on the press releases of important firms.

And so, the laziness of the new lies fits perfectly with the laziness of those who cover them. All are contented. For now.

James K. Galbraith is a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, UT-Austin. He is the author of Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay, and co-editor of Inequality and Industrial Change: A Global View.