2013-01-29

Growing Weary of Spin

Today, USA Today reports: 
Part of President Obama's immigration strategy -- and his gun control strategy -- is to build public support through speeches; that's why he's in Nevada on Tuesday.
I like this idea much better than the behind-the-scenes bullying that other reports of Obama's management style have described. I also like it a lot better than a new anti-immigration law of any kind. Life is a lot better when people talk and persuade each other, rather than ruling and bullying each other. So, insofar as Barack Obama uses unaggressive persuasion to win popular support for his policy goals, more power to him!

It does beg the question, though: How will we know if Obama's speech campaign is successful? How will we measure overall popular support of whatever it is Obama wants to do?

It seems to me that there are two ways that the average person can get a sense of to what degree there is "popular support" for something: (1) Read the results of a public opinion survey, or (2) Get a vague and unscientific "feel" for how "people" feel, based on personal observation.

Given that (1) quite typically yields controversial or inaccurate results, I think most people will rely on (2). But here's the rub: Few of us go around asking strangers about their views on immigration policy. This means that our impressions will most likely be based on what we read in the news and see on TV and on the internet.

So, Obama's genius plan is to give speech after speech after speech on the topic. Because it is a presidential speech, it will be reported and discussed in the news media. Because people watch and read the news, they will pick up on the fact that Obama favors Policy X on immigration.

Think about it: Obama builds popular support just by giving enough speeches to convince people watching the news that there is popular support. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's All Spin
I hate it when people say, "It's all spin." But it's getting difficult to put your finger consistently on the truth. Obama's self-fulfilling-speech campaign is a great example of this. Another great example of this is what I wrote about yesterday with respect to Jeffrey Tucker's claim that "the great inventor" is a myth.

I understand that he's saying this in order to make a point about intellectual property. Fine. But what does intellectual property legislation have to do with whether or not there have been "great inventors" throughout history? I mean, why do you have to discredit society's perception of genius in order to argue against intellectual property legislation?

You don't. That's the point. He's engaging in spin. He's being deliberately inflammatory in order to riff on one of his favorite whipping boys.

And the same goes for Scott Sumner when he writes on his blog that "...low interest rates are not a monetary policy." Sumner is technically correct, because the Federal Reserve uses monetary policy to attempt to influence market behavior in such a way that interest rates reach the Fed's target at equilibrium. Fine. But every economics and Federal Reserve educator in the world simplifies that statement to, "The Federal Reserve sets interest rates." No, technically the Fed does not actually go around making sure that everyone is paying a particular interest rate. That's silly. But it's also pedantic to raise that technicality, because everyone who talks about the Fed's policy with respect to interest rates knows what the phrase "the Fed sets the interest rate" means.

So when John Taylor writes an op-ed saying:
Consider the "forward guidance" policy of saying that the short-term rate will be near zero for several years into the future. The purpose of this guidance is to keep longer-term interest rates down and thus encourage more borrowing. A lower future short-term interest rate reduces long-term rates today because portfolio managers can, in a form of arbitrage, easily adjust their portfolio mix between long-term bonds and a sequence of short-term bonds.
He is stating that he thinks the Fed is "setting the interest rate" at too low a level, and everyone knows that he really means that Fed policy is too expansionary. In fact, he spells out the technicalities in the paragraph I have just quoted. Nothing coy about it.

So why does Sumner spin? What do the technicalities of "setting the interest rate" have to do with the actual positions being discussed?

Conclusion
What I find unreasonable about all this is the level of pedantism to which we have to descend in order to get beyond the spin of it all. Seriously, Scott Sumner and John Taylor are both about as intelligent and respected as economists get. Why do we have to wade deep into the weeds of simple phrases like "setting the interest rate" just to have a discussion about what each of them would prefer the Federal Reserve Board do?

And why do we have to stipulate that "no idea occurs in a vacuum" in order to acknowledge that Einstein was a great inventor?

And why do we have to conduct an expensive public opinion poll just to to decipher whether the public supports Obama's immigration policy or if they've just seen a lot of news reports about it?

Can we all just give the spin a rest? This is getting ridiculous.