Pining for the Days of Reality-Based Debate

The dictionary defines “propaganda” as “information of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view, and the dissemination of such information as a political strategy.”

We live in an age of propaganda.

I don’t know about others, but I have gotten to the point where I doubt the accuracy of virtually everything I read that has political implications–not just the right-wing fantasies that are embarrassingly obvious, but even ostensibly factual reporting from more moderate and progressive sources that seems to confirm my own biases. We live in an age where propaganda is increasingly driving out objective, fact-based reporting–where we have to double-check everything.

Take the various (misnamed) “think tanks.” Perhaps I was simply more naive a couple of decades ago, but my recollection was that even the private research institutions with an ideological preference generated intellectually respectable studies. They might draw different conclusions from the facts of a matter, but by and large, they began with verifiable facts. They resided in what has come to be called “the reality-based community.”

No longer.

Today’s exhibit: The Heritage Foundation, now run by former Tea Party Senator Jim DeMint. The first report issued after he took over the leadership was a “study” of immigration that was so ridiculously untethered from honesty that even foes of immigration distanced themselves from it. (The author was later found to have produced previous articles “documenting” the inferiority of certain minority groups.) This week, I was intrigued by an article posted to Facebook by an economist friend, analyzing Heritage’s most recent “economic freedom index.”

As the author, Bill Black, points out at The Big Picture, Heritage defines “freedom” as lack of regulation–it rates financial, environmental, and worker health and safety regulations as indicators of less freedom. Similarly, the index treats government spending–even when that spending increases education or health–as diminishing freedom.

Black focuses on the Index’ treatment of Ecuador–treatment which, as he notes, exposes the fallacies of Heritage’s index.

Under its current administration, a million Ecuadorians (out of 15 million) have been brought out of poverty. The prior high levels of emigration have turned around, and the country now has net immigration. Despite Heritage’s description of Ecuador’s growth rate as “moderate,” it was 7.8%–pretty robust by today’s standards, and considerably better than a U.S. 4.4% rate of growth in the 1980s that they had described as “spectacular growth” and attributed to a tax cut. (It’s worth noting that the U.S. economy grew at an average annual rate of 3.4% under Reagan.) The same index that dismissed Ecuador’s 7.8% growth described Peru’s (very respectable) 6.9% growth as “strong.”

Peru is a relatively conservative country, and Ecuador’s President Correa (an economist) is progressive, so 6.9% is strong and 7.8% is moderate.

Agree with Correa or not, he is enormously popular in Ecuador, where his policies have dramatically reduced inequality and poverty. Ecuador’s real growth in wages in 2012 was 3%. (Heritage has a chart that describes a 1.4% growth in wages as a “Rapid Growth Scenario.” Unless, of course, the growth is inconsistent with Heritage ideology.)

After I read Bill Black’s post, I did some independent research. (That trust deficit again….). I found that International Living has ranked Ecuador a top retirement destination for the past five years in a row, citing excellent health care, low crime, and a low and stable cost of living. Business Insider ranks Ecuador as one of the best places in the world to retire.

None of this is intended to paint Ecuador as some sort of Shangri-La. What the facts do show is that Heritage’s wildly misleading index is propaganda, not research.

I wish I could conclude this post by saying that this blatant dishonesty is confined to Heritage and a few other so-called Think Tanks, but it isn’t. It isn’t universal, but it is anything but rare. And that poses a huge problem for citizens who are genuinely trying to understand current policy debates.

My mother used to counsel my sister and me to “consider the source” when we heard something questionable or defamatory. It was good advice.


  1. FACTS !!…They don’t need… stinking facts.
    Access to the air waves is what facts are presented as true…I also seem to remember a fact about Weapons of Mass Destruction, but not much about Joe Wilson and Valerie.

    More independent news shows would be nice. Without the corporate cash.

  2. I agree that we should always consider the source. We can also look at the claims and the “proof”. Overstating what the research shows and even plain sloppy research are more wide-spread than they should be.

    There is another thing we should remember. Many of the so-called “think tanks” on the right were founded because of the perceived “liberal bias” of research coming out of our academic institutions (reality has a liberal bias?). If you look at their mission statements, they often say that they exist to promote conservative ideology or to show the free markets are the answer (to everything). When the conclusions are pre-determined, the research is bound to suffer.

  3. All think tanks have an agenda that is reflected in their research. That’s been true from the time I first learned what think tanks were, who founded them and where they get their funding. The Heritage Foundation’s reports are no more skewed than reports we get from the Brookings Institute, the Council on Foreign Relation, American Enterprise Institute and so on.

    I’m more concerned about the ability of the news media to cut through the propaganda and just report the facts. That doesn’t happen, and it hasn’t happened in my lifetime. Operation Mockingbird revealed how the CIA basically bought off top news organizations, which became nothing more than mouthpieces for the organization’s propaganda. This was critical in covering up the Kennedy assassination facts, which were grossly misreported in the hours, days, weeks and months immediately after the assassination and have been proven so in glaring detail over the past 50 years.

    The same is true with Vietnam. The American people had no idea what the size of our military presence was in Vietnam, or had any grasp of details for explaining Kennedy’s rationale and intentions for withdrawing tens of thousands of “military advisers” from Vietnam. It took Daniel Ellsberg’s release of “classified” material known as the Pentagon Papers to make that information known. The information disclosed in those documents should not have even been deemed classified. Most of the information should have been discussed and debated in open congressional hearings.

    The American people were kept completely in the dark about how our government secretly brought thousands of Nazi war criminals to the U.S. through Operation Paperclip and secretly granted them asylum here and placed them in sensitive government positions or private defense contractors after creating false identities for them. That information has only become known in the last several years, largely through the whistle blowing of former high-ranking officials who were appalled and alarmed by what they uncovered.

    On your subject of the immigration reform legislation, I am an immigration attorney and know a lot more about what’s in that bill than you or any of the Senate sponsors of the legislation, who have made one false representation after another about what is in their bill.

    First of all, don’t tell me it’s not amnesty. It is amnesty for well in excess of 10 million undocumented aliens. There is no way of getting around that fact. For the sponsors of this legislation to stand up and state publicly that it is not amnesty is a flat out lie and, if they don’t understand that, they are more ignorant than I give them credit for being.

    I fully agree with the sponsors that it would be inhumane and nearly impossible to try to round up every person in the U.S. who is here illegally and remove them. That is particularly true of young people who were brought here by their parents through no choice of their own and really have no ties to their native country. Originally, this legislation was supposed to just provide a legal path to residency for those young immigrants and their adult family members who have been here at least five years and who have not committed serious crimes of the sort that would provide a bar under current law to legal immigration status.

    This legislation does far more than just grant amnesty to the largest number of undocumented aliens in modern history (we’ve have two major amnesty relief bills since 1984). It opens up the floodgates to a large influx of legal immigrants every year who will be competing for jobs against our current workers, who are struggling economically more than any point since the Great Depression. It also makes those who have already been removed from the country through lawful removal proceedings eligible to re-enter the country as legal immigrants. That’s highly unusual, and it’s difficult to know exactly how many more (at least hundreds of thousands, if not in excess of a million) this will open the door to legal immigration.

    Have you talked to your students about how they feel about competing against an influx of hundreds of thousands of legal foreign workers annually? I suspect you would find a number of them are already worried that they won’t be able to find a job. Even the CBO acknowledges that wages will fall over the next decade as a result of the large influx of new workers. Do you expect health care, housing and food costs to decline?

    In other words, you’re asking average Americans to accept a declining standard of living for the sake of avoiding being labeled a bigot because they think we need to work on full-employment for Americans before welcoming a large new group of immigrants. What I deplore about the dialogue in this debate framed by the Left is the set up that you could not possibly oppose it unless you are a bigot. There are many facets to this legislation. It’s become a free-for-all, and it includes all kinds of goodies that have absolutely nothing to do with immigration. Unfortunately, it’s quite apparent that there will be do intelligent debate on either side because we live in a 24-hour news cycle where only the 15-second sound bites could heard.

  4. “It opens up the floodgates to a large influx of legal immigrants every year who will be competing for jobs against our current workers, who are struggling economically more than any point since the Great Depression.”

    So your saying we need to create business to cater to this influx of population to survive if this bill passes?
    Creating jobs like, driving at low pay to shuffle this influx population to low paying jobs that we use to have, that once paid well.

    trade agreements do the same. Have you read the latest that is possibility more damaging than NAFTA & CAFTA combined…more foreign slave labor to compete with.

  5. Mark, Major business organizations support the bill, unfortunately, for precisely that reason. They want to provide a larger pool of workers to work at low wages. I also left out the Obamacare exemption in this legislation, which is particularly alarming. It actually provides an incentive to American employers to hire foreign workers over Americans because it exempts those workers from the Obamacare mandates. Those foreign workers need health care as much as American workers. Who’s going to pay for their health care when health emergencies arise?

  6. “They want to provide a larger pool of workers to work at low wages.”
    …And have been for years. We don’t need reform, we need to enforce the existing laws that punish business & corps that deliberately hire illegals. But! They have lobbied to defund immigration resulting in less officers to enforce the existing laws.

    “Who’s going to pay for their health care when health emergencies arise?”
    …Again, Lobbyist…Nothing more than Bag-Men carrying bribes. I conversed with a Canadian Blogger who said their free health care works just fine and our politicians were lying about it.

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