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.”
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.