Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 19, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

A TAXONOMY OF LIES....The Bush administration tells a lot of different kinds of lies....um, untruths. What kinds are there?

Paul Krugman likes to focus on the brazen lie, the kind favored by Dick Cheney this weekend that finally got the press up in arms. As Krugman points out, this is the kind of lie where Bush says (during the 2000 election) that he's going to take a trillion dollars out of Social Security and this will make the system stronger. It's completely outrageous, but if you say it loudly enough and with enough confidence, people believe it. After all, no one would make up something that crazy unless it were actually true, right?

Josh Marshall thinks Bush's specialty is "the confidently expressed, but currently undisprovable assertion." For example, the idea that his 2003 tax cut proposal would spur job growth was almost universally scorned by mainstream economists, but you couldn't prove it wouldn't work, so he got away with it.

But I think the real hallmark of the Bush administration is the technical lie, a statement that's very carefully constructed to leave an incorrect impression but that turns out to be technically true if you parse it closely enough. Here are a few examples from different policy areas to show what I'm talking about:

  • Stem cells. Back in 2001 George Bush said "more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist....and they have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely, creating ongoing opportunities for research."

    If you look at the words very carefully, this is technically true. The reality, however, is that at the time of of his speech there was only one genuinely usable stem cell line something Bush's team knew perfectly well. (And even today there are less than a dozen usable lines.) But everybody watching his speech came away with the clear impression that there were plenty of promising stem cell lines available for scientists to play around with.

  • The 16 words. In his State of the Union speech, Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

    Again, this is technically true: British intelligence did say this (and they still do). But American intelligence didn't believe it and Bush knew this very well. His words were very carefully chosen to leave the clear impression that we had proof of this activity while still leaving him an out if questioned about it.

  • The dividend tax cut. Hawking Bush's dividend tax cut earlier this year, the White House said "More than 40 percent of people who receive dividends make under $50,000 per year...."

    Again, this is technically true: 40% of people who receive dividends make under $50,000 a year. However, this is clearly designed to make it sound like 40% of dividend income goes to these people, which is not true. The vast, vast majority of dividend income goes to the rich, and people who make under $50,000 generally own no more than a few shares of stock apiece (often in the company they work for). The average tax cut on these few shares of stock averaged less than $30 per year for those making under $50,000.

The brazen lie and the "nondisprovable" lie are bad enough but I guess they don't bother me as much as they should because I feel like all politicians do this. But the fact that you have to parse the Bush administration's words so ultra-finely in order to get to their meaning strikes me as something new. It's as if they listened to Bill Clinton talking about the meaning of the word "is" and suddenly got a brainstorm that this technique could be applied to everything.

And this is why the president's fans can pretend to be outraged when he's called on his lying. "It's not a lie!" they scream, and they're right in a hyper-technical sense. But in every other sense, they're dead wrong. What else do you call a deliberate but very carefully crafted attempt to deceive?

Kevin Drum 10:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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