The election has seemingly cast us into a post-truth world, where facts and analysis matter less than strongly-voiced opinions and devastating tweets. But what works to get one successfully elected may not work nearly as well when the victor governs.
Reality has a way of catching up with you, or, put more eloquently by John Adams in 1770, “Facts are stubborn things. And whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
But what are the facts?
In an environment where every niche opinion has its own outlet on a blog or on Twitter, it is all too easy to stay in an echo chamber and hear only what you already agree with. Furthermore, “experts” have been disparaged. Michael Gove, the former U.K. Secretary of State for Justice, said in the run-up to the Brexit vote, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”
Maybe enough of experts, but maybe not enough of information.
According to Google Trends, the questions “What is the E.U.?” and “What is Brexit?” spiked after the polls closed in Britain on June 23. The U.S. election was similarly marked by a seeming disregard for experts, considered opinions, and facts.
With this in mind, I began an initiative after the election called EconoFact. I wrote to top academic economists asking them to participate by writing short memos that addressed policy issues by presenting statistics, historical experience, and economic frameworks. There was strong, enthusiastic support, with more than 30 economists enlisting in this effort. The Murrow Center for a Digital World at the Fletcher School provided logistical and strategic support for this initiative.
We launched on Sunday, with six memos covering the topics of manufacturing, currency manipulation, the border wall, World Trade Organization rules, the trade deficit, and charter schools. On our first day, we had more than 18,000 views from more than 11,000 unique sources. Over the next weeks, we will publish memos on economic growth, financial regulation, corruption, aid to Africa, exchange rate policy, the coal industry, and immigrant labor.
A key characteristic of our memos is that they present the facts before presenting opinions—the opposite of a typical op-ed. We want to emphasize that you can choose your own opinions, but you cannot choose your own facts. The memos are short, accessible, free of jargon, and meant to appeal to those involved in making policy, journalists, and writers who comment on policy and, most importantly, citizens who want to be better informed.
Will this make a difference?
It would be naïve to think that any website, however well intentioned, could shift the public debate. We have made an effort to get voices from across the political spectrum but, of course, we will be accused of bias by those with an axe to grind.
We also face an uphill battle because people are used to the false equivalence that has too often plagued the media. In an effort to seem even-handed, or just to make policy seem like another sports event, the news will sometimes present one of the 99 experts who share a well-considered view alongside the single so-called expert with a fringe view.
But we believe that, like the British public who were hungry for information and showing evidence of buyer’s remorse after the Brexit vote, the American public too will want to become better informed as events unfold. We hope that EconoFact becomes a valued resource towards that end.
Michael W. Klein is the William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He served as a chief economist at the U.S. Treasury Department during the Obama administration. He is a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research and a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. He has been a visiting scholar at the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. Federal Reserve, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
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