Fighting over numbers
There’s a concept almost as old as political campaigns themselves known as mudslinging. It refers to when politicians dredge up questionable and often questionably true parts of their opponents past to ruin their reputation. When the term practice comes into play in an election it normally lowers the quality of debates and makes everyone involved look bad.
Today it seems that there is a modern equivalent to this has formed in the most recent years which crops up whenever candidates begin talking about the economy: ‘graphslinging’. It is when, instead of trying to hurl accusations at each other, debates the candidates hurl spreadsheets at each other trying to prove a very specific point about an economic issue. What eventually happens though is the same outcome. Neither side makes a convincing claim or entirely discredits the others. The credibility of all parties involved is diminished a bit, and by extension politics as a whole. So why can’t debates determine who is right? Do we need to stop talking about economics altogether?
In the most recent election the government would continually claim that the economy was doing better than ever, the opposition would describe it as on the brink of recession. If they were asked to justify their claims, a rarity in any election cycle, they would both be able to point to research and data backing their statements. That’s mainly because the economy is quite a complex thing, seeing as it includes all work and consumption everyone does. So there are different ways of measuring wether the economy has improved or worsened. Jobs are something that have a huge impact on people’s lives so that would be a valid measure. But on the other hand GDP is an all-encompassing figure, which is important for a lot of government calculations. And of course interest rates, inflation, and consumer confidence are all very important to understanding how money is flowing within the country. All of that doesn’t even include international events which need to be factored in – changes in oil prices, recessions, or people traveling less are out of the hands of government so the numbers should be adjusted for all of those differences. In the end measuring the economy depends on dozens of different numbers and precisely how they are combined.
Choosing which numbers to use and how to combine them gives politicians and their statisticians the ability to come to almost any conclusion they like. So one side can say the economy is strong pointing to how many jobs and new businesses have been created despite the recession, while the other can claim catastrophe by showing that GDP hasn’t grown nearly as much as other countries in the EU. Both sides are absolutely right but it would take a masters degree to really understand how all of that makes sense. Especially because most of the time that huge web of numbers is just simplified to the point of saying “we have a strong economy”.
The other side of this is that even if there were some simple universal measure of a how well the country’s economy was doing it would still be difficult to get across in an election. When an advertisement can only hope to keep our attention for a minute they don’t have time to explain the nuance of their claims. Even if they did it would be difficult to interest most voters in a long explanation of the importance of certain economic indicators. Debates, where most candidates are actually challenged on these issues are equally unlikely to function as a platform for proper discussion because they have at best a few minutes to explain their point. What ended up happening is people talking over each other claiming “that’s wrong” to most of what their opponent said. When is the last time you saw a debate where a politician’s closing statements lasted longer than a commercial break.
The problem is that an election, especially in a country of ten parties, is not a great time for explaining. Parties barely have enough time to make their stances known let alone justify and explain them. What that leads to is a quickly mentioned statistic normally with big numbers being used to represent the whole economy. It actually incentivizes parties to twist statistics as much as possible because there isn’t enough time in the campaign to properly challenge them.
What this does is lower the level of discourse in an election. It means that whenever economic issues are covered no one really proves anything. Conservatives maintain that small government is the only way to drive the economy and liberals preach the opposite. But neither side ever has enough time to explain their views beyond listing a number and showing that it went up. So swing voters aren’t really able to make their decisions based on either side’s economic track record.
Is the answer then to not talk about it at all? Should politicians just avoid economic issues and focus on their social platforms. Especially in a world where we are getting better and better at putting more things into numbers. Whenever they are challenged on the economy resort to brushing it aside with “I don’t want to get bogged down in numbers”. Perhaps we can do better as a society.
Maybe this is a chance for political commentators to actually provide some use. A significant portion of election coverage is spent analyzing polls and interviewing experts on how a message was crafted. This is a chance to unpack the claims and not the messages of a campaign. To take a claim about a strong economy and look at the numbers that justify it. Give voters a better understanding of why it is or isn’t true. Leaving it to the politicians themselves clearly hasn’t been working. So maybe it has to be the responsibility of the media to pick up the spreadsheets being hurled at back and forth and piece them together for the rest of us.