Saturday, April 2, 2016

Vox and the False Consensus of ‘Most Economists Agree’

When it launched in 2014, “new media” outlet Vox prided itself on having an analysis-driven approach, “explaining” the news to its readers in a clear and concise way. A rhetorical tic appearing in much of their reporting, however, belies those noble motives: the reliance on  phantom economic and expert consensus.
Given that Vox does little original reporting, much of their selling point is quick, easy-to-understand analysis. A meaningful amount of this analysis, however, pivots on the toxic cliche, “most economists agree/think/say/believe,” and its equally toxic cousin, “most experts agree/think/say/believe.” This cliche is frequently used without a shred of evidence for said consensus.
Vox is by no means alone. This is a common trope found at the The Economist and other “wonky” neoliberal outlets. The problem with the refrain, aside from the fact that it’s a weasel phrase that wouldn’t pass muster in a 10th grade rhetoric class, is that it’s designed to posture, to aggrandize an argument based solely on the insertion of an entirely made-up consensus of bespectacled, important men hovering over data and dispassionately reaching conclusions that happen to dovetail with the author’s own positions.

“Most Experts”:

Should You Own Foreign Stocks?

Most experts believe you should invest at least some of your retirement savings in international stocks. But there’s surprisingly little consensus about how much.
What polling data supports this assertion? Matthew Yglesias only links to one Wall Street Journal straw poll of “ten experts” who all say you should, but they’re all working at wealth management firms — what are they supposed to say, don’t invest in this large, emerging sector?  How did the opinion of ten people who work in wealth management become “most experts”? It’s never made clear. At best, it’s “some” experts, but this sounds far less sexy than the superlative “most.”

The Most Predictable Disaster in the History of the Human Race

In one of their halfdozen commercials for Bill Gates (who put $1 billion into Vox’s main investor Comcast in 1997 and whose Gates Foundation owns 945,000 Class A “special” shares in Comcast as well), Vox asserted Gates’ value proposition using the mystical “most experts” consensus:
Whether through the WHO or some other mechanism, most experts agree that the world needs some kind of emergency-response team for dangerous diseases.
Maybe “most experts” do agree the world needs an emergency-response team for dangerous diseases, but there’s no proof offered of this. Instead, Gates’ sales pitch for his project is asserted as axiomatic.

Bernie Sanders Is Creating a New and Untested Electoral Force in American Politics

Sanders’ coalition looks very different from what Obama created, or what most experts had expected.
What did experts expect? It’s never explained.

Why Police Officers Often Resort to Lethal Force as Their First Response

While the public often expects a police officer to use a Taser — or, if the officer only has a gun, to shoot the suspect in the leg — in any possible situation, most experts and police guidelines side with Belmar.
No evidence for this consensus is provided.

Iraq’s Sunnis and Minorities Will Probably Suffer the Most

ISIS’s military defeats by the Iraqi government, Shia militias and Kurdish fighters have convinced most experts that the group can’t hold on to its territory forever.
No group has ever held on to its territory forever. This fatuous non-statement is meant to give the appearance that progress is being made against ISIS without having to actually show this is the case.

“Most Economists”

Martin O’Malley Wants Boosts to Social Security That Even Bernie Sanders Hasn’t Called For

…such as that put forward by the Obama administration, to adopt “chained CPI,” which is a method of calculating population-wide price inflation that most economists regard as more technically accurate than the current measure, which would effectively cut benefits.
What percent of economists think this? One of the problems with the weasel phrase “most are” is that it spans a wide chasm. Somewhere between 50 percent and 99.999 percent, since anything under the former would be “some” and anything over the latter would be “all.”
The same asserted majority made an appearance in a September 16, 2015, Vox piece:
Most economists feel that a “chained” index like personal consumption expenditure deflator would be more accurate, and those indexes paint a more optimistic picture of income growth.

Study: Bernie Sanders’ Single-Payer Plan Is Almost Twice as Expensive as He Says

There’s also a dispute as to who would pay the employer payroll tax. Like most economists, Thorpe treats the employer payroll tax as paid entirely by workers. In an email, he explained that he’s following standard practice used by the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation in calculating their estimates of legislation. “CBO and JCT assume that total employer compensation is fixed so this is fully borne by workers,” he writes.
Official US government models becomes “most economists.”

That Time Lindsey Graham Crafted a Bill to Destroy the Economy

Also, the association of cap and trade with a weak economy is misleading, as most economists say a cap-and-trade program (or other price on carbon) is the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions.
No evidence for this consensus is provided.

Here’s What the Tax Code Would Look Like if Bernie Sanders Got Everything He Wanted

A 6.2 percent income-based premium paid by employers on wage income. This is basically a payroll tax, and most economists agree that the cost of “employer-paid” payroll taxes are passed on entirely to workers in the form of lower wages in the long run.
Again, no evidence is provided of what “most economists” think. (As FAIR noted on Tuesday, Vox’s dubious “tax calculator” pivoted almost entirely on this notion of what “most economists” agreed with.)

5 Reasons Why the Shrinking GDP Isn’t a Reason to Panic

…but here are a few reasons why economists and markets are shaking off the biggest economic contraction in more than five years.
An economic consensus is just asserted by the author.  One week later:

Jobs Day Has Arrived!

And yet despite that awful news, most economists are downright complacent about the state of things.
Here the evidence for the attitude of “most economists” is a link back to the previous article, where the evidence for consensus is the author’s assertion. The economy is just dandy and the reason we know this is because a phantom “most economists” say so.

Clean Energy Tax Credits Mostly Go to the Affluent. Is There a Better Way?

To most economists, climate policies are either a carbon price or “second best.” We needn’t rehearse all that again.
The link goes to a Grist article that questions the uncritical “reverence” for a carbon tax held by “many economists and climate hawks,” rather than to any actual evidence about what “most economists” think.
Sometimes Vox does actually link to something at least attempting consensus, as they have done here and here. But more often, even when an attempt at consensus is reached, it’s plagued with blinders that render the “most economists” distinction suspect.
For example, the University of Chicago “poll” that sampled economists about the value of Uber, showing uniform consensus about how great it was, did not contain a single African-American or Hispanic economist. Does the class and racial composition —let alone the University of Chicago’s notorious association with free-market ideology—affect what this cohort of “most economists” thinks? Probably. Does anyone at Vox care? Evidently not.
Sometimes the “most economists” device is just a lazy placeholder, and it’s entirely possible that “most economists,” if subjected to anything approaching a scientific poll, would actually agree with the author’s assertion. Sometimes vague intuitions about what others think are true!
But like Fox News‘ use of “some say,” “most economists” or “most experts” is often a weasel phase that permits the writer to smuggle in their own opinion and ideology where it ought not be, and couches their own subjective, ad hoc analysis as something reflecting scientific consensus. Certainly, if “most experts” on a subject agree, what they agree on must therefore be objectively and undoubtedly true.
Ultimately, the “most expert/economists” cliche is a lazy appeal to authority that shortcuts actually showing one’s homework—how one got from premise to conclusion. If the news is going to be “explained” rather than just asserted, most media critics agree that Vox should drop this tic altogether.
This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.

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