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The Art of Lying

October 28th, 2005

Right-wingers will say that Bush didn’t lie when he said in his 2003 State of the Union address, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” They’ll say that what he said was literally true–the British government did “learn” that, after a fashion–even if the claim about Hussein “seeking” uranium from Niger was false.

Here’s the problem: though you could say that this sentence used qualifying verbs–“learned” and “sought”–the fact of the matter is that the statement’s intended message, the impression it was carefully crafted to send, was that Saddam got uranium from Niger and was working on a nuclear weapon. You can go on all day about how Bush didn’t “really” say that, but that’s the art of the lie: you can make people believe something by not actually saying it literally, then hide behind words.

A statement must be judged a truth or lie more by the message it intends to send rather than just the words taken literally.

A related but slightly different kind of lie is the carefully-constructed half-truth–in other words, using only true statements to give a false impression, especially by omitting key facts that would obviate the intended premise. The more difficult it is to sense or seek out the excluded data, the better for committing the lie. A classic Republican half-truth was championed by Rush Limbaugh and has resonated throughout conservative diatribe to this day: that in the 1980’s, taxes were cut and revenues doubled. The intended message was clear: that cutting taxes (Republican-style) can lead to more money pouring into the treasury. The idea is that tax cuts lead to more money in people’s hands, which leads to more spending, which leads to more jobs, which leads to more income taxes paid. (An alternate version for targeting rich people includes the front-end of rich people investing more, leading to more jobs, thus more taxes.) Central to this is the net income of average Americans, after taxes; the more there is to spend, the more will be spent.

How is this a half-truth? Well, first, while taxes were cut during the 80’s, taxes were also raised, a fact which is omitted and cancels out the first statement. Conservatives will argue that income taxes were cut, but the theory of people having more to spend relies critically upon the individual’s net income after all taxes have been subtracted–including the key Social Security tax increases which hit the middle class especially. Also, a lot of other tax hikes are overlooked, the ones at the local and state level due to government spending cuts passed down, not to mention increased personal expenses due to fewer government services. In a fuller context, tax rates actually increased, even if you only count federal taxes, during the 1980’s for the average American.

Second, the lie forwards the idea that revenues doubled: indeed, revenue in the 80’s rose from $517 billion in 1980 to $1.031 trillion in 1990, just shy of a 100% increase. However: the lion’s share of that increase is false, because the claim of doubled revenue is based upon comparison of dollars not adjusted for inflation. Under those terms, Jimmy Carter probably was the most successful president at raising revenues, but I have the feeling that’s not the message conservatives want to send. Over the ten years beginning with Reagan’s first year in office, the cumulative inflation rate was roughly 77% during the same stated period of revenue doubling (1980 to 1989), making the actual revenue increase in real dollars somewhere around 12%. And a good chunk of that increase was due to population growth.

In the end, the reality was that during the 1980’s taxes were raised slightly, and revenues increased slightly. What a surprise! But this is almost exactly the reverse of what conservatives claim in that famous half-truth lie.

So back to the original premise: if your intent in your overall message is to mislead or outright lie, it matters not one bit if each individual component of the statement you make is “literally” if separately true. So don’t let anyone fool you by claiming a politician “told the truth” when they obviously were trying to make Americans believe something untrue.

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  1. ykw
    October 29th, 2005 at 02:39 | #1

    I think that when folks sell, they more often then not lie. And the politicians and the lawyers are often selling. When Meirs said she is withdrawing because she did not want to release White House records, I think she was lying. We living in a society that is profuse w/ lying.

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