My Favorite Word Is Context (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018 12:00 am   3 min read

I learned a new word last week: fibbery. It is exactly what you think it is, and I learned it in exactly the context you might expect: opinion commentary complaining about politicians deliberately lying to voters for personal gain.

Every even-numbered year — and not just since I learned that Donald Trump embodies the current ideals of the Republican Party — I have been disgusted by politicians who set out to misinform constituents. “The main reason I hate politics is that the political goal of misleading the masses into uninformed votes is completely incompatible with my professional goal of informing the public,” I wrote in this space in 2002.

In 2008 I naively expressed hope that we could all agree on this: “It is unpatriotic, un-American and just plain wrong to try to trick voters. The ends do not justify the means.” In 2014 I noted that “a lot of money is being bet on the idea that voters will believe anything they are told often enough, and outrage seems to be selling particularly well these days.”

In those good old days, I was mainly disgusted by deliberately misleading political advertising. Now we have a president who rose to the top of his recently adopted political party by promoting the cynical, racist birther lie and then making up some stuff about Mexico paying for a wall and Hillary Clinton being locked up. It worked spectacularly well because, as it happens, the presidency is the only office that can be won in this country without actually persuading the most voters.

This president, a marketing savant who knows exactly what his base of support wants to hear, also understands the power of big numbers without context. That’s why Donald Trump, when he was merely a born-rich guy bankrupting casinos and using fake names to plant fake news about himself in his hometown tabloids, would routinely claim net worth based on his mood. And it’s why President Trump routinely inflates numbers based not on actual data but on the urgency of his message.

Recent example: How many jobs would be in jeopardy if Saudi Arabia were punished for the murder of a U.S. resident at its consulate in Turkey?

The incomparable Daniel Dale, reporting for the Toronto Star, noted that Trump gushed about a deal to sell U.S. weapons to the Saudis in March because it would create “over 40,000 jobs in the United States.” But after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the number of jobs at risk — according to the president — had exploded to 450,000. Days later it was 500,000. Then 600,000. Then “over a million jobs.”

A casual observer might not question any one of these numbers coming from the mouth of the president of the United States, although noting the changing number should give any intellectually honest person pause.

Context: Approximately 156 million Americans were employed in September 2018 and fewer than 6 million were looking for work. A “superproject” in Arkansas economic development terminology is 500 jobs. The entire U.S. military is about 1.3 million. Does it seem possible that one contract could create a million new jobs? In context, even 40,000 — Trump’s original claim — seems generous.

Something similar is happening with the infamous “caravan” of scary brown people moving slowly through Mexico. While it is hard to pin down the number of migrants hoping to enter the United States, reports have estimated between 4,000 and 8,000, with possibly 2,000 more coming behind.

Is that a lot? It’s a rounding error in college football attendance figures.

The U.S. routinely receives approximately 1 million legal immigrants every year, so a rough average of 2,750 every day. Is another two or three days’ worth of immigrants more than our immigration system can vet and process? Is it a national “emergy,” as the president tweeted?

He ordered 5,200 troops to the border weeks ahead of the caravan’s arrival. Then he said he might increase that to 10,000 or even 15,000. I’m not a world-class business executive like Trump, but CEOs I know aren’t typically so casual about doubling or tripling their labor force — perhaps because they have a fiduciary responsibility to spend investors’ money wisely.

Here’s some context: We currently have 28,000 troops in South Korea, an installment of strategic importance before Trump fell in love with the latest murderous dictator of North Korea. How do these desperate migrants compare as an existential threat to the United States?

More context: Unless our president is engaged in blatant fibbery, he is signalling that this rag-tag caravan could require the same amount of armed, trained military power as Afghanistan, where we currently have about 15,000 troops. But we can hope it won’t last as long.


Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.

 

 

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