When does a gaffe become a lie?

Economics, Politics

The media had a blast making fun of Bush’s mispronunciations and speaking errors, and there were many, no doubt about it. But Joe Biden is on the public stage now, and if the past is any indication of the future, it’s going to be hilarious. I won’t document what he’s said in the last few years, his “gaffes” as the media calls them, because if you’re informed you’ve heard them before; but here are a few. (My favorite: Stand up, Chuck — let ’em see ya!)

But when does a misstatement or gaffe become a lie? The media make it seem as if when Bush misspeaks he must have some hidden motive and is lying about something, but when Biden does it it’s just a simple slip-up or gaffe. As some in the media have put it, “That’s just Joe being Joe.” My new favorite is when his wife went on Oprah this week and said Joe had his choice of V.P. or Sec. State, and the next day it was refuted by Obama. So are we to believe that Joe lied to his wife? Or his wife lied to Oprah on national television? Or is Obama simply covering for yet another Joe Biden blunder? I’m sure you know which one I think it is.

On an economic note, I’ve heard Biden, Obama, and David Axelrod all say something to the effect of: “Every economist, whether Democrat or Republican, agrees that we need this stimulus.” Every economist? Really? Greg Mankiw, a well-renowned and respected economist, posts this today. The remainder of this post is verbatim from Mankiw’s blog. I should also note that there are two Nobel prize winners  in economics on Mankiw’s list of economists who disagree with Biden’s notion that a giant fiscal stimulus is the best course of action. I agree wholeheartedly with Mankiw’s statement that if you took every economist that disagrees with Biden and put them in one economics department, it would instantly be a top 10 economics department. I guess “every economist” doesn’t include Lucas and Becker… (See here for a larger list of skeptics, which includes three additional Nobel laureates: Edward Prescott, James Buchanan, and Vernon Smith.)


Is Joe Biden disingenuous or misinformed?

In a TV interview last month, Vice President Joe Biden said the following:

Every economist, as I’ve said, from conservative to liberal, acknowledges that direct government spending on a direct program now is the best way to infuse economic growth and create jobs.

That statement is clearly false. As I have documented on this blog in recent weeks, skeptics about a spending stimulus include quite a few well-known economists, such as (in alphabetical order) Alberto Alesina, Robert Barro, Gary Becker, John Cochrane, Eugene Fama, Robert Lucas, Greg Mankiw, Kevin Murphy, Thomas Sargent, Harald Uhlig, and Luigi Zingales–and I am sure there many others as well. Regardless of whether one agrees with them on the merits of the case, it is hard to dispute that this list is pretty impressive, as judged by the standard objective criteria by which economists evaluate one another. If any university managed to hire all of them, it would immediately have a top ranked economics department.

So what is one to make of the vice president’s statement? As a logical matter, I can think of only four possibilities:

  1. Biden knew what he was saying was false.
  2. Biden was saying what he believed to be true and somehow got this incorrect idea in his head without talking about the issue with the very talented team of economists working for the new administration.
  3. Biden talked to his economic advisers about the issue, and they purposefully misled him into thinking that there was a consensus among economists, even though there isn’t.
  4. Biden’s advisers were themselves mistaken. They expected an overwhelming consensus of support for their fiscal plans and were surprised at the number of prominent economists on the opposite side the issue.

I have no idea which of these hypotheses is correct. I suspect it is either the first or last. But any one of them should make us uneasy about how well the new administration’s economic decisionmaking apparatus is working.

Update: A reader emails me a fifth hypothesis. Earlier in the same interview, Biden refers to “every economist that I’ve spoken to,” and maybe that is the group he is referring to in this later quotation as well. In that case, as the reader suggests, “Biden needs to speak to a broader circle of economists.”


Update (from Dave): According to VH1, Joe Biden is having the Best Week Ever! Congratulations, Joe!

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