Paul Krugman on Why It Is So Easy to Fool Voters

With ample time before the next presidential election, Paul Krugman discusses how voters are fooled time and again in Monday's column.


It turns out that no matter how disastrous a government's overall economic performance and policies have been, all that seems to matter to the electorate is what's been happening to their pocketbooks for the last few months.

Krugman uses the upcoming election in Britain to make his point. The country's economic performance since the financial crisis has been abysmal—worse than the U.S's.—with a sputtering and incomes only now reaching their level before the meltdown. Nevertheless, voters appear ready to re-elect the coalition government that has so badly botched the whole business since it came in to power in 2010. What really galls Krugman is that the this coalition government is "posing as the guardians of prosperity, the people who really know how to run the economy. And they are, by and large, getting away with it." 

It's not really news to anyone that politticians lie, obfuscate and distort in order to get elected and re-elected. The real question is, how do they get away with it? And how can we stop them from getting away with it? First, more about the problem, in Britain, and on the whole:

You could blame the weakness of the opposition, which has done an absolutely terrible job of making its case. You could blame the fecklessness of the news media, which has gotten much wrong. But the truth is that what’s happening in British politics is what almost always happens, there and everywhere else: Voters have fairly short memories, and they judge economic policy not by long-term results but by recent growth. Over five years, the coalition’s record looks terrible. But over the past couple of quarters it looks pretty good, and that’s what matters politically.

In making these assertions, I’m not engaged in casual speculation — I’m drawing on a large body of political science research, mainly focused on presidential contests in the United States but clearly applicable elsewhere. This research debunks almost all the horse-race narratives beloved by political pundits — never mind who wins the news cycle, or who appeals to the supposed concerns of independent voters. What mainly matters is income growth immediately before the election. And I mean immediately: We’re talking about something less than a year, maybe less than half a year.

This is, if you think about it, a distressing result, because it says that there is little or no political reward for good policy. A nation’s leaders may do an excellent job of economic stewardship for four or five years yet get booted out because of weakness in the last two quarters before the election. In fact, the evidence suggests that the politically smart thing might well be to impose a pointless depression on your country for much of your time in office, solely to leave room for a roaring recovery just before voters go to the polls.

Actually, that’s a pretty good description of what the current British government has done, although it’s not clear that it was deliberate.

What does a democracy do when elections don't even hold politicians accountable?

The most democratic answer is to try to have a better informed electorate, Krugman concludes. That job lies with the media, which just is not getting the economics story right in its constant perpetuation of the myth that the economy is improving in part due to austerity policies.

Krugman's message: Back to work media. Do your job. "Try to get it right, and explain our answers as clearly as we can, " he counsels. "Realistically, the political impact will usually be marginal at best. Bad things will happen to good ideas, and vice versa. So be it. Elections determine who has the power, not who has the truth."

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