In recent months I have become increasingly concerned at the state of bullshit in this country. Bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt famously wrote, is distinguished not by its intentionally negative truth value (those are lies) but its absence of intentional truth value, or as Frankfurt terms it, “indifference to how things really are”. In the democratic context, this is the generally low-level governmental pabulum that we are expected to believe because the full truth is unavailable to those from whom we demand it (more on that later), or because there are more or less legitimate reasons why it cannot be conveyed.
Bullshit and its proliferation
I am concerned because the standard of bullshit that we are expected to believe from the government has declined. Bullshit is eternal — it existed before Key and will persist after him — but I am convinced that it wasn’t generally this bad under Clark. I may be biased in this regard, but I accept we were invited to believe some articles of truly egregious bullshit, such as that Taito Phillip Field was merely helping out a friend, or the 21st Century’s most magnificent local example of bipartisan bullshit, that the NgÄti Apa verdict would result in MÄori owning all the beaches. But in general the bullshit we were offered was at least plausible. That is, we generally did not have to stretch too far to believe that those in charge did in fact believe what they were telling us to be something approximating how things really are.
That an official government source should believe this is a pretty low bar. But in the past few weeks, the Key government has invited us to believe a number of articles of bullshit that they themselves cannot possibly believe, including but not limited to the following:
- That the Prime Minister, the former head of global foreign exchange for Merrill Lynch who in 2005 said that New Zealand should become “the Jersey of the South Pacific”, does not know how overseas trusts in places like the Cayman Islands, Panama and New Zealand work.
- That the Minister of Health, a former GP and health sector business consultant, does not think the quality of hospital food has declined as a result of cost-cutting he has forced upon the Southern DHB.
- That the head of the Ministry of Primary Industries says there is no problem with fish being illegally dumped at sea, when internal documents from within his own department contain proof that such dumping is “widespread”, and further, that the contradiction between these two positions is “absolutely not a cover-up”.
- That the Prime Minister thinks homeless people should see WINZ, when WINZ routinely refuse to deal with anyone who doesn’t have an address.
- That putting those homeless people in $1300pw rental accomodation, the cost of which they must repay at a rate of $10-$20 per week for decades to come, is the best solution that the Ministry of Social Development can come up with, notwithstanding its annual budget of $24 billion and hundreds of qualified staff whose job it is to work out solutions to problems like this.
Surely nobody is credulous enough to believe even the first of these. But that is what we are expected to do: to march along with the pretence that the government is not simply making things up to keep people from becoming angry about matters we have a right to be angry about. While it is not clear that all these are pure, canonical examples (some probably contain actual lies, others possibly honest obliviousness), it is clear that these cases were articulated without due regard to how things really are. They are bullshit.
What’s more, this is purposeless bullshit, deployed for trivial tactical reasons by a government which, it appears, is indifferent to the link between what we are expected to believe and how things really are.
How we know it is bullshit
In the most obvious cases, the bullshit needs no proof. A senior Merrill Lynch banker knows what overseas trusts are for, and the Prime Minister’s wide-eyed protestations of innocence are manifest bullshit. In other cases the bullshit comes from the pretence that things are not as bad as they seem, such as in the case of the food at Dunedin hospital, which Jonathan Coleman pronounced “standard kiwi fare” while patients refused to eat it, instead bringing their own food or going hungry, and while the DHB’s doctors are considering legal action to force a change. In yet other cases the bullshit fills the gap between the endeavours which have been claimed and those that have actually been made to improve a situation — such as for emergency housing, which was termed “incoherent, unfair and unaccountable” in an internal MSD review last winter, but which has not been fixed. Whatever the cause of emergency accommodation problem, the claim that the government is doing all it can to resolve it is clearly bullshit. In yet other cases, bullshit begets bullshit, such as when the head of MPI’s bullshit is revealed by the leak of an internal report, prompting the Minister to aver that there is no cover-up.
At first glance it seems that these are straightforward cases of lying — that is, that the heads of MSD and MPI are perfectly aware that they have misled the public as to these matters. But it is likely that those doing the bullshitting are themselves being bullshitted, or they could, if they chose, learn how things really are but have not done so, the lack of which knowledge means they unavoidably produce bullshit when called to speak.
To explain this, we must consider organisational dynamics. In 2008 computer scientist Bruce F Webster wrote a brief treatise on The Thermocline of Truth, “a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information”. (Webster’s context is large IT projects, but the corporatisation of government means the same dynamics are to some extent useful to this context too.) He identified four factors:
- Lack of automated, objective and repeatable metrics that can measure progress.
- IT engineers tend to be optimists. (In government, we might substitute policy analysts.)
- Managers like to look good and to give good news, because
- Upper management tends to reward good news and punish bad news, regardless of the actual truth content. Honesty in reporting problems or lack of progress is seldom rewarded; usually it is discouraged, subtly or at times quite bluntly.
So while the Social Housing Minister may well have been told of the review last year, this does not mean she read it in full or was substantively briefed on the implications of the policy, much less that she comprehended it all. The government’s relentless Pollyanna routine and commitment to achieving a surplus, and the concomitant constraints on new spending and general disdain for the wellbeing of the poorest New Zealanders shown across the government means that the Social Housing Minister is incentivised to not bring the matter to wider attention, which a real solution would require. That being so, she is incentivised to know as little about it as possible, so that if questioned she can simply bullshit, rather than having to admit that she was aware of the problem but did nothing. Frankfurt cites this maxim in On Bullshit: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”
[Update: At least, this is what the Social Housing Minister tried to do in this case. But she failed, and ended up correcting herself before Question Time today. As Alex Coleman said, she tried to bullshit but ended up lying and corrected the error (with more bullshit). So it goes.]
This sort of thing is sometimes framed as the government or the minister having “other priorities” which, refreshingly, is not bullshit.
Bullshit is the enemy of democracy
But the truth will out. Even if we do not agree that policy analysts are optimists (I accept that this is pretty dubious), it only takes one or two who are willing to risk their position to bring an end to the bullshit. In two of the cases I cited above, we are only able to plumb the bullshit’s depth because internal documents revealing how things really are have been leaked, enabling a comparison to be made between that and what we are expected to believe. It turns out that where something greater than the survival of an IT project is at stake, some people will take action to blow the whistle on departmental or ministerial intransigence. This may emerge from a commitment to a certain political or policy agenda, intra-governmental power games, or honest, decent professional frustration. But whistleblowing recognises that democratic systems thrive on openness, truth and accountability, of which excessive bullshit is the eternal foe.
Whistleblowing, which Danah Boyd calls the new civil disobedience, and other anti-bullshit measures have become profoundly important to both global and New Zealand politics. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Rawshark, the Panama Papers leaker, and the unheralded sources within MSD and MPI all provide a check to governmental systems whose connection to how things really are is increasingly incidental. Boyd concludes:
If the rule of law is undermined and secrecy becomes the status quo, it becomes necessary for new civil disobedience tactics to emerge. And, more than the content of the leaks, this is what I think that weâ€™re watching unfold.
The stakes are lower in New Zealand, but the principles remain. There is a long tradition of protecting and celebrating whistleblowers and other civil disobedients for exercising their consciences, and this tradition must be preserved. Incompetence, intransigence, and the cynical use of bullshit such as identified here are considerably more damaging to democracy than principled, non-bullshitty ideological initiatives, because at least with those we can see clearly what we are getting. If the government were to baldly state that, yes, New Zealand is an international tax haven and these are the benefits of being so; or that homeless people are not really a priority; or that fish being dumped overboard is simply a regrettable cost of production, then at least we would be well-placed to decide whether those were policies which we could support. It does not do so, because the political costs would be too great, and seeks to avoid those costs by way of bullshit. Whistleblowers and leakers require them to pay at least some of the costs of their intransigence. This is just.
The electoral risks of taking the piss
Finally, the problem with bullshit on this scale is that people in a democracy may come to rely on what they are expected to believe as a substitute for how things really are. People can usually tell when the two do not accord, but only with regard to factors that directly effect them. The poor will recognise bullshit regarding poverty, and generalise from that. Environmentalists will recognise bullshit regarding, say, the health of the oceans, and generalise from that. But in the absence of non-bullshit information, people’s rationalisations are often scarcely more useful than the half-recognised bullshit from which they emerge. As a consequence people tend to factionalise around the most compelling purveyors of bullshit-alternatives, which promotes epistemic closure and contributes to radicalisation and polarisation such as is evident in the US Presidential nomination race currently underway.
At least one state has weaponised bullshit in service of its ruling regime, and because of this Putin’s Russia is probably the most prodigious emitter of bullshit in the world today (though the other superpowers are not so far behind as they might think). Putin’s command of bullshit is so great that there now exists no democratic threat to his rule.
That is not true in New Zealand. Aside from the fact that we are not nearly so far gone, the long-term success of more or less bullshit-reliant governments led by both Clark and Key suggests that bullshit persists in government by the consent of the bullshitted. We tolerate a certain amount of bullshit, and we can often forgive its emitters, subject to one condition: that they do not take the piss.
While bullshit is ubiquitous, its current standard is, I think, too egregious for people to put up with. The government’s continuing reliance on bullshit could come off as disdain for the intelligence of the electorate, as Clark and Cullen’s did in their final term, when they told us that the Auditor-General was wrong about Labour’s misuse of taxpayer funds for its 2005 pledge card. One of Key’s great strengths is his ability to present mid-level bullshit as being pretty plausible, but the sort of disdain for the electorate noted above seems new. If people begin to reflect that the government is taking the piss, and ask themselves “what kind of fools do they take us for?” the results could be more politically damaging than any amount of ordinary incompetence or policy failure.