CBO, Public Opinion, and Institutions

Since Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign he and his surrogates have attacked the norms and institutions of our modern government and society. Trump has exploited doubt and distrust to rail against the pillar of truth and journalism and has used his followers zeal to effectively crush the  non-governmental political institutions: the Democrat and Republican parties. As he has continued his assault on the norms of governance from the executive branch, the Republican congress has begun assaulting other basic institutions of free and open society and government from the legislative branch.

Walter Lippmann published a seminal book in 1922 titled Public Opinion. In the work he describes the role, uses, and pitfalls of shared beliefs. Much of the book is focused on the control and dissemination of information, the nature and theory of democratic governance as it relates to the will of the people, and the biases and errors that are rife within people’s belief structures – and finally, the way our perceptions of public life can be manipulated. In the very last section of the book Lippmann promotes solutions that will help the public and politicians be better informed and allow them to make better decisions.

His greatest piece of advice is to create technical, scientific research councils that are independent of the direct control of Congress or the executive branch. These research organizations would collect and analyze data on social and scientific issues and would release the results to the public as well as to politicians, without making any decisions. Ideally, this would enable politicians to make decisions that were good for the public, and, because of the public release of information, would allow the public to hold politicians accountable for both sound and unsound decisions. Aside from some technical aspects of government, or organizations that are political and tangentially related to government (like think tanks, etc.) these ideas have never been truly adopted. Decision making in an increasingly complex world where more expertise is required to understand processes that are hidden from general view has certainly suffered from a lack of central research and publication of facts.

One organization that has generally been considered apolitical (or at least bipartisan) and has fulfilled Lippmann’s ideal well, has been the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO. Formed in 1974, the CBO was designed to provide accurate and credible analysis of the effects of bills submitted in Congress on the economy and social welfare of the United States. Since its inception the CBO has generally been insulated from Congressional pressure and its findings have been generally accepted. But recently some Republicans in Congress have been rejecting the accuracy and nonpartisanship of the CBO.

As part of the current Administration’s campaign against truth, and after particularly galling estimates about healthcare coverage under various Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, members of Congress and the Administration have attacked the integrity of the CBO. Many of the practices and policies of the Trump Administration have been destructive and dishonest, but these attacks are particularly frightening. Shamefully, Republicans in Congress have joined the attacks, as the shell of the Republican Party suffers further moral collapse. Out of all of the destructive and short-sighted policies coming from Trump, and of all the awful ministering of government, the most destructive longterm effect wrought by the current President will almost certainly be on public trust in institutions.

Liberals will not trust any conservatives, conservatives will distrust liberals. Not in the way they previously doubted the effectiveness of each other’s creeds, but in their fundamental sincerity of belief. Hacking away at the unspoken institution of truthfulness in society is corrosive, but tearing down the actual institutions of integrity, transparency, and science is an even swifter method of collapsing society.

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