A Healthy Dose of Facts
The cover of a recent Time magazine posed the question “Is Truth Dead?”
Tufts economist Michael Klein has responded with an emphatic no. He and Edward Schumacher-Matos, F73, director of the Fletcher School’s Murrow Center for a Digital World, launched the online publication EconoFact as a nonpartisan antidote to fake news, “alternative facts” and political wrangling. In it, Klein and more than 40 other academic economists are waging their own campaign for veracity by posting short, easily understandable analyses of pressing economic and social policy issues.
The genesis for Econofact was the 2016 presidential election, Klein said, when candidates of all stripes seemed to selectively pick and choose their economic evidence to support positions on everything from jobs creation to trade policy.
“I was concerned that simple and straightforward economic reasoning didn’t have much of a place in the campaign, and that nobody was being held to account for making statements that were not aligned with basic economic ideas, and certainly our experience,” said Klein, the William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs at the Fletcher School.
After the election, he decided to improve the discourse in Washington—and the country—by writing policy briefs about economic issues. He’d done that when he served as chief economist in the U.S. Treasury’s Office of International Affairs in 2010-11, and found it was a good way to cut through the thicket of political posturing. He enlisted other U.S. economists who specialized in a range of areas, from the environment to immigration, and created the EconoFact Network.
The question then became, how do we get this information out in the public sphere? Since the launch of EconoFact in late January, the site has grown steadily, and now features more than 46 posts on topics such as “Do Undocumented Immigrants Overuse Government Benefits?,” “Education Funding: Tax Credits Cost the Federal Government Money,” and “Who Owns Us? Foreign Investment and Trade Deficits.” After three months, the site has had more than 120,000 page views from about 50,000 unique users.
Each post succinctly defines an issue, reviews the facts and reaches a conclusion in a section called “What This Means.” In a world filled with excess verbiage, each piece is a mastery of brevity. “We provide frameworks, ways to think about things,” Klein said.
Another of Klein’s goals is to avoid the tendency of some media outlets to give too much weight to one side of an issue to appear fair, what’s called false equivalence. Take the issue of climate change. The overwhelming majority of scientists who study the issue agree that climate change is happening, and the cause is human-generated carbon emissions. When a media outlet seeks a conflicting point of view in the quest to present both sides, it distorts the facts, Klein said, as if the opposing point of view is held by half the experts in the field.
On EconoFact, the facts are given a fair and appropriate hearing, he said, from a deep bench of economists from Harvard, Princeton, UCLA, Williams College, the University of Texas and Tufts, to name just a few. The intent is to reach a broad audience, including those who simply want to be better informed as well as policymakers and politicians, thought leaders and journalists.
“We’re trying to be nonpartisan,” Klein said, “and just bring to the public discourse the insights and experience of people who have looked very carefully at these issues with thoughtful tools.”
Taylor McNeil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org