We are weak because we enjoy being lied to (we prefer pleasant fiction to harsh facts)

Summary:  America has become weak not because Ignorance is Strength (if so we be better than Rome), but because we prefer fiction over fact.  Here we look at some propaganda about the government debt, almost totally false, tweaked and circulated by fans of Ron Paul.  This is another in a series about what might be our most serious problem, America’s broken OODA loop (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action loop). 

(1)  An example of propaganda designed by experts who understand us

Let’s rewind back to 2010 (using YouTube) to watch this must-discussed commercial:


Beijing, China – 2030 AD.  A professor addressing an auditorium of students.

Why do great nations fail? The Ancient Greeks. The Roman Empire. The British Empire. And the United States of America. They all make the same mistakes, turning their back on the principles that made them great. America tried to spend and tax itself out of a great recession. Enormous so-called “stimulus” spending, massive changes to health care, government takeovers of private industries {Wall Street appears on the screen} and crushing debt. Of course, we owned most of their debt so now they work for us. [Students laugh]

You can change the future. You have to. Join Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) to stop the spending that’s bankrupting America.

This is a riff on the 1986 advert The Deficit Trials” (banned by the major networks, broadcast on several hundred independent stations).  It is a trifecta of propaganda.  A hat trick of fear-mongering: the yellow peril, mountains of debt, and big government.  And almost every line is wrong.

  1. It was not banned.  CAGW, a well-funded conservative shop, did a major buy of airtime for this ad.
  2. In what sense did the “ancient Greeks” or British Empire fail by not following the principles that made them great?
  3. The US did not try to “tax itself out of recession.”  Taxes were cut, not raised.
  4. The government did not take over private industries, certainly not the banks.  It bailed them out, taking neither control nor ownership.
  5. The stimulus worked, as many studies have shown (as it did in the 1930s).  It was oversold (pols always oversell), but it was effective first aid (emergency treatment, not a cure).  The crash was roughly the same size as that of 1929, but we avoided a depression.
  6. China does not “own most” of the US government debt.  As of June 2011, China holds $1.2 trillion of the $14.3 T treasury debt (see this New York Times article).
  7. Nor can China leverage our debt to “make us work for them”.  There is no collateral for treasuries.  Cashing them in would send the RMB skyrocketing and crash their exports).  And we have postive net investment income (we earn more on our foreign investments than they earn here; see details here).

James Fallows explains a few more errors in  “The Phenomenal Chinese Professor Ad“, The Atlantic, 21 October 2010:

CAGW, a descendant of J. Peter Grace’s 1980s-era anti-wasteful spending commission, is in principle bipartisan, though in this election its campaign about the menace of “stimulus spending” has an obvious partisan tilt. And if you know anything about the Chinese economy, the actual analytical content here is hilariously wrong. The ad has the Chinese official saying that America collapsed because, in the midst of a recession, it relied on

  • government stimulus spending,
  • big changes in its health care systems, and
  • public intervention in major industries

— all of which of course, have been crucial parts of China’s (successful) anti-recession policy.

Campus Progress made a parody of CAGW’s propaganda video.

(2)  Successful propaganda need not be used only once

A good con can fool the same marks a second time.  Here we see the same ad, with a few tweaks (plus a jab at Rick Perry), which has gone viral on the Internet — 122 thousand hits so far on Google (a crude buy useful metric).


For more information about Ron Paul see section 2 of Ron Paul’s exotic past tells us much about him, the GOP, libertarians – and about us.

For more information

For a list of all posts about these things see the FM Reference Page Information & disinformation, the new media & the old.

Other propaganda and information operations run against us (other than those by DoD and intel agencies:

  1. Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010
  2. More propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island, 4 February 2010
  3. Can Obama turn America into something like Zimbabwe?, 22 February 2010
  4. Dumbest headline of the week, 1 March 2010 — Where are the good political smear artists?
  5. About the political significance of the conservatives’ health care propaganda, 23 March 2010
  6. The similar delusions of America’s Left and Right show our common culture – and weakness, 26 March 2010
  7. Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
  8. Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 15 September 2010
  9. The easy way to rule: leading a weak people by feeding them disinformation, 13 April 2011
  10. Why Conservatives are winning: they use the WMD of political debate, 28 April 2011
  11. Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011
  12. Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda, 28 December 2011
  13. More use of the big lie: shifting the blame for the housing crisis, 29 December 2011

6 thoughts on “We are weak because we enjoy being lied to (we prefer pleasant fiction to harsh facts)”

  1. Generally accurate. However, you fail badly in number 2: In what sense did the “ancient Greeks” or British Empire fail by not following the principles that made them great?

    The Athenians earned the admiration of the ancient world by creating the first democracy and successfully fighting off the Persian empire’s efforts to enslave them at the battle of Salamis (the side action by the 300 spartans was an entirely unimportant skirmish). Then the Athenians turned around and created the Delian league and enslaved and murdered other Greeks, most infamously the entire population of the island of Delos. The Athenians slaughtered the entire male population and enslaved all the women, earning the disgust and loathing of all the other Greek states, who then refused to come to Athens’ aid when the Peloponnesian War turned against them. As a result, Sparta won and forced Athens to tear down its long wall, then set up Thirty Tyrants to conduct a program of purges, genocidal murder, and torture against the Athenians.

    Likewise, the British were the first nation to outlaw slavery in 1798. They earned the admiration of the world for their advocacy of the rule of law, including the right to a trial by jury, freedom of speech, and so on. By the 1860s, the British Empire had descended to colonial oppression, murdering and torturing brown people in distant parts of the world without benefit of trial. Most notably the Sepoy Rebellion, but also by conducting a war to force the Chinese to accept massive shipments of opium (the Boxer Rebellion) which addicted and destroyed the lives of countless Chinese, earning vast profits for the British.

    America has today similarly abandoned the principles which made it great — but not mythical propaganda principles of low taxes or suchlike twaddle, as claimed in the bogus Chinese professor video. The real principles which America has abandoned are the founding principles of Anglo Saxon rule of law: the guarantee of a trial by jury, the requirement that accused defendants be charged with a crime before being imprisoned, the requirement that the government not arbitrarily not murder its own citizens without charging them with a crime and putting them on trial before a jury, and the absolute prohibition against torture.

    In America in 2012, torture is now commonplace (the police call it “pain compliance” or “crowd control” but when you’re blasted with an LRAD from 50 feet away or tased several hundred times, it’s torture), Obama has signed of on the NDAA which permits kidnapping of American citizens without charging them with a crime and without benefit of a jury trial, and Obama himself has ordered the assassination of a U.S. citizen without a trial and without even charging him with having committed a crime. The fourth amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure has long been abolished by “sneak-and-peek” warrants and “no knock” warrants (the latter of which results in many deaths of innocent citizens when the police knock down the door to the wrong house and the residents try to defend themselves against what they think is a home invasion) and by property forfeiture (people’s money gets legally stolen by the police although they’re never charged with a crime) and of course by abominations like FISA, in which the U.S. government now routinely spies on every domestic phone call made by an American citizen (something we used to imagine would only be done by totalitarian regimes like the former Soviet Union). The First Amendment has effectively been abolished by local ordinances prohibiting public assemblies without permits, “kettling,” and so on.

    The plain fact of the matter is that whenever America faced some other country that trusted its people so little it had to spy on everyone’s phone calls and open every citizen’s mail, we knew the other country was on the losing side. Nobody loves sneaks who compulsively spy on their own citizens.

    Whenever America faced another country that tortured and kidnapped its own citizens, the end of the conflict was a foregone conclusion. Nobody loves a torturer. Other countries don’t rush to ally themselves with torturing murdering regimes that kidnap and brutalize their own citizens — such behavior bespeaks a descent into barbarism that earns the country in question no admiration from anyone. America has now chosen to descend into barbarism, and the rest of the world has reacted with horror and disgust. This will not end well.

    By abandoning the basic principles of the rule of law, America has abandoned the basic principles which made it great. Other countries will take up the torch of common human decency as America collapses and declines into savagery.

    1. I dont’ believe your account of Greece is accurate. Not even close.

      • CLassical Greece was not Athens. Athens was not the heart or soul of Greece.
      • Athens was not admired by all Greece, but only a part. The Dorian regions and the LARGE non-democratic part didn’t so much.
      • Athens executed the people of Melos, not Delos.

      We know little about the Peloponnesian War beyond Thucydides’ book. He tells the story as a kind of morality play; pretty but not to be considered as gospel. For example, the execution and enslavement at Melos may not have been considered a big deal. And it almost certainly was not decisive in the War. The Plague in Athens (killing Pericles), defection/treason of Alcibiades, massive strategic errors by Athens — we can only guess, but together these may have been decisive.

      More realistically, the War was the paradigm of Greek culture. Conflict, war, slavery — this was a large part of Greek culture, the Dioysian half often left out of the cute histories that feature wise men doing philosophy and theater.

    2. A quick historical note:

      Athens did not fall because of what they did to Delos. First of all, nobody during that time admired Athens for its democracy– it was completely an internal Athenian matter, and did no good for anybody outside Athens. Other city states had their own local traditions of governance of which they were also quite proud. Second of all, massacring Delos did not represent any departure from the values and standards of behavior that had always existed in Athens– the Greeks had always been warlike and ruthless, and gave the same treatment to Troy and countless other cities over the centuries. Indeed, executing pubescent males and enslaving the women and children was a universally accepted “best practice” for making war against fortified cities in the ancient world– if you don’t believe me, read Deuteronomy.

      The other Greeks were probably shocked that Athens would make that kind of devastation so close to home, but this was not the main reason for their resentment. They resented Athens because it was trying to bully them. The Delian league had developed to the point that it would not have been sustainable without a bully hegemon, because all of the member states put their own selfish interests over those of the group, and most of them probably would have preferred to be the hegemon themselves. So when Sparta challenged Athens, this was their chance to regain their autonomy and maybe even get a shot at being the big boss themselves (ahem, Corinth?). Classic power politics.

      So while Athens was strong, expanded, and with the passage of time became vulnerable and weak, and one of the causes of this weakness might have been some sort of moral decline, there is no tidy morality tale here.

      Same with Britain. When slavery was finally outlawed in 1833, this certainly earned cheers from liberals and abolitionists around the world. But there is no evidence that this purely pragmatic move earned the British Empire any effective good will from anyone, and it certainly did not reduce their appetite for oppression and exploitation. The British did not become ruthless after 1833– they had always been ruthless, as most successful imperial powers are. If Britain’s atrocities peaked in the middle of the 19th century this was because political and economic conditions were evolving in the colonies in such a way that repression was necessary to hold them. Conquests, once knocked down, will remain dizzy for a while, but eventually they will want to stand up and fight again. Britain, like all imperial powers, expanded because it was strong, and fell because it grew weak. Moral decline might have been a part of this weakness, but only a part.

      P.S.: By the way, I am not trying to defend imperial ruthlessness, and I am definitely no fan of the new super-trooper militarized police force.

  2. Perhaps we over-analyze in order to aggrandize our knowledge of history and promote our high intellect as we infer history to the present and near future. Spare me the concept that knowing how Greece and Britain fell off their respective high points help the USA avoid its own decline. Did not the great historians in London study the Greeks and Romans? Didn’t help them much did it?

    Belief that we can avoid a negative fate is simply arrogance, mixed with a healthy helping of hope for our future. Both of these traits are permanent parts of human DNA. All the analysis is useless. It would be better to debate HOW TO AVOID THE DECLINE on these pages, as a open forum for ideas, then quote dusty history. We need action in the present, reaching back to past is in fact the one way to surely not uncover a winning new idea. All previous great nations have slid into decline in recorded history. This is the only fact I can swear to. Isn’t that enough study of history – no one has ever made it as a great nation forever!! End of lesson.

    Can we at least tap into the brains in this nation that still have electric charge running through them. Motivate some of you HISTORIANS to do SOMETHING DIFFERENT and STAND UP to a bleak future for America.

    FM – we get it – you have nicely set the debate topic. The American Government has shifted its ideals in recent decades. We as citizens seem to be polarized against our electoral. How is it that they all believe that curtailing the 1st and 4th Amendments is GOOD for the United States? I would like to see some kind of evidence of that fact debated here. What value do these new procedures and laws have in the minds of our legislators?

    Also I would like to see some debate about the evaporation of our Civil Courts and its requirement to protect individuals. The Arbitration System has KILLED the power of the individual in this country to seek justice against corporations. With no real threat of the LITTLE GUY, their power is unstoppable.

    1. Thanks for posting this comment; lot’s of meat here. You take us to the very edge of what we know, into the zone of guesses and values.

      (1) “Perhaps we over-analyze in order to aggrandize our knowledge of history and promote our high intellect as we infer history to the present and near future.”

      Sad but true. Somebody (anyone know who? said that history is a story we tell ourselves, pretending that events have meaning and can be understood. That’s bookends with Hegel’s “What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it” (from Lectures on the Philosophy of History, 1832).

      (2) “It would be better to debate HOW TO AVOID THE DECLINE on these pages”
      Since I don’t believe in #1 above, here we use history to gain a perspective on our time and suggest useful lessons and parallels.

      “Study the past if you would devine the future.”
      — Confucius

      (3) “Motivate some of you HISTORIANS to do SOMETHING DIFFERENT and STAND UP to a bleak future for America.”
      Here we’re building an electronic version of Thomas Paine. Perhaps here or elsewhere we might evolve something equivalent to the Committees of Correspondence, one of the first great levers moving Americans to found the Republic. If everybody tries something that looks good, some of us will find viable paths to a better future for America.

      Trouble rather the Tiger in his Lair than the sage among his books. For to you Kingdoms and their armies are things mighty and enduring, but to him they are but the things of the Moment, to be overturned with the turning of a page.
      — Ancient wisdom, source unknown — it applies even more to loans than armies

      (4) “The American Government has shifted its ideals in recent decades.”
      I reject that formaulation. Pernicious reification. Government is an expression of the American people (working together in groups, weighted by their power).

      (5) “We as citizens seem to be polarized against our electoral”
      I disagree. We’ve just grown lazy and complacent. We’re not working the Constitutional machinery, so others have taken over. That’s the great circle of life.

      (6) “How is it that they all believe that curtailing the 1st and 4th Amendments is GOOD for the US?”
      (a) You must be kidding. Everything from the newspapers to National Review are satuated with explanations.
      (b) On a deeper level, elites usually believe (correctly) that limiting citizens rights works in their favor. Their personal power protects them, and the government’s greater power defends them. Under these circumstance people sign on with their side (instead of the Republics); this is how client-patron systems come into being.

      (7) “I would like to see some debate about the evaporation of our Civil Courts and its requirement to protect individuals.”
      Good topic, but there are too many things to write about and too few hours. In general, we should get used to the fact that sheep are treated like sheep — not men.

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