Truth and facts
Many debates in economics never go away. One is whether minimum wages destroy jobs. A second is whether budget deficits can stimulate growth. Yet another is whether a higher or lower exchange rate is good for the economy. I could go on and on with this list.
It is in the nature of economics — which is unable to carry out laboratory experiments on the workings of the economy — that experts disagree on such issues. At best, they come to an agreement that "it depends". For example, it depends how much minimum wages are raised by, or it depends when, how and by how much a government increases its budget deficit.
This messiness means that governments — and laypeople — can nearly always find an expert who will support their views and who will claim that "the evidence" supports them, too.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of evidence and "evidence-based" anything (whether economics, teaching or whatever). Without evidence, we are simply left with theories and opinions. And as we know, two people with different opinions can continue spouting them at each other until the cows come home — and never see eye-to-eye.
The problem with evidence, however, as I have mentioned before, is that it is often inconclusive. And this leaves the door open to cherry-picking.
If you believe that minimum wages should be higher, you'll probably disregard any studies that find that higher minimum wages destroy jobs. And if you think minimum wages shoud be lower, you'll ignore the studies that find no job-destroying effect.
Recently, there has been worldwide debate — and much amusement — about the term "alternative facts", made famous by Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to Donald Trump, in an interview about the number of people who attended Trump's inauguration.
Now, if "alternative facts" is used as a synonym for "evidence-ignoring lies" or "falsehoods", as it seemed to be in Conway's case, it is clearly a dangerous term. But what if alternative facts really are, well, facts?
How can that be? OK, take again the example of two studies on minimum wages which come to different results. These are different, alternative findings (or facts). How do we decide which is true? Maybe both are.
Or here's another example. Imagine that after four years in office, a government has reduced unemployment and poverty, but inflation has risen and real wages have fallen. All four outcomes are facts and nobody disputes them.
Campaigning for re-election, the government naturally emphasizes the lower unemployment and poverty. The opposition, on the other hand, emphasizes the "alternative facts": higher inflation and lower real wages. Once again, these alternative facts are not lies, just different facts.
Nevertheless, I suspect that future dictionaries will indeed define the term "alternative fact" as a synonym for "falshood, lie".
Confused? Well, life is complicated. Economics and facts, too. Deal with it.