NASA tweeting that Congress should give it more money so our astronauts won’t have to ride on Russian rockets. Recovery.gov reporting overly optimistic statistics on jobs saved and created by stimulus funds. The Department of Health and Human Service Web site encouraging the public to“state your support for health care reform” during the congressional debate over Obamacare.
These are just some recent examples of the executive branch using our tax dollars to shape our opinions. Unlike the National Security Agency’s personal data collection or the overuse of “secret” stamps to withhold information, this government-produced propaganda receives almost no attention. But that doesn’t mean this “third dimension” of government information is not a problem. America becomes less democratic when the $3 trillion executive branch uses its resources to tilt the debate in its favor.
Of course, a democratic government has an obligation to inform and be transparent. Citizens need to know the government’s policies and plans. We have a right to know which companies receive government contracts, how to collect insurance benefits and social security payments and what public school educational reform will look like. But too often, the government uses its information machinery to do more than simply inform us about a policy. Sometimes, it tries to persuade us to adopt a particular position, regardless of its efficacy.
Consider, for example, the Department of Labor’s campaign to raise the minimum wage, a topic on which there is considerable debate. Raising the minimum wage, the Congressional Budget Office points out, will eliminate some jobs. Still, the government devotes a Web page to the topic that proclaims, “See how raising the national minimum wage will benefit America’s workers.” Americans are invited to tell the Labor Department why they “support raising the federal minimum wage.” Twitter users can see a video of a squiggle of mustard spelling out “#RaiseTheWage” on a hot dog, a reference to the recent interest group advocacy to pay fast-food employers more money. The Labor Department’s Web page treats raising the minimum wage as an unalloyed good and labels possible job losses a “myth.”
Such aggressive communications are neither novel nor exceptional. Government agencies historically have made a habit of crossing the blurry line between informing the public and propagandizing.
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