Guest Contribution: ‘“False Imbalance” in Reporting on Economic Policy’

Today, we present a guest post written by Jeffrey Frankel, Harpel Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy  School of Government, and formerly a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. A shorter version appeared at Project Syndicate.

One obstacle to productive public discourse and deliberation is a syndrome whereby the media, whether mainstream or otherwise, present policies in a manner that could be called “false imbalance.”  No, I don’t mean “false balance.”  False imbalance is quite different. It refers to the temptation to cast in a negative light, policies that in fact are reasonable attempts to balance competing objectives.  Examples can be drawn from health care, fiscal policy, and monetary policy.


The problem of “false balance” is a familiar concept, related to “false equivalence” and “bothsidesism.”  A quintessential example arises in reporting on climate: Media sometimes give the impression that skeptics who question the scientific case behind anthropogenic climate change warrant comparable weight to those experts who say it is a genuine problem that needs to be addressed. The motive for some news outlets may be an attempt at fairness, giving due weight to dissenting voices; but the net effect is to give a false impression of where the overwhelming preponderance of the scientific evidence lies.

“False imbalance,” in contrast, is not a familiar concept.  I believe it should be.

It describes reporting that gives the impression that a particular policy is generally considered bad or unpopular, when the reality is that the policymaker has appropriately sought to strike a balance or tradeoff between competing forces or goals.  Typically, a story headline misleadingly lumps together critics coming from one direction with critics coming from the opposite direction, leaving the reader with the take-away that everybody hates the policy.  The case appears to be imbalanced, when it is not.

The case of health care policy

A prime example of false imbalance arose in reporting on Obamacare.

In the years after the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, journalists reported that a majority of Americans opposed it.  (For example, it was reported that in a 2012 poll, 48 % disapproved, versus 43 % who approved.)

The poll summaries tended to lump (i) those respondents who opposed Obamacare because they thought it went too far and entailed too big a role for the government in people’s lives, together with (ii) those respondents who opposed it because it didn’t go far enough, didn’t bring health insurance to everyone, e.g. , via a single-payer plan like the one in Canada.

In a 2013 CNN poll, 69 % of respondents were reported as opposing the Affordable Care Act.  But  22 % of the 69% who were classified as opposed (that is, 15 percent of those polled) said that the ACA  did not go far enough).  [Similarly, a 2013 Kaiser poll found, when breaking up those who viewed Obamacare unfavorably, that 85% did so because they thought it went too far (=33%/39%) and 15% because it did not go far enough (= 6%/39%).]

More recently, during Donald Trump’s presidency, the fraction of Americans who wanted to go beyond the ACA rose (and the share favoring its repeal fell).  The fraction who thought it did not go far enough, and who favored a “Medicare for All” single-payer system, was reported  (NPR, Dec. 2017) to be up sharply in a November 2017 Kaiser poll, to 62

NBC reported in March 2020 that the share supporting Medicare for All was at 43%, but that the share of voters saying that Obama’s reform had been a good idea had come to  42%, more than the 35 % who still thought it was a bad idea.

Most of the time, the best policies lie somewhere in between the extremes of a spectrum.  At one end of the public-private spectrum, relatively few Americans want all health care to be administered by a government agency like the UK’s National Health Service. At the other end of the spectrum, probably even fewer are so obsessed with the principle of individual responsibility, that they want to ban ambulance drivers from picking up accident victims lying on the side of the highway until they have checked to make sure they have private insurance.  The question is how to find the right balance.

Americans have come to support a reasonable balanced policy.  This happened after, on the one hand, (i) they realized that Republicans had failed for 10 years to suggest an alternative with which they wanted to replace Obamacare, while on the other hand, (ii) more voters had become aware that the Medicare for All proposal, on which Bernie Sanders campaigned for president for the second time, would take away private health insurance.  By March 2020, a whopping 73 % of voters (in the NBC/WSJ poll) had come to favor a sensible way of increasing further the number of Americans covered: allowing them to participate in a public option. This would be a strengthening of Obamacare that Obama himself wanted, had he seen it as politically viable, and that Biden supported in his 2020 campaign.

False imbalance – the summary of a balanced policy by reporting that everyone is opposed to it, without being clear about the alternatives – delayed rather than facilitated the public deliberative process.

The case of Biden fiscal policy

Recent fiscal policy offers another area where the current Administration has struck a balance between extremes.  President Biden passed his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March. It included large increases in social spending for such priorities as fighting Covid-19 and relief for impacted workers.  He is still working to get Congress to agree to infrastructure spending.  From the viewpoint of traditional fiscal conservatism, these are big expenditures.  But he has consistently opposed unaffordable proposals from some further to the left, such as forgiving all student debt or adopting universal basic income.  His position in the middle of the left-right spectrum is popular.

To help pay for that spending, he proposes collecting more of the taxes that are owed to the federal government under current law, together with substantial increases in taxation of those with incomes over $400,000 a year and those with billion-dollar estates.  But he has avoided less practical proposals from the left such as an annual wealth tax.   Tax increases seldom poll well in isolation; but the combined package of infrastructure spending and the tax proposals strikes an intelligent balance.

The case of monetary policy

Like most central banks, the US Fed has long sought to strike a Goldilocks balance between monetary policy that is too loose (threatening inflation) and too tight (yielding slow growth and unemployment). Central banks have been accused over the last decade or so of not paying enough attention to the goal of equity in income distribution, i.e., not just the size of the pie, but how it is divided up. Worse, they have been accused of exacerbating inequality.

As a new BIS report notes, the most obvious policies to address income inequality are not in the realm of monetary policy, but rather elsewhere in the government.  E.g., tax policy, among other levers.  (That is why Fed officials used to stay away from the subject in their public comments.)

One reads frequently that central bankers have exacerbated inequality.  But if one reads carefully, the inequality critics follow two opposing lines of logic.

Some argue that easy money exacerbates inequality.  One channel is that low interest rates and quantitative easing help push up prices of stocks and other assets, which largely benefits the rich.  This is clearly indeed a real phenomenon.  There also exist claims that inflation hurts the poor.

Other inequality critics argue that easy money fights inequality.  They complain that central banks have often worsened inequality by tightening before necessary.  A “high-pressure economy” gives jobs, not just to the conventionally unemployed into employment, but even to those on the margins of the labor force: the long-term unemployed, minorities, and the disabled, or who have criminal records or lack a persuasive employment history. Again, this is indeed a real effect.  Also, inflation is clearly good for debtors, who tend to have lower income on average than creditors.

The hypothesized effects, though they run in opposite directions, are both genuine.  They work to cancel each other out.  For most countries, it is not clear which effect dominates.  To accuse a central bank of exacerbating inequality without recognizing this tension is to fall prey to the syndrome of False Imbalance.


This post written by Jeffrey Frankel.

32 thoughts on “Guest Contribution: ‘“False Imbalance” in Reporting on Economic Policy’

  1. pgl

    Spot on when he discusses Obamacare. Yes some want Medicare for All while Trumpian yohoos want to kill any Federal involvement with health care.

    Also spot on with respect to the logic behind more infrastructure investment paid for by tax increases. But we are not get a lick of honesty from the McConnell crowd on this issue.

    The part on monetary policy is also interesting. I just hope the Usual Suspects actually READ the discussion before they go off with their usual knee jerk nonsense.

  2. Barkley Rosser

    If Jeffrey Frankel has coined this concept, he is to be congratulated. This is a very reasonable post, and this looks like a valid and possibly even important new idea.

    1. pgl

      Does Princeton Chicken Little ever read the comments about the fundamentals regarding housing valuations? We know you never opened a finance textbook.

      Real rents up and cost of capital down. Earth to Princeton Clueless – HELLO?

    2. pgl

      Wow – we are spending more on residential investment. So? We are about to spend a lot more on public infrastructure. Of course Princeton Know Nothing flunked macroeconomics as well as finance.

  3. pgl

    The paper on Japan’s unconventional monetary policy is a must read:

    Unconventional monetary policy (UMP) influences inequality through two channels that work in opposite directions – a labour market channel (more employment, higher wages) and a financial market channel (higher asset prices). In an earlier paper, covering UMP through 2014, we found that UMP in Japan had contributed to greater income inequality through its effects on asset prices. With a longer time period, a richer dataset including labour market data, and a structural vector autoregression (SVAR) we confirm that these results continue to hold, and investigate why UMP’s impact on inequality in Japan differs from some other countries. We argue that Japanese structural issues may mute the labour market channel, especially: (i) labour market rigidity; and (ii) the large share of the population that is older than 65 years old or retired. The older cohort’s capital gains and dividends are re-saved in other financial assets, instead of being consumed or used for starting businesses. At the same time, wages have not increased despite the severe labour shortage, due to the frictions in Japan’s labour market. We conclude that these factors may make the inequality created by UMP in Japan unique by international comparison.

  4. 2slugbaits

    Here’s another example. A few years ago the (usually conservative) media used to report that we needed to rein in overly generous Social Security spending while at the same time admonishing their audience that they were getting a poor rate of return from Social Security and they should push for privatization. Similar story with Hillarycare in the 1990s. According to one story it’s overly generous and sending the country to the poor house; while another story warns that a stingy government run health insurance scheme would cut benefits and leave poor Harry and Louise desperate and forlorn.

    1. pgl

      The attacks on HillaryCare were previews of the attacks on ObamaCare. Now on Soc. Security, I spent a lot of time over at Angrybear noting the claims it was going bankrupt was based on claims that would get one an F in financial economics while Mark Thoma became famous by noting the policy need of having this system.

    2. Moses Herzog

      @ 2slugbaits
      I read something in the New York Times today, that sounded so sensible and even-tempered , I thought to myself “this sounds like something 2slugbaits would say on Econbrowser”. It suggested term limits as an answer for partisanship and political wars on the U.S. Supreme Court:

      Curious if you or others here have thoughts on it. I think it said there would be 18 year terms, staggered with SCOTUS seats coming open regularly every two years. I have to say it struck me as a pretty great idea–or certainly one worth some serious and semi-consternated pondering.

      1. pgl

        I guess you are too drunk to remember Newt’s Contract on America (1994) which had 10 proposals. You are now agreeing with the Newt on one of them? Damn – that is even dumber than your lack of knowledge on the game of basketball. Say hello to Stephen Miller’s wife the next time she gives you those talking points on the Bucs/Hawks series.

        1. Moses Herzog

          Don’t you have a “mutual admiration society” meeting with Barkley Junior to attend?? You two can congratulate each other on how mature you are and agree with one another that you never act childishly petty on blogs. Pat each other on the back. I’m thinking something along the lines of the ending to “Thelma and Louise”.

          1. pgl

            Are you really this insecure or what? Anyone who suggests even a single wee flaw in your long winded parade of nonsense, pointless anger, and utterly worthless rants gets treat with even more dishonest tirades. You do have some serious emotional problems. Very serious. For your own mental health – cease making comments here and spend time with a professional.

          2. Moses Herzog

            @ pgl
            No one would ever call you emotionally unbalanced on this blog, or insecure. Because if one sits around waiting to shoot down others’ comments on a blog, even ones that are self-evidently bad, it speaks to a very strong self-esteem to feel the need to shoot those comments down that are self-evidently incorrect. Who else on this blog actually thinks it’s an “accomplishment” shooting down 95% of PeakTraders’ comments?? Or 75% of CoRevs?? No one, but you, because it doesn’t need to be done when it’s that blatantly obvious.

            We all know people like you IRL pgl. You were the kid in the class raising your hand frantically to answer all of the rhetorical questions like they were asked in earnest. Or the kid who thought they were the best student in the class because the teacher conned you into thinking it was an “award” doing their work for them grading papers/tests with the test answer key.

            We get you pgl, we totally understand the psychology. Everyone who disagrees with you is crazy. There’s no other explanation possible.

      2. pgl

        “These differences in influence among presidents can lead to disparate outcomes across political parties. For example, over the past half century (from 1970 to 2010), Republican presidents held the White House for 30 years (60 percent), but they made 14 out of 18 appointments (78 percent)to the Supreme Court during that time.
        Additionally, life tenure and the unpredictability of vacancies also make each
        confirmation battle a high-stakes political struggle—particularly so in recent
        decades as the parties have grown more polarized and as justices have tended
        to serve for longer periods.”

        OK the cut and paste of this document is a mess but consider the reason for this: Mitch McConnell. As long as Democrats allow him to play the Senate rules like a violin, the conservative bent to this Court will continue. I’m opposed to capital punishment so I guess I cannot advocate just killing this traitor. But we could at least kill the filibuster and pass a real Voting Rights Act.

        Thank God we did not term limit RBG. The other two ladies should be allowed to serve as long as they want. Now Breyer should have a real conversation with Biden while the grim reaper will take care of Alito and Thomas soon enough.

          1. Moses Herzog

            @ Dr. Dysmalist
            You don’t expect our “well read” pgl to be aware of all 3 female justices currently on SCOTUS do you?? pgl is a “feminist” who can’t be bothered with paying attention to such things—he’s too busy “schooling” this entire blog on NBA floppers and his favorite ESPN “basketball analysts”

      3. 2slugbaits

        FWIW, I think there should be both a minimum and a maximum age for serving on the Supreme Court. Plato said that the Guardian class had to be at least 50 years old. Sounds about right to me. That’s about when most people are at their intellectual peak. A lot of the immature youngsters on the Court are still enamored with the likes of Ayn Rand. They need time to grow out of it.

        1. Moses Herzog

          @ 2slugbaits
          Are you avoiding a direct answer to my question, respectfully, Sir??~~~related to the 18 years term limits and 2 years staggered SCOTUS seat opening??

          I’m not going to go pgl “Karen” on you and try to bite your left ear off because you asked me to wear a mask at the local Wal Mart. Differing views are encouraged. I respect your opinion and I’m honestly curious. Strange person that I am, I think Maya Sen and Noah Feldman might have a deeper sense of what could improve the situation than someone erratically insulting people on blogs as a personal pastime. I view you as one of the voices of reason here.

          1. 2slugbaits

            Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t have a settled view on term limiting SCOTUS justices. That said, I do think we need to make some changes, but not just changes to the SCOTUS, but changes to the appellate courts as well. Way too many Federalist Society judges who are barely dry behind the ears are being groomed for future SCOTUS nominations. That’s why I support a min/max age range for both SCOTUS and appellate court nominations. As it happens, one of my nephews not only writes the occasional WaPo op-ed piece for the Federalist Society, but he also clerks for one of those Federalist Society appellate court judges being groomed for greater things. My nephew is a very smart guy (Yale Law), but like a lot of conservative youngsters he doesn’t take a very nuanced approach to jurisprudence. I get that. Back when I was in college I was very impressed with H.L.A. Hart’s brand of legal positivism, but over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the subtleties of theorists like Ronald Dworkin.

          2. Dr. Dysmalist

            Moses foregoes an ad hominem attack on another commenter who’s not JohnH? Since when?

            BTW, I don’t participate in the use of the ‘meme Karen’ convention. I know very well an overall fine lady whose name is Karen. She does, unfortunately, engage in similar behavior to the ‘meme Karens’ every once in several blue moons, though without the racist motivation and intent of the ‘meme Karens’, else I would not consider her a fine lady.

          3. Moses Herzog

            @ 2slugbaits
            Fair enough. All your points sound very reasoned to me. Appreciate the reply, as always.

        2. pgl

          The Federalists cultivated a lot of younger judges who they hoped could live a long time on the bench. Of course the actual qualifications of the judges Trump put on this bench was secondary to having right wingers who could be on the bench for decades. But you have to admit RBG was the best justice ever even during her advanced years.

          1. Moses Herzog

            Top 5 probably, “best ever” may be kind of pushing it. Especially since there were quiet outreaches to Justice Ginsburg to have her seat filled in during a Democrat administration, but ego and insatiable desire for attention made Justice Ginsburg wait for a Republican to fill her seat. I would argue when weighed against the affects on an entire nation, incredibly selfish.

            I like the woman and respect her legacy, but it is what it is and I’m not going to refrain from “calling her out” just because she was a great person overall.

          2. Moses Herzog

            BTW, this would be another great topic for James Kwak to make a guest post at Econbrowser on, whether or not Ginsburg hurt her legacy by not stepping down earlier and therefor having a Democrat leaning Justice take her vacated seat. I actually suspect that Professor Kwak would disagree with me, but to read a semi-long post from Kwak on this topic, and digest Kwak’s learned views I think would be enjoyable and edifying.

        3. pgl

          Ages of justices

          Breyer 82
          Alito and Thomas about 10 years younger
          Roberts 66
          Sotomeyer 67
          Kagan 61

          I’m all for Biden appointing Breyer’s replacement. But note the other two liberals along with the somewhat center/right Chief Justice are getting up there in age.

        4. Dr. Dysmalist

          I think I like your idea of lower and upper age limits better than the idea of term limits (which has been extensively discussed online and, I think, in print, at least since RBG died, and IIRC it’s actually been since Kennedy retired strategically). I also think it should apply to the entire federal judiciary. It doesn’t solve the problem of vacancies occurring unequally along partisan lines, which I think is the major drawback of it. The age minimum may help with the problem of young partisan hacks being appointed solely because they are members of the Federalist Society even though they don’t know s**t from shinola about Constitutional law. I don’t believe there is a solution to the problem of Alito especially and others of his ilk whose appointments and opinions both reek of partisan hackery, short of the GQP actually becoming ethical and concerned with both equity and equality. If I’m lucky, I will live long enough to see that happen but I will truly be an old, old man by then.

    3. Moses Herzog

      Germany has 12 year supreme court term limits. See, now, I have no idea if their law system operates “smoothly” or not. Obviously a person would want to know how efficiently Germany’s supreme court does business before copying it. Germans do tend to obsess about those type things though, so one might guess it works relatively well. But I have no idea on it.

      1. Moses Herzog

        Now, there’s a great idea, I been nagging and nagging and nagging (Hint # 2,001) Menzie to get James Kwak on Econbrowser to do a guest post. Would that not be SUPER cool if Menzie invited James Kwak on Econbrowser to discuss his thoughts on 18 year term limits for SCOTUS seats like Maya Sen is suggesting???

        Can I hear a “hip hip hooray for James Kwak guest post!!!!” “hip hip hooray for James Kwak guest post!!!!!!” out there??? Anybody??? Bueller??? Bueller???

  5. Moses Herzog

    As most economists are, overly defensive towards the Fed. Other than that I like this post and the more detailed view it presents. Part of the problem is people getting their news through Television and internet video, which can oversimplify presentation of issues. Video can also clarify, but too often things are “skated over” in at attempt to make it broadly accessible. But the more often this is done then people can never take that next step in insight or looking beneath the surface.

    Frankly I like Frankel. He’s factual and never fabricates. He’s fitter than Frankenstein. His Econbrowser blog features are as fun to fill up on as a 4th of July Frankfurter. He’s a freaking franchise player and I fear becoming frantic and fraught if Frankel ever forayed to France. It’s fabulous he frequents this forum. Frankel is friendly, but not a false flatterer.

    I must forge on, before people feel I’m a fake or fashioning a facade. Time for my face powder before I get fatigued or my faculties fail me. Fading……

  6. Dr. Dysmalist

    “False imbalance” is a great name and great framing of the phenomenon that I and many others have observed and that Professor Frankel has described well. He’s absolutely correct that it must be differentiated from bothsidesism and false balance.

    As I read it, I was thinking that I should have thought of this, duh. Thankfully, Professor Frankel is smart enough to have done so.

    Frankel’s False Imbalance needs to become a ‘Thing’ yesterday if not sooner.

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