Ever wonder why politicians and their media friends seem to lie so much more than other people? The simple answer is that the payoff can be large if others believe the lie (winning an election and gaining political and monetary power), and even if the lie is found out, most soon forget with little consequence. But in most other lines of work, lying about job performance (an airline pilot or mechanic, or a food safety inspector or worker) can be fatal.

After the Trump-Biden debate, I called a friend who strongly dislikes former President Donald Trump and teased her by asking if she was still going to vote for President Biden. She responded by saying she “could not stand listening to Trump’s lies” and therefore had not watched the entire debate. People tend to avoid information and news that conflict with their strongly held beliefs (cognitive dissonance), so her response was not that surprising.

I then looked at several well-known “fact check” sources to obtain lists of misstatements, exaggerations and lies made by each candidate in the debate. Not surprisingly, the items on the lists differed from one another, depending on how important each item seemed to be to the fact-checker. Mr. Biden, at one point, claimed that no American soldier died during his tenure. Did he just forget the Afghanistan withdrawal and others, or was he lying? Mr. Trump repeated his claim that he provided the biggest tax cut ever — which might have been true in current dollars; but more correctly, as a percentage of gross domestic product, the biggest tax cut was under President Ronald Reagan. Most politicians tend to take credit for things they had little or no responsibility for and to blame others for failures and problems — both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are masters of this form of deception.

Mr. Biden has claimed that he has reduced inflation from 9% to the current 3.3%, forgetting that when he took office inflation was under 2%. Mr. Trump claims that there “was almost no inflation” when he left office, ignoring the fact that the Federal Reserve had already monetized much of the huge increase in government spending due to COVID-19 during Mr. Trump’s last year in office and this was almost certain to have increased the rate of inflation (inflation being a lagging indicator) in 2021 no matter who was president. The Biden spending and regulatory increases made the situation far worse.

The budget, deficit and debt mess require hard choices, so most candidates try to avoid serious discussion about them — and that includes Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. Each candidate claimed that the other was the bigger spender and added more to the deficit. The answer, in part, revolves around the question of which party was responsible for the big run-up in spending as a result of the pandemic. Recall, when the government called for a shutdown of most economic activity, both parties agreed that more spending was the proper course of action to partially offset loss of income by both individuals and businesses. Allysia Finley of The Wall Street Journal just reported that “for the record, the national debt increased by $2.6 billion during Mr. Trump’s first three years before Covid and $5.2 trillion during Mr. Biden’s first three.” These numbers do not include the total “costs” of the Trump tax cuts nor the total “costs” of Mr. Biden’s spending and regulatory actions — which have yet to show up in the budget deficit.

In comparing economic performance, it is important to have the same starting and ending points for whatever measure. Politicians who cite different numbers for what appears to be the same metric may not be lying, but only using data from different sources for different time periods.

How many aliens crossed the southern border illegally last year? No one knows with precision, so everything is a guess — with some guesses being better than others. Some places in California no longer treat shoplifting of less than $1,000 as a felony, causing reported property crime numbers to fall. So when a candidate for political office says crime fell under “my watch,” is he or she talking about real numbers, or just a change in definition?

Most exaggerations or lies by political candidates are not terribly important because voters often discount them. But sometimes a political lie can be critical. For example, the “Russia hoax,” where Mr. Trump was accused by Democrats of being in cahoots with the Russians to steal the election from Hillary Clinton, turned out to be a lie engineered by Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. This probably depressed the Trump vote and hobbled his administration in the first couple of years.

The denial of the Hunter Biden laptop’s authenticity was a clear case of election interference by 51 former intelligence officials. The claim that the laptop was Russian disinformation now been debunked, but the claim may have cost Mr. Trump several points in the election, leading to his defeat.

Mr. Trump has claimed that the 2020 election was stolen from him, but the courts have concluded there was insufficient ballot fraud to have caused his defeat. But the real election fraud were the hoaxes and misinformation he was subject to by government actors and others, including unethical media players. Such actions by political actors and the media are a much greater danger to our democracy than erroneous statements by candidates that can be immediately fact-checked.

• Richard W. Rahn is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.

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