Can the People Be Trusted?

Folks are talking about a short piece in the New Yorker by George Packer, plus a brief comment by Andy Sullivan. This is what Ben Smith said at The Politico (“Liberal despair: Age of irrationality“):

A couple of influential writers broadly in sympathy with Obama today float the same notion: That we’re living in a fundamentally unreasonable age, that voters basically can’t be trusted, and that democracy is just barely muddling through.

Anyone who spends much time covering American politics feels this sometimes. At the same time, it’s a lot easier to think this when your side is losing politically.

First, let me say that neither Packer nor Sullivan come out and say that the people can’t be trusted, and I don’t think they meant to imply that the people can’t be trusted, although I can see how one might read them that way. However, if it’s true (as polls suggest) that voters are about to hand the House and maybe the Senate back to the Republicans because they are angry with Democrats for failing to fix the mess the Republicans made, then yeah, the democracy thing doesn’t seem to be working any more.

Here is a bit of what Packer said:

Nine years later, the main fact of our lives is the overwhelming force of unreason. Evidence, knowledge, argument, proportionality, nuance, complexity, and the other indispensable tools of the liberal mind don’t stand a chance these days against the actual image of a mob burning an effigy, or the imagined image of a man burning a mound of books. Reason tries in its patient, level-headed way to explain, to question, to weigh competing claims, but it can hardly make itself heard and soon gives up…. unreason, cheered on by cable news, has won the day. We have undeniably gone sour on interfaith tolerance. We have turned inward in sullen exhaustion.

Andy Sullivan adds:

It is as if America is intent on destroying itself, its civil society, its fiscal future, and its next generation in an endless fit of mutual recrimination, neurotic nationalism, and religious division.

Yes, but this has been true for some time, and as I recall Andy was doing his bit to help it along not that long ago.

Now, we hear from Digby:

The fact that the VORI* and all of his worshipers among the intellectual elite fail to acknowledge (or even notice) the radicalism of his opponents is just as much of a problem as the radicalism itself. They have enabled it all along the way. In fact, I would have to say that it’s also a form of “epistemic closure” at this point. Anyone who is writing about the unreasoned radicalism of the right wing as if it just manifested itself out of nowhere has at least been in denial for well over a decade and a half.

[*VORI = Voice of Reason Incarnate, a sarcastic reference to President Obama]

The term “epistemic closure” apparently has been kicked around in certain conservative circles of late as a shorthand for ideological intolerance and misinformation. For the record, some conservatives have come out against these things.

Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush’s administrations, wrote that in the last few years, “epistemic closure” had become much worse among “the intelligentsia of the conservative movement.” He later added that the cream of the conservative research institutes, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, had gone from presenting informed policy analyses to pumping out propaganda.

It’s as if Barlett and others are waking up from a dream and haven’t acclimated to reality yet. The AEI and Heritage have always existed to pump out propaganda. They’ve been doing it from the beginning. The propaganda didn’t become propaganda in the minds of Bartlett et al. until, for some reason, they began to lag behind in the Right’s lemming dash to the cliffs. They’ve dropped out of the stampede to watch the other lemmings dashing by, so to speak, and now they see that the lemmings are irrational. What they haven’t yet admitted to is that the lemmings always were irrational, and that they also are lemmings.

Put another way, the American Right (which is not necessarily the same thing as American political conservatism) has been motivated by greed, bigotry, paranoia and ignorance all along. But awhile back some highly educated righties came along and slapped a veneer of intellectualism, or at least a whiff of eastern Ivy League-ism and big words (like “epistemic”), on top of the mess, to make it socially presentable. William F. Buckley is coming to mind here, although there were others.

But Buckley is gone, in more ways than one. “Movement conservatism” has broken completely with any pretense of rationality and reverted to its anti-intellectual roots. In doing so, it is leaving behind those conservatives who were trying to stay in the Buckley mold and pretend (especially to themselves) there was a rational foundation to their greed, bigotry, paranoia and ignorance.

Meanwhile, all these years, the rest of the nation’s media and political elite have been stuck in polite denial that the Republican Party was being taken over by barking mad whackjobs. It’s like a family in denial about Uncle Frank’s pedophilia or Aunt Ruthie’s alcoholism. It was right in front of them, but they wouldn’t see it. Some, like Ben Smith, still refuse to see it (“At the same time, it’s a lot easier to think this when your side is losing politically.” — it’s just politics as usual, see).

But I’ve wandered off a bit from the stated topic, which is can the people be trusted? The problem is not the people. The people, I think, are capable of making reasonable and rational decisions when they understand an issue. But to understand an issue, you have to have knowledge of an issue. Knowledge, as in actual facts.

And that’s the rub, because the American people are not getting clear, factual explanations of anything. Whether the issue is global warming, health care reform, extending the Bush tax cuts, or an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, the American people are forming opinions based on lies and propaganda, because that’s all they’ve got to go on. They are confused and exasperated, and understandably so. “Sullen exhaustion” indeed.

It all comes back to whether news media are able, and willing, to stop being the submissive conduits of misinformation and resume the job of informing and educating rather than entertaining. And it also depends on a lot of people in politics and media waking up from the polite denial and facing reality. I’m not holding my breath.

24 thoughts on “Can the People Be Trusted?

  1. maha, you deserve a Pulitzer for this one. Somebody (not felicity’s ‘somebody’ again!) recently argued that we the people are being bombarded with data/facts but little or no knowledge and as a result we’re somehow been fooled into thinking that having facts precludes the necessity, or takes the place of having knowledge – a ripe field in which to plant propaganda.

    One of the purposes of a government is to not only protect us from each other but to protect us from ourselves. Who will tell the Tea Party crowd that their objectives if realized will not only not benefit them but will make their lives even more difficult. In other words, they need to be protected from themselves.

    To pick up on your article, the Framers and particularly Adams had a lot of misgivings when it came to giving the vote directly to the people which was why the Senate was originally to be elected indirectly. (In fact, Adams doubted that the Republic, based on his study of other Republics, created by the Constitution could even last.)

  2. So the Wardens of the Right Wing Asylum, after opening up the cages, poking the the inmates with sticks, and giving them the keys to the armory, are amazed and shocked, shocked, that the inmates have taken over!
    All of those Right Wing Think Tanks were created for the willing wingnut welfare recipients to have lifetime jobs with good incomes and national media exposure while flinging propaganda in every direction like monkey’s do poo.
    On issue after issue, political, scientific, or anything to do with the governance of this country, other countries, and the survival of the world, they have bent, distorted, and outright twisted information to fit reality as they see fit, and as it profited them and their masters, and as they want the public to understand things framed in their terms.
    They have been demonstrably wrong on issue after issue, to the point where this country in on the verge of being a 4th World Nation with the best weapons (which should scare the shit out of the rest of the world), and a planet on the brink of climactic catastrophe. And no one, least of all Sully, lifted a finger, at least until recently.
    There were charts, figures, and facts that showed what would happen if their ‘philosphy’s’ were followed, but they don’t believe in empirical evidence, and they didn’t even bother to take a glance. Anything that didn’t fit their world view came from ‘leftist’ ways of looking at things. As Rove said, they have their own numbers.
    At this point, ration, reason, and logic are gone. Trying to use any on this even more radical crop of new conservatives would be like handing a monkey a Rubik’s Cube – a pointless excercise in that the monkey would continue to manipulate the cube into any configuration it desired, with no goal or purpose except that which it found pleasing to itself. And if you told it the goal was for everything to fit together in harmony, they would tear the cube apart, saying that the whole is never as great as any one part, and to think otherwise is socialism, communism, or the latest ‘ism’ that they’re spouting.
    OK, geniouses. The genii’s out. You broke the bottle. What do you propose to do about this? Or, as I suspect, do you not care. You have yours. And any consequences be damned.
    This is what happens when Nihilist’s get thesauruses and PR training.

  3. Currently neither political movement in America is founded as they should be to take America into perpetuity. At this point in time we are in it “for the now”, and that fact is becoming too hard to ignore when we see that this country needs smart decisions to get us into the future, 100+years and more with our freedoms intact.

    Bush had many faults (manymanymany), but debt was one that affected the country as a whole, and Obama has continued and expanded that debt and accept the problems it brings to our country. Bush started the war, and Obama won’t withdraw so that we can strengthen our financial and political position in the world, and reassess who and where we really need to fight, if at all. If we do need to fight a war, then do it from a position of strength, financially, and with the full backing of the US citizens, not by dragging us into deeper debt and building the animosity between our own political parties.

    What we need is a president and congress to run a full term at 70%+ approval ratings. That would bring the country together, build trust, and allow us to find solutions that don’t cause the “other side” to lose for us to win. That gives both sides a reason to listen to the other and work to common goals with the objective being success into perpetuity, economically, environmentally, and politically.

    The wild swings from left to right are because each is trying to grab for power while they have the reigns, and then the backlash from the opposition doing the exact same thing. It feeds the frenzy and gives the propaganda strength.

    I know liberals won’t like to hear this, but the health reform bill would have had massive support if it was written in a way that citizens could have read it. Citizens would have rallied for the bill, and conservatives would have been on the defensive trying to rationalize their opposition to a clear bill that helped so many Americans. The nail in the coffin would have been a 10-15 year sunset, where congress would have to vote again to keep or drop the bill. It robs conservatives of any long term argument, and if the bill is good for the people, conservatives would have to admit it and support the bill. If it was a failure in that time, liberals would have to face it, and the country would have an “eject” button on possibly bad legislation. The current 1100 page health care bill is unsupportable because just as the article states, the people can’t understand it, which lets either side lie to their hearts content about the bill with no one able to check them. The bill is unsupportable by the public, where it could have been written in a way to make it wildly popular and transparent, leading to widespread support for health care reform, even from rural conservatives if they had had a fair chance to read and understand the bill.

    The short term snatch and grab politics is why we are so separated from our fellow Americans. By looking at our bills through clarity and time (perpetuity), we would then make smarter moves that bring us together instead of separate and marginalize the public.

    • dave-t.:

      Bush had many faults (manymanymany), but debt was one that affected the country as a whole, and Obama has continued and expanded that debt and accept the problems it brings to our country.

      The first Obama budget (2010) has reduced the deficit by 13%, according to Bloomberg. Do keep up. Never just repeat what you hear other people saying. Check it out for yourself.

      Bush started the war, and Obama won’t withdraw so that we can strengthen our financial and political position in the world, and reassess who and where we really need to fight, if at all.

      Officially, we really did withdraw combat units from Iraq recently. It was in the news. Again, do keep up. That said, not everyone thinks we have withdrawn enough.

      What we need is a president and congress to run a full term at 70%+ approval ratings.

      I can’t imagine any president and congress have ever enjoyed that much approval for a full term, any time in American history. I doubt even George Washington had that kind of approval. I know Abraham Lincoln didn’t have that kind of approval. So, we’ve managed somehow to limp along without that lo these many years.

      That would bring the country together, build trust, and allow us to find solutions that don’t cause the “other side” to lose for us to win. That gives both sides a reason to listen to the other and work to common goals with the objective being success into perpetuity, economically, environmentally, and politically.

      Once upon a time, people of differing political views were able to work together because they shared a genuine respect for the process of government and a genuine concern for the good of the nation as a whole. Now a political faction that doesn’t give a hoo-haw about the process of government or the good of the nation as a whole has taken over the Republican Party entirely and has some flags planted in the Democrats as well. That’s why our political system is dysfunctional. The approval of the public has only a little to do with that, especially since the right-wing Powers That Be have gotten really, really good at manipulating public opinion to their advantage. Add to that the fact that politicians of both parties are dependent on the financial support of special interests, and you’ve got a system that pretty much ignores what the people need it to do.

      The wild swings from left to right are because each is trying to grab for power while they have the reigns, and then the backlash from the opposition doing the exact same thing. It feeds the frenzy and gives the propaganda strength.

      We’ve had no swings from left to right. We’ve had swings from a kind of mushy middle to right, further right, and off the cliff right. If you think the Obama Administration is “left,” you’ve been brainwashed. If you take as a baseline the center of about 50 years ago, the Obama Administration is a hair to the right of that. The problem is not swings between right and left, but the fact that the country has been pulled off center and too far right for too long.

      I know liberals won’t like to hear this, but the health reform bill would have had massive support if it was written in a way that citizens could have read it.

      Oh, please legislation as written is never “readable” to anybody but lawyers and legislators, and very few people ever read bills. And there were many organizations, such as the Kaiser Foundation, that presented section-by-section synopses in plain English. The problem is not that the bill was unreadable, but that the public really never heard a clear explanation of the provisions of the bill and what they were for. And the reason the public didn’t hear those things is that factual information was drowned out by lies and propaganda. It’s a phenomenon that has come to be called the Republican Noise Machine.

      The bill is complex because it puts forward several complex and somewhat technical processes that should work together to reduce health care costs and make insurance more affordable. Some of the stuff in it takes some brains to understand even when explained in plain English. I think once most of it is in effect, which won’t happen for a few years, people will like it. That is, if the Right doesn’t manage to repeal it first.

      There were simpler ways to address the issue. One of those ways would have been to initiate a simple single-payer system. That’s really easy to understand. It’s just like the Medicare system (which also was unpopular when it was first passed), expanded to cover everyone. Maybe that would have been an easier “sell,” but don’t kid yourself that the Republican Noise Machine wouldn’t have managed to confuse enough people to keep public opinion running against it.

  4. Barbara, I wonder if what Packer & Sully say is entirely true. Not the part about the right increasingly becoming the anti-intellectual party, I buy that, but the idea that “voters” as a whole are becoming irrational. My impression is the midterms will feature a lot of liberals and independents just staying home, and poll after poll of “likely voters” de-emphasizes that contingency. What do you think?

  5. I keep falling back on Bacevich’s latest book in which he points out where the enemy resides. The enemy is huge and powerful and will take the kind of fight from us that most (evidently) are not willing to invest in. Huffington, who is not a hero of mine, expressed surprise at how passive we have become and she’s right. We’ve all acknowledged that but are loath to make a move. Organized progressives seem remarkably … disorganized.

    I admit I get really mad (and have expressed that anger or at least frustration here) at people who continue to hand over their bucks to media which truly have become our enemy. Don’t support them anymore. C’mon! You can quit! Then too, Obama isn’t leading, he’s following. That means we have to do the leading — or lose traction altogether in our crumbling democracy.

  6. This is great writing, Barbara. I wish everyone would read it.

    I listened briefly to Tina Brown on CNN this morning. She described the President’s typical response behavior as lagging far behind the cause, and people not understanding this. I know I’m not being very clear, but that has been my impression as well. Frustrating.

  7. “The submissive conduits of misinformation”

    Maha your too kind, I don’t see anything submissive about the near constant poppycock that passes for news. I was watching some 9-11 coverage on FAUX, they cut off the first ladies speech 15 seconds in and had Neil Cavuto opine on how Obama was not even a senator in 01 and how he opposed the Iraq invasion for the entire next segment. This was a blatent attempt at reinforcing the typical FAUX viewers hate of all thngs Obama, God forbid they hear the first lady memorialize the dead on neo-con christmas morning. And it aint just FAUX they all make shit up to pass the time, my favorite is polling data. They pay some firm that they partially own to come up with meaningless stats that they can manipulate as they wish. I would love to poll the people on their opinion of the “media” I’d bet they’d poll lower than BinLaden! Until someone somehow is able to break through and really expose the misinformers on a broad scale I don’t see much changing, and since our goverment has given ownership / control of our media and delivery systems to a few agenda driven companies it don’t look promising any time soon. I really think the only cure is to leave the republicants in charge of everything for a decade or so, once we really hit bottom then the public will have learned how to be trusted once again.

  8. Much of the heightened despair, hatred, xenophobia, and apathy that we see throughout the country right now is caused, I think, primarily by the weak economy and the constant state of war. If, or more properly when, we get these two issues back on course much of the long-term problems we face are actually quite resolvable.

    There is also no doubt that cable news and newspapers have done a great deal to keep the population ignorant and segmented. This model of news as a for-profit industry must go; it’s been long overdue for a heart attack. What comes out of that construct is propaganda, not reality.

    I still have optimism for the future. Let us listen closely to all the discussions and arguments being made in good faith, and determine by the clarity of the reasoning and the weight of the evidence which are closest to the truth.

  9. Maha, good to talk with you.

    We as a country have made no practical steps in trying to maintain a balanced budget or lowering the current deficit since Bush took office in 2001. President Obama has not moved us in the right direction on this point. In my eyes he has taken a bad move and made it worse. Bush used the war in Iraq as a reason, and Obama has used the economy as a reason. Both were wrong in my opinion, as neither is moving in the direction that makes us stronger as a nation.

    On the second point I was talking about Afghanistan. We need to withdraw completely. We can’t afford it, and it makes it hard to communicate a message of peace to other Muslim nations when we are killing Muslims at all. If we have to fight there, the use of spies is the way, not the use of a 50,000+ man army stationed in hostile territory.

    70% approval is a pipe dream, I know, but we need a direction that binds the two sides together, even if it is in the short term, so that we can move forward in trust together. Aspects of Obama’s energy plan do this. By adding new windows, roof, or insulation to your house, you get an income tax credit. That is perfect legislation that all sides can accept. 1. Choice of the participant, freedom to participate or not, neutral in principal neither conservative or liberal. 2. Energy use reduction, very needed at this moment, liberal in principal. 3. Stimulates economy with funds from private individuals to private business, conservative in principal. 4. Tax credit, neutral in principal, but attractive to all. Excellent legislation that favors all sides. The only way it could be better is if the Federal Gov’t. could afford it, which in the long term we can’t, but that is the type of thinking that we need to come together, and gets us closer to that 70% approval.

    I also see it as a detriment that we no longer write bills that the average American can read. If you look at groups that last the test of time, they are based in very simple and easy to understand principals that even kids and read, and professors can be inspired from. The Jewish religion, Buddhism, Christianity, Greek philosophy….They last because people understand the principals, and I think we as a country would be stronger from within if we went back to these ideals that gov’t is for the people, and that they must understand their own country. The basic forward of the bill is what needs to be clear, the minutia will be as it is needed to address the situation.

    We can gain support from each other by considering each other more, not less. Anything that passes the muster with liberals, conservatives, health of the environment, and health of the economy are the ideals that we should be moving toward right now. They are out there to be found, just like President Obama’s energy bill, and by those types of moves we regain trust in each other and our gov’t. I also believe that if those principals bind us together now, they will be needed in the future just as with freedom of speech and civil rights.

    I will stop there, so I won’t take up space (trust me I could ;>D ) , but I do appreciate the ideas expressed on the blog.

    • dave-t.:

      “We as a country have made no practical steps in trying to maintain a balanced budget or lowering the current deficit since Bush took office in 2001. President Obama has not moved us in the right direction on this point.”

      As someone said, you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. The facts are that the Obama Administration has indeed moved us closer to a balanced budget, by 13 percent. So, you are wrong about that. Please don’t repeat an opinion here after I have disproved it. It’s annoying and makes me suspect you aren’t thinking clearly.

      Further, economic stimulus spending by the government is essential to getting the economy moving again, and if the economy continues to stagnate, the country will have bigger problems than just a deficit. The Obama Administration has been way too cautious in this regard. Last year’s stimulus package should have been a lot bigger.

      I pretty much agree with you on Afghanistan. I’ve been saying for some time that we had a window of opportunity to accomplish something in Afghanistan, but it closed by 2004 if not sooner.

      we need a direction that binds the two sides together … [parts of Obama’s energy plan is perfect legislation that all sides can accept.

      Unfortunately, anything the Obama Administration might propose, no matter how sensible and meritorious, will be opposed by the Right just to hurt the Obama Administration. The Right will stop at nothing to destroy the Obama Administration, even if it means taking America down with it. Obama could come out in favor of apple pies and puppies, and before the day is over the right-wing media infrastructure will have found some way to make apple pie and puppies sound evil. I am not exaggerating, much.

      The Democrats had a window of opportunity to show that they could govern effectively in spite of the Rabid Right, and they pretty much blew it. So now I fear things will have to get a lot worse before they can get better.

      I also see it as a detriment that we no longer write bills that the average American can read.

      That’s crap. Bills have never in American history been all that readable, and the popularity of laws never depended on whether people could read and understand them. In fact, a lot of legislation that came to be popular was unpopular when it was passed; Medicare is an example of that. Most of the time controversial bills don’t become popular until they are in effect and people realize the sky didn’t fall after all.

      You are fixated on the health care reform bill because the Right pushed its alleged unreadability as a propaganda point. You were snookered. Get over it.

      The Jewish religion, Buddhism, Christianity, Greek philosophy….They last because people understand the principals

      First, laws and religions are two different things. A legislative package like the health care reform act has to spell out in fine detail how programs are supposed to work, and often those details will be mind-boggling. But without them, there will be no implementation. A law has to be detailed and specific in a way that religious and philosophical principles do not.

      Second, religions generally last because people are raised to believe them, and because they offer some kind of emotional or psychological solace to people they aren’t getting elsewhere. Law doesn’t work that way.

      Third, I assure you hardly anyone actually understands Buddhism. It’s part of my job elsewhere to explain Buddhism to people, so I have some expertise on this matter.

      Now, one more thing — most of the time, in history, the forces that bind people together are negatives ones, like hate and deprivation, or maybe plain old survival. People do not rally behind good ideas just because they are good ideas. I also think unity is way overrated. The country was mostly united after September 11, and look where that got us. We don’t need unity as much as we need sanity.

      The hysterical opposition to anything President Obama does is fueled mostly by the irrational fear that he’s going to take something away from people. That something may be money, or guns, or white privilege, or the American Way of Life. If we all united behind that fear, America would self-destruct in a matter of months. But I don’t see the fear going away anytime soon. I think the best we can do is keep our heads and salvage as much as we can from the mob.

  10. dave-t,
    I like a lot of what you had to say.

    As to the length, the problem with legislation now is that you have an endless amount of special interests via lobbyists paying into the campaign funds of legislators from the local to the national level, so they tweak little things that later prove to be major.
    So, each piece of legislation, if not written outright by the lobbyists, is influenced to the degree that it takes pages and pages of what will, and what may not be allowed. And a lot of that is written specifically with a court in mind that will hear the specifics.
    The Constitution, the ‘owners manual,’ that we use as the guide to run the country, all of it, can be read by an average person in the time it takes to watch a couple of sit-coms. While a bill to do anything of substance take thousands and thousands of pages.
    Laws can be simple when the laws and their consequences for the citizens are what you are concerned about. But when you are looking out for the people you are beholden to in your last election, or re-election, it behooves you to put in language that is understandable only to the ones who dominate the legislative and judicial branches (actually, all of them, if you think about it). You write laws not for the people, but the people who interpert the law in your favor, and those members are also lawyers, who know how to slice and/or dice to benefit those who pay their salaries.
    If you want to make laws simple, and of interest to the average voter, eliminate the special interests who pay to make a mountain out of a mole-hill just to make a mountain of cash.

    • c u n g gulag — gotta disagree with you, in part.

      The Constitution, the ‘owners manual,’ that we use as the guide to run the country, all of it, can be read by an average person in the time it takes to watch a couple of sit-coms. While a bill to do anything of substance take thousands and thousands of pages.

      That’s true, but that’s not just because of lobbyists. The Constitution spells out broad parameters of governmental authority and left to future lawmakers to work out the specifics. Legislative packages, on the other hand, have to spell out the details. So it’s not reasonable to expect legislation to be as broad, brief and readable as the Constitution.

  11. 70 percent….we need a direction that binds the two sides together?

    You know you sound so reasonable, too bad the side you are advocating for is not even close to reasonable, they are only interested in preserving wealth for the folks that have money now. They see the demo of the country changing and they have choosen division and fear for short term power gains. In the long run this will be good for the country, cause one day they will wake up as minorities with knowone in their tent but themselves. So go market your disingenuous happy talk elsewhere, taint gonna sell here.

  12. In a polity already crippled by bumper-sticker discourse, actual legislation crafted to essentially the same prose standard might not be such a good thing.

  13. TURN OUT. If we can just get people to actually come out and vote, the traditional mid-term election losses will not be a bloodbath. The “tea party”candidates are such hateful, inarticulate nothings they are at a significant disadvantage to serious candidates.

  14. dave-t, I’m confused. You wrote:

    What we need is a president and congress to run a full term at 70%+ approval ratings. That would bring the country together, build trust, and allow us to find solutions that don’t cause the “other side” to lose for us to win.

    Isn’t a 70% approval rating a sign that the country has been brought together, not a means of creating that state? It’s like saying, we need to get 7 out of 10 people to agree, because that will make people agree. It seems backwards. Wouldn’t you need people to come together and build trust before we could reach a 70% approval rating on anything?

    You also lost me with that whole simple vs. complicated thing. Yes, Christianity has some simple principles, but as thousands of years of warfare shows, there’s considerable disagreement about the details. Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc, with multiple branches and denominations within them…with plenty of complexity and hard-to-read treatises, theses, etc. So, even if it were appropriate to compare the religious and the secular spheres of life, which I don’t know if I agree with, I don’t agree that complication is the problem.

    As the muckracking author Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” I might amend that to also include “prejudice, and/or social standing”. In other words, while I grant that (for various legitimate reasons) legislation is written in a very complex way, there were plenty of ways for someone who cared to find out what was going on with the health care bill well enough. All it would take was some work.

    Sadly, and here I’ll connect back to maha’s post, I think that over decades we have trained our populace to be “hard of thinking”, by which I mean that the ‘common person’ has lost his/her comfort and facility and willingness to work at common-sense reasoning.

    Part of it is, I believe, due to the ‘cult of expertise’, in which we give up our belief that we can learn and understand if we put our minds to it. Part of it is down to modern advertising, and TV commercials, where we’re repeatedly subjected to unsupported assertions, or worse, nonsense and trained nightly to lose our native ability to spot the difference between reasoned argument and loud, repetitive assertion. When the TV spots fly by so fast, there’s no time to even think “Why would I want that?” or “What the hell does a singing mop have to do with clean floors?” or “Wait, that’s just bullshit.” The nonsense and BS gets poured in so fast, we just get used to just accepting it as normal.

    And, sadly, the process has been aided by those who gain benefit from a broad population that is easily manipulated, because they’ve lost the habit of thinking for themselves and let the mental tools required get rusty and lost. I think that’s why it’s gotten worse in the last couple decades. It may have roots in “Shell with Platformate”, but Lee Atwater, et al. really took it to a new level.

    (Dang, I’d better stop. Forgive me, folks, nothing like a bad day at the office to get me all long-winded and ranty.)

  15. biggerbox…I hear ya on that comment. On the local radio here there is a some finance(refinance) company that has an advertisement with a line in it that goes: “In the era of government bailouts, you now have the right to retire up to 75% of your debt”. If you’re paying attention you realize that you always had the right to retire any percentage of your debt by just paying it up. But if you are not paying attention you’re going to believe that through some government program 75% of your debt will be absolved when you hook up with this company who understands the workings of government programs.

  16. One thing that prevents me from fully understanding Buddhism is my addiction to the proper use of English words.

    “reigns” should be “reins”

    “principals” should be “principles”

    “your” should be “you’re”
    It’s over this kind of thing, and the misuse of apostrophes to indicate a plural that I feel I am a conservative. Just a mere 40 odd years ago, the standards of proper English and grammar seemed to apply. I’m willing to be understanding of a commenter who may not have spelling and English as a strong point, but I hate seeing this kind of thing in the media. Which I do.
    At the risk of being an elitist, I think that learning and using the proper words, spelling and grammar in English is the foundation to critical thinking, something that is sorely missing in our society today. If you can still call it a society, that is.

  17. -biggerbox

    “I think that over decades we have trained our populace to be “hard of thinking”, by which I mean that the ‘common person’ has lost his/her comfort and facility and willingness to work at common-sense reasoning.”

    Bread and circuses, my friend, bread and circuses. Most of the college-educated IT workers I know would rather tinker with iGadgets, watch a million channels of NFL/AmericanIdol/TV in general or play endless games, than actually learn, reason or think. Besides, they have to do that at work all day and….”Squirrel!”, to paraphrase Jon Stewart.

  18. maha,
    You’re right. I was trying to make a broader point, and stuck my foot in my mouth.
    Not the first time. I gotta see if I still have medication for ‘athlete’s tongue.’

  19. kagerato – Thinkers/statesmen (there actually used to be some) have said that a democracy could not survive more than four years of a war. History bears this argument out as the collapse of great past Republics always followed years of war. We have been on an imperialistic binge beginning full-tilt shortly after the end of WWII and the consequences have come to back to bite us big-time in our ass. America today is not a pretty sight.

  20. @dave-t :

    Facts are stubborn things. We have, actually, made steps to attempt to reduce the deficit since Obama took office. Do you remember that whole “health care bill” mess that went on? One of the major purposes behind the legislation was to lower the long-term costs of health care, which have been spiraling out of control thanks to many factors: profiteering, needless insurance middlemen, medicine patents, excessive cost of a medical education, a lack of investment into research for cures, and a strong emphasis on ever more expensive treatments without any regard for their degree of effectiveness in comparison to their cost. Medicare has to pay for this insanity, so lowering the cost of care is extraordinarily important to the deficit.

    That’s not to say we did the best we could with the bill that passed. A long way from it. We should have scrapped the entire for-profit industry and replaced it with a single payer, Medicare-for-all program. We should have eliminated all patents on medicine and biology. We should have made a big research investment into cures for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illness that are sucking most of the money.

    And yes, if we had done that instead, the bill would have been far shorter. You can do write everything in the last paragraph into law with about ten pages of text — maybe even less. Unfortunately, lobbyists and huge ignorant swathes of the public demanded that we not, you know, actually change anything significant about the way the country’s medical system functions. When you write legislation for a monster, the bill itself becomes a monster.

    As to the economy, I don’t know whether you’re addressing TARP and the banks or stimulus funding. They’re two separate bills with purportedly the same purpose. Although the TARP program was a boondoggle (and the failure is shared by Bush and Obama) because it rewarded rather than punished massive and pernicious fraud in the financial system, it has not lead to a big increase in the deficit over the long run. Most of the money in TARP was loans, not grants. Those loans ultimately are being repaid in good order, and in some cases even at a profit.

    The alternative, which many progressives, liberals, and people of common sense generally supported, was to wipe out the banks completely. They failed miserably by gambling with money that they not only didn’t have but didn’t even exist. You can’t let the banks themselves collapse, though, because that will send collapsing ripple shocks throughout the entire economy — much as it did in the 1920s. So the quick fix from the government is temporary nationalization. You seize the massively indebted banks by law. Then you fire all the executives, wipe out the shareholders, and run a thorough independent investigation of the entire finances of the companies. Through that, you determine what their assets are actually worth in real (non-inflated, non-speculative) value and then sell the companies for those or higher values to a new set of investors. These investors set up a new board of trustees and new leadership for the company and things move on. It’s a simple, straightforward method that’s been tried in other countries and works just fine. More importantly, it punishes those responsible for fraud and makes it very unlikely something similar with happen again anytime soon.

    We didn’t do that, because bankers are very politically powerful people and finance has deep roots in both of our leading parties. We didn’t do that, because a corporate owned media decried any such idea as “socialism” and never addressed it on its merits. We didn’t do that, because an ignorant and isolated public wasn’t paying good, critical attention to the matter and couldn’t muster anything more than baseless angry cries. You can’t run a country or change policies based on anger and authority-driven lies.

    Now, the stimulus is a different issue. This is about basic Keynesian economic policy. When the economy is in a deep recession, and there’s nothing monetary policy can do about it (as, in this case, interest rates could not be reduced any further), the best action government can take is to increase aggregate demand by directly purchases goods and services. That is, to spend, and spend a great deal.

    Note, however, that much of the stimulus package was not spending at all. It was tax cuts, quite a lot of them, and across a broad base. This is a big problem, because cutting taxes during a deep recession is not only not stimulative, it’s regressive. The people who you desperately need to spend money, the middle and upper classes, do not spend tax cuts on products and services. They pay down their debts and they save anything left over. This is completely natural and totally expected, but somehow it is shocking to so many political pundits in America that tax cuts do not stimulate the economy.

    Another problem is that the Congress decided to make another big part of the stimulus direct grants to states. The idea was to cover the budget shortfalls that most of the states in the country were seeing. It mostly did that much, but that kind of action only saves existing jobs — it doesn’t create new jobs. When you want to create new jobs you have to allocate money toward a particular task, like building a rail system or photovoltaics production and deployment. Turning state budgets from deep red to light red and black, sadly, doesn’t earn much political credit. Especially if governors and legislators of those states happen to turn around and stab you in the back for the “ineffectiveness” of your policy, while accepting the money greedily.

    Now the mid terms are coming up, and it seems the main economic issue across the country — according to the media — is taxes. The President had stated before, and continues to hold to, a policy of allowing a tax increase on the richest 2 to 3 percent of the country to occur. This is perfectly sane policy, and makes great sense at getting the federal budget back into the black. Indeed, it would be sane to allow all of Bush’s tax cuts to expire automatically as they are set to do. Further, it would be sane to raise taxes on the rich more substantially. The actual increase we’re talking of here is only a few percent (back to the Clinton marginal rates, where the top was just under 40%). It would make perfect sense to raise the top marginal rates ten percent even more than that if one was serious about controlling the deficit. Or to add another bracket or two on top of the existing ones, creating higher marginal rates for the very, very rich.

    Naturally, we also need to address the issues of tax evasion, capital gains, and other loopholes used predominantly by the rich to avoid paying their legitimate income tax rate. It is surprisingly simple to enforce the tax law when the government actually tries, because most of those evading taxes have substantial assets in within the U.S. which are at risk if they blindly continue their behavior. Moreover, there are many useful deals that the United States can strike up with other countries to help hunt down tax shelters and similar offshore laundering activity.

    Now, taxes serve far more purpose than just balancing the federal budget on paper. In particular, high taxes on the wealthy incentivize spending over saving. This is critical, because you must spend to create jobs, build up the gross domestic product (and confidence), and generate demand in order to get out of a recession. Now ask yourself: who has most of the money to spend in the private sector? The richest five percent? Or everyone else?

    Increasing taxes also reduces inflation, at least as soon as the federal budget starts running a surplus. This is a fascinating fact that very few Americans seem to realize: every dollar taken by the public sector in taxes which is not consumed by a public expenditure is simply destroyed. Federal surpluses are one way to constrict the money supply. Of course, this can be taken much too far (and has, several times in the past). If you start running budget surpluses for a long period of time, you will inevitably encounter deflation from the reduction in supply of dollars.

    In the reverse, government deficits create money in the private sector. It’s the same effect as printing money, except that we simply change the correct numbers in a few computers rather than actually using a printing press and trees. Taken to an extreme, eventually continual deficits lead to noticeable inflation. We’re not to that point yet.

    Due to population growth (increasing the labor pool) and technological innovation (efficiency improvements), the federal government must run deficits some of the time to avoid deflation. Otherwise there will literally not be enough money in circulation to properly pay all workers and value all goods and services. You could, of course, work against deflation by lowering salaries and the prices of goods, but that almost never happens in practice.

    One last important point: it’s not necessary for the Treasury to issue government bonds in proportion to the national deficit. This is a legal requirement and standard practice, but it was born entirely from practicality — not strict economy theory. That is, we didn’t need to give Japan and China a massive number of interest-bearing treasury bonds. But we did anyway, because it makes them like us more and encourages them to continue trading with us rather than someone else. Since those bonds would be worthless if the United States had a genuine economic collapse, it also encourages them to take action to keep us afloat.

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