Saturday, September 30, 2006

Straying From Your Sphere Of Expertise


Sometimes I wonder if I should join the majority of Americans who tune out politics - my cousin’s recipe for peace of mind. I know I blog for different reasons than many. I probably wouldn’t blog if nobody read what I wrote, but I’m not blogging here to show off expertise, unveil the inner workings of my soul, or to show that I am the world’s greatest political analyst, capable of understanding far more from the comfort of my armchair than anybody else in the world. And I would find it comical if somebody were to suggest to me that my blog somehow established such a credential.

So is it a lack of ego, or is it a mark of ego, which causes somebody to claim, “I can't speak for anyone else, but in my case, I try to limit blogging to issues where I have a comparative advantage: that is, questions on which I can say something useful or interesting that is unlikely to be said by others.” What if the person further explains,
Moreover, I take seriously the implications of some of my own scholarly work on political ignorance. Merely knowing a few basic facts that can be gleaned from perusing a newspaper is not enough knowledge to conclude that I have something original and important to say about an issue, except in very rare cases where the issue in question is unusually simple. My experience as an expert on political information is that there are far more issues that are more complex than most nonexperts believe than the reverse. In this regard, my general expertise on political information helps me keep tabs on my lack of expertise on specific issues.

Ah, to be blessed with such insight into your own limitations.

So let’s follow the link:
As we enter the home stretch of the 2004 presidential election, the majority of citizens remain ignorant about many of the issues at stake. Surveys show that 70 percent of American adults don't know that Congress recently passed a prescription drug benefit for seniors, even though the new law -- projected to cost $500 billion over the next 10 years -- is probably the most significant domestic legislation passed during the Bush administration. More than 60 percent do not know that President Bush's term has seen a massive increase in domestic spending, about 25 percent above previous levels, that has led to a major increase in the national debt. And despite the extensive media attention focused on employment numbers, almost two-thirds of the public don't know that there has been a net increase in jobs this year. Three quarters admit they know little or nothing about the USA Patriot Act and 58 percent mistakenly believe that the Bush administration perceives a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks.

Oh, the irony. This editorial published by Fox News, the network whose viewers are most likely to accept the false link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. And what sort of measure is this, given that the Bush Administration has done pretty much everything within its power to suggest a link, with Fox News and various right-wing television and radio hosts “connecting the dots” that everybody is supposed to know don’t exist?

The first question that comes to mind is, why should all Americans be familiar with these particular issues? Why should every voter care enough to follow the Medicare prescription bill, when most won’t qualify for the benefit for many years (and can reasonably assume that the entire Medicare system may look radically different by that time)? Why should an individual who is unemployed, who is working a “newly created” job inferior to the one he held a few years before, or whose family is suffering similar woes, care about raw job numbers - why isn’t their experience more important, and for that matter more relevant to their voting decision? The budget deficit? Again, an area where if you watch the wrong news programs or listen to the Bush Administration, you’ll walk away feeling that you have the informed opinion that everything’s coming up roses and we’re on a path toward budgetary balance.

Am I wrong to infer, also, that other than the budget deficit issue, the subtext of these questions is, “Why are voters too stupid to know that they should vote Republican?” (Perhaps he should have titled his work, “What’s the matter with everybody other than Kansas?”)

The author argues,
No matter how well-informed a citizen is, her vote has only a tiny chance of affecting the outcome of an election; about one chance in 100 million in the case of a presidential race. Since her vote is almost certain not to be decisive, even a citizen who cares greatly about the outcome has almost no incentive to acquire sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice. Acquiring significant amounts of political knowledge so as to be a more informed voter is, in most situations, simply irrational. But the rational decisions of individuals create a dysfunctional collective outcome in which the majority of the electorate is dangerously ill-informed.

The author illustrates this by observing, “Polls show that many more people know the names of the judges on ‘The People's Court’ than those on the Supreme Court.” Funny, though, I don’t recall ever being invited to vote for a Supreme Court Justice. I know all of their names, yet I really don’t believe that actually makes me a more informed voter, nor is it relevant to most of my voting decisions. “Gee, I should vote for Jennifer Granholm for governor, because Justice Scalia is on the Supreme Court. And I should vote for Debbie Stabenow because Justice Ginsburg looks really good in judicial robes.” Oh, sure, knowing which one is most likely to retire in a coming Presidential term may be relevant to that particular vote, but even there it is most relevant to people who vote on single issues as opposed to those making truly informed voting decisions. And even there, the individual Justice's name or political philosophy isn't relevant, as all you really care about is the political philosophy of the successor.

Moving back to the argument that it is a rational choice not to be informed about the issues, I would step beyond that and say that it is possible to believe yourself to be very informed about the issues, yet have no real grasp of them. You could spend an hour each day between reading a daily newspaper, watching the news on TV, and discussing issues with your family, yet have no real understanding of the issues the author sets forth as his litmus test. We don’t make it easy to be informed - in fact, many aspects of our current political system are designed to make it harder, and our news media is increasingly focusing on entertainment and argument, with the conveyance of information a distant afterthought. Beyond that, billions of dollars are invested annually by lobbying interests, business interests, and advocacy groups of various sorts to mislead the public about important issues.

What is more than a bit troubling about the author’s suggestion is that it in fact supports removing the vote from the public at large. It’s unreasonable to expect the public to educate itself, it’s too hard to devise a system that actually would educate the public. He reminds us that even the most informed voters can only stay on top of a small number of issues. And even if they do, he asserts that an individual vote doesn't really make any difference. So why do we let people vote at all? The author attempts to get back onto the road to democracy by proposing,
The problem of political ignorance is not going to be solved anytime soon. But it may be possible to ensure that more people possess at least basic political knowledge. At the same time, we should consider the possibility that a government with fewer functions might be easier for voters to understand and control.

Oh, good grief. Who picks the subjects for these efforts at educating the public? The government? And this smaller government that is easier to understand - is it responsible for that small set of things that the author deems important? Or will it be limited to those things which are actually understood by a significant majority of voters? “As voters really don’t understand foreign policy, but have a very good understanding of taxes on beer and gas, we have divested the federal government of making any foreign policy decisions - but it can continue to tax beer and gas.” Why are we going to pretend that the issue is whether or not the voting public understands what the government is doing, when we obviously are not going to model the government around that understanding, nor are we going to much care if the public understands matters upon which only the government (even if stripped down to its smallest form) can reasonably act?

If this is an example of the author’s “scholarly work” within his area of expertise (I snarkily comment), perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that he doesn’t want to embarrass himself on subjects outside of his areas of expertise.

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