The Crux of the Problem….

Yesterday’s discussion of trade agreements generated a number of thoughtful comments. As regular readers know, I rarely “weigh in” to the back-and-forth (for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I have a day job), but I do want to focus in on an observation posted by Pete, because it describes an under-appreciated challenge of modernity that has increasingly been troubling me.

Pete said:

Trade agreements are very complex to even read and comprehend much less determine their impact over time on the greater good. I’m not sure why anyone would believe that they totally understand any of them based on advertising or even real news if you can find it.

That’s why I rely on other professionals like Drs and lawyers for their specialties and why I hope they rely on folks like me to keep wings from falling off airplanes.

It’s the most pernicious of modern myths that we are capable of understanding the intricacies of many many things including international trade.

It isn’t only complex trade agreements. It’s the increasing fragmentation and specialization that characterizes contemporary societies and modernity in general.

The problem, as Pete notes, is that none of us is a polymath capable of independently assessing the credibility of information about our modern environments: whether the airplane has been properly designed, the trade pact adequately protects our interests, the new medication is free of side effects, the scientists are accurately measuring climate change…We have no choice but to depend upon the informed, professional opinions of those who are expert in these various fields.

And right now, most of us don’t trust anyone. Worse, we don’t know how to determine who is expert and trustworthy.

There are a lot of reasons for our pervasive skepticism. Our current “wild west” information landscape is a major one: at the same time that media has made us aware of the myriad ways in which our public institutions have failed us (Enron, the “banksters,” the Catholic Church molestation scandals, major league sports dopers and “deflaters,” government officials…), that same media has itself morphed and fragmented, causing us to lose much of what used to be called the “journalism of verification.”

At the same time that we are positively marinating in “information”–much of it trivial and/or bogus– determining the credibility of that information and the identity and credentials of its source has become challenging if not impossible. We have “news” without context. Even reputable studies and surveys are cherry-picked and distorted. As a result, in areas where we do not possess the historical, scientific or technical knowledge to critically evaluate what we read or hear–which for most of us, is most areas–we simply choose to believe sources that confirm our pre-existing biases.

Even when Pete’s plane flies and the wings don’t fall off, a sizable percentage of us will choose to believe reports that it crashed.

In our internet age, with both information and misinformation ubiquitous, the challenge is to combat propaganda and spin without doing damage to the First Amendment–and to build and monitor trustworthy social institutions and a credible and trusted media. That will require–at the very least–a vastly improved public education system that equips citizens to evaluate the credibility of information sources, and the emergence of a rigorous and ethical journalism.

We don’t seem very committed to either task.


  1. Bottom line: We must be proactive regarding our “self interests”. You can’t believe almost anything for profit corporations advocate because their prime directive is to make money for their share holders & officers. Think pharmaceutical companies, Montsanto, tobacco. Etc. trust is gone, including in elected officials who are supposed to protect us. Ergo, the anti-establishment election….

  2. I’m 70 and some of my college buddies are among those who forward the bogus emails about the current presidential candidates they don’t like, past practices of presidents they like or don’t like, accepting the emails as fact without verification. I thought these guys would know better or would at least consider fact-checking, but apparently retirement has impaired their ability to think.

  3. First, let me say to those who have read comments on the Facebook post of this blog…I wrote my comments prior to reading this posting. Pete and I have crossed swords from time to time; but his comment referring to those of us who “keep wings from falling off planes” touched me because it is “us” who keep this country running. We lowly, blue collar workers and support staff get the work done while the higher-ups make the big bucks.

    Look at Indiana’s latest loss of employment and revenue; the laborers will be among those who may lose their homes along with their income, their ability to provide food, clothes, education and – most importantly – medical care for their families along with supporting this state as consumers. This deprives the entire Indiana economy of the ability to survive the avarice and greed of those in charge of big business and this country’s leaders. They are biting the hand that feeds them. I stated long ago that this country survives on the actions of the “movers and shakers” AND the “plodders and doers” combined. If “movers and shakers” didn’t have the “plodders and doers” to carry out their ideas and follow their leadership, nothing would get done. But, if the “plodders and doers” didn’t have the “movers and shakers” to lead them, they wouldn’t have anything to do. Today; and the recent past, those “movers and shakers” have been leading all of us into oblivion, how long before the entire county collapses because the “plodders and doers” are in other countries around the world?

    How often have you read the suggestion/command “buy only made-in-America” products? Read the labels on everything before buying and see how few of those labels can be found.

  4. Frequent readers here know that I teach Climate Science to different audiences in exchange for a couple of hours of their attention. The product is an artifact of my observation that the science behind the concept of energy is completely unintuitive and has been traditionally offered only to those who are willing and capable of understanding the maths behind it which are even more foreign to many brains. I apparently was dealt a brain that works well enough in those departments at the expense of other departments, which makes me just another individual in a diverse species.

    Anthropogenic Climate Change is like gravity to those who know the physics and chemistry and biology and geology of physical systems in that it is intuitively obvious. But for those who’ve chosen to climb other educational mountains it’s very obscure.

    My classes typically contain several ah ha moments for the students just like I often have here when Sheila explains some public policy concept that changes my uneducated perspective from guess to insight.

    I’m old and infinitely curious and those facts have revealed to me that what I don’t and probably now never will know that is known to our species is staggering. I have to trust others to keep me out of intellectual shoals. Daily.

    But who?

    The best that I can do is grant credibility to those who have demonstrated the best results from their thinking. Talking a good show isn’t convincing to me. It needs to be accompanied by accomplishment. Those who rely on celebrity rarely make the cut on my very large team of experts.

  5. An excellent post, Sheila. This one ought to get national exposure. Whether it’s evolution, climate change, vaccination safety, or monetary policy we need to rely on the experts. It’s unfortunate that our elected officials in legislatures and executive branches are unwilling to rely upon true experts. I fear for our nation’s future given how some feel the need to “stand up to the experts.”

  6. No trust period…no trust in corporations, politicians, media, the doctors, the lawyers, and even professors (not Sheila). You don’t know who is bought and paid for…it seems like the majority.

    The same lawyers and PhD’s didn’t see the housing bubble that brought down the economy. Can’t really trust they understand trade agreements…no crystal ball.

  7. While I have no knowledge of public education in other states, I have become painfully aware that Indiana’s schools have been forced to spend too much time teaching students to pass standardized tests. Giving students the opportunity to think about and truly understand what they are being taught doesn’t seem to matter. I am not sure that our educational system actually ever allowed the time students might need to be able to fully comprehend the subjects they are being taught, but it does seem to me that in the past twenty or more years that quality has been pushed aside in favor of quantity.

    While attending school is a necessity, I believe that children can learn much from their parents. That is, if the parents take the time (or have the time) to teach their children. Technology has pushed aside valuable family time that could be spent teaching the next generation to think for themselves and this has adversely affected our society. I just read yesterday that the U.S. education system is ranked 14th out of 40 countries in cognitive skills. Obviously, we need a complete overhaul of our system.

  8. All of today’s comments show one thing that is missing from most information sources today: reasonableness.

    While few and far between, there are still some news providers worth reading. “New Yorker” comes to mind first. I like to get my medical and scientific information directly from the government web sites. Our government still funds much of the best research. Even the “Federal Register” occasionally gives insights into what’s happening, but you do have to be a glutton for punishment to go there.

    That being said, there is an ever increasing number of Koch Machine funded blogs, web sites, institutes and foundations putting out dis-information. They don’t care if they lie and have to retract. They know you can’t unsee a lie and very few people ever read retractions.

  9. I have probably opined before that I believe that an essential part of education today is cognitive quality control – the mechanism that we use every hour of every day to grant credibility to sources.

    It’s a Goldilocks deal that needs to be just right. Too little gets one off in the swamp of ignorance, too much leads to cynicism, one of the major dysfunctions of our times.

  10. Peggy Hannon; your first, brief paragraph says it all, thank you.

    Let me reword my earlier lengthy comments Those who author, submit and pass these trade agreements along with those who report them – in their own words – do not fully understand so cannot act or report in a reasonable manner. We cannot expect to understand their convoluted actions and “news reports”. They seem to be unaware that the problems and their solutions are here at home; they repeatedly make the same mistakes and always expect a different outcome. This lack of awareness has given us the current GOP reign of wealth led by their unqualified presidential hopefuls – sadly, they are also being supported by many of the wealthy Democrats. Does the general public even understand that much?

  11. Hmmm. Where to start? Let me say by way of background, that I worked closely with Farm Aid sponsored groups and individuals in the late 1980s and early 1990s looking at international trade agreements and their impact on family farming, farming communities, and local ag. based markets (direct sale markets vaguely like the farmers markets that are scattered about Indy, etc.). This was a national and even international effort as we had face to face meetings in Indy (in advanced of the 1990 Farm Aid concert here) with French and other European farmers, and with farmers from Latin America. When it came to issues, such as NAFTA, for a period of time we held weekly phone conferences with hundreds of participants co-chaired most of the time by Jim Jontz (who was the Democratic congressman from Ind.’s 5th district) and by Lori Wallach of Public Citizen. I was honored to be an advisor to those phone conferences. There was also direct communications with national labor leaders, environmental organizations of various levels of expertise, and with economists. Within the state, we had a network that included labor, farmers, IU Labor Studies professors, and others that worked through the Save Our Jobs Campaign that I staffed. As CAC’s policy and legislative guy, I was fortunate in those days to have multiple funding sources to bring in economists form the New School of Economics in New York, for example, for a conference in Indy on these issues. Yes, it was lots of work. But it demonstrated that citizens can organize and can learn what is going on in trade agreements if given access to information and the time to analyze that information. We learned that NAFTA was likely to have a brutal effect on agriculturalists in Central America and it did. We learned that the persons negotiating NAFTA and involved in the larger GATT talks for the US government disproportionately came from international commodities trading conglomerates. They were interested in gaining the ability to buy commodities cheap and then flood local markets with their cheap grain thus blowing local farmers, local cooperatives, and local indigenous markets out of their own market territories. Call it a Walmart effect by way of loose comparison. But it was worse than that. It drove people off the land and it created regional violence and political disruption in places like Central America. I’ll stop there. That was then. The capacity for citizens to do what we were doing in those days in Indiana and with others across the nation has changed. Jim Jontz is long dead. CAC of Indiana is a much smaller organization today. Farm Aid is still around but many farmer based organizations that existed in the 1980s and early 1990s are gone. Organized labor is smaller. I am retired and no longer have the ties nor the physical energy to do what we were doing in those days. But trade deals are still being negotiated and today’s TPP, for example, was largely negotiated in secret. So I believe Bernie Sanders is right. Deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership can harm large segments of the American people as they can also harm people in other countries. Complexity in trade agreements is not the main issue. Being allowed access to the process is the issue. Having trade agreements subject to public review, subject to the light of democracy, while they are being structured is the issue. Does that make trade agreements more difficult to execute? Perhaps. However, that is a small trade-off when the human, economic and environmental consequences of any international trade agreement are considered.

  12. Every year millions of jobs are eliminated by progress. Every year millions of jobs are created by progress. That’s traumatic for millions of people.

    Liberals believe in spreading the consequences of those unavoidable truths across the whole population by helping those most devastatingly impacted recover through unemployment financial support and retraining.

    It’s the least that we can do.

  13. Perhaps the greatest loss in this world of compartmentalized knowledge is the loss of trust. Not just trust in the “experts”, but most troubling, the loss of trust in our own ability to know who to trust. No wonder so many turn to fundamentalism.

  14. A simplification:

    We have two sources of insight from which our brains can direct our voluntary muscles into doing things; cognition which education of all types force feeds us as knowledge which has been gained by others over the millennia; culture which is what we observe of how others like us behave under different circumstances.

    Less of the former creates increased reliance on the latter. That’s only dysfunctional some of the time.

    Here’s a source for knowledge, this time vis a vis energy.

    I created none of this knowledge. I merely wrote it down.

  15. Not only are we having to deal with cover and deception but also attacks on those who are capable of exposing it. I’ve mentioned at least once before the attack on Bill Moyers reputation in “The New Republic Magazine,” after he had exposed the deepest part of the Religious Right/Far Right movement, names and all, within a page long expose in “The Dallas Times-Herald newspaper in 1988.”

    Moyers is an expert in politics as well as religion in Texas. He was forced to back off and hasn’t gone as deep again. HE HAD NO OTHER CHOICE. But you can’t treat certain cancers if you don’t go deep. And it is especially so if you kill off all the EXPERT surgeons.

  16. John Cardwell, like you I became aware of the highly probable effects of NAFTA on Hispanic Farmers too. My sources were the Progressive Populist Newspaper and I believe the magazine In These Times. These sources stressed Big AG’s agenda would also have a high probability of eliminating the small farmer in lieu of Factory Farms in the USA.

    At the time the McMega-Media were all a glow with presenting NAFTA’s corporate talking points. I sent a letter to a newspaper columnist here in Indiana who had written a glowing account of NAFTA, mentioning the source information I had on NAFTA. He called me back on the phone and told me he wanted permission to print my letter as he had not heard these critiques before and was surprised to learn about them. He was sounded excited to have this information I gave him my permission. He said he needed to discuss my letter with the editor of the paper. The letter was never printed.

    I recall when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved to the West Coast. It was a preview of things to come not only in major league sports but also in our economy in general. There was a critical difference the Dodgers and Giants took their players to the West Coast and did not cut the salaries of Willie Mays or Sandy Koufax. The workers here in Indiana for Carrier will find themselves out of a job, and their replacements in Mexico will be paid far less.

  17. Democracy when it works satisfies the greater good not the individual good. When it doesn’t work that way the democratic response is to hire and fire until people are in office who will fix it.

  18. Pete,

    “Democracy when it works satisfies the greater good not the individual good. When it doesn’t work that way the democratic response is to hire and fire until people are in office who will fix it

    continued: in a perfect world.”

  19. Marv, that implies that the world is not perfect which, of course, is true. Given that though is democracy really any different in the real world? Or does it still boil down to voters hiring and firing until the greatest good becomes realized?

  20. Pete,

    What I’m worried about, especially after my suspicions were confirmed by Bill Moyers in 1988, is that we are on the road to losing democracy to fascism. And I haven’t seen anything in almost thirty years to extinguish my concerns.

  21. Marv,

    Your comments about Bill Moyers being attacked for exposing the Far Right brought to mind how many of us have been attacked when we expose someone or something as being false. Before checking for accuracy and facts, the blind believers choose to attack the very people who are trying to save them from future trouble and pain.

    In the world of politics and religion, exposing the truth about what is actually going on behind closed doors can set you up for complete destruction.

  22. Nancy,

    “In the world of politics and religion, exposing the truth about what is actually going on behind closed doors can set you up for complete destruction.”

    I think it’s time for me to complete my site http://www.KillingtheMessenger. You understand how bad it can be. Most people don’t. I’m going to start working on the site in a few minutes. It should be completed by the end of the week. As the actor Gregory Peck told the pilots under his command before taking off in the movie Twelve O’clock High, “you must consider yourself DEAD.” ( If otherwise you’ll never complete your mission).

    I started this mission a very long time ago, I have a duty to complete it. Dead or alive. There is no more time. Trump is beatable, his replacement won’t be.

  23. Borrowing from Pete, “Trade agreements are very complex to even read and comprehend much less determine their impact over time on the greater good. I’m not sure why anyone would believe that they totally understand any of them based on advertising or even real news if you can find it.”

    One phrase jumps out “…impact over time on the greater good”, indicating a decidedly forward, future thinking mindset. Have we considered the possible difference between those who live in a ‘future thinking mode’ as opposed to those who live in a ‘current, here and now mode’? And, no, I do not think the difference is a matter of intelligence or education.

    What separates these two groups, 1) those who live in a ‘future-thinking mode’ that’s built on a foundation of supporting the greater good for those yet unborn, and 2) those who live in a ‘present, here and now mode’ where the future may only extend to tomorrow? Obviously, that was a rhetorical question.

    It’s much easier to consider the greater good, the future of humanity and our planet, and the welfare of those we don’t know when we either are 1) aging and facing the end of our biological existence, or 2) enjoying some semblance of relative prosperity where meeting basic financial responsibilities no longer consumes our daily thinking.

    Considering that some, actually, a huge number of US citizens are living in the present, the exact moment, by virtue of the economy as it impacts their lives, can we comprehend their lack of enthusiasm when global trade or trade agreements are mentioned? I can.

    Consider that 2400 employees of Carrier LLC are facing a sudden and unexpected life change because Carrier is relocating to Mexico via some trade agreement, and now consider what level of enthusiasm these folks might have for a future greater good.

    I’m torn between future thinking for the greater good and present thinking for the good of those who exist in the here and now.

  24. BSH, you make some great points.

    Now vs the future.

    My perspective probably carries over from my career in that despite what we wish for, the government can hardly impact today. Virtually everything possible in terms of government or business or religion will only be felt years from now. Those ships are now so big and complex that turning any wheel now just launches a very slow moving reaction.

    That’s why I tend to loose it when people believe that on Jan 20, 2008 all of Bush’s mistakes became Obama’s.

    There are actions that have an immediate impact but they’re the province of individuals not massive institutions.

    Trade agreements have to be based on long term trends on millions of people not short term corrections on the trajectories of individuals.

    That’s sort of like the difference between climate and weather that confuses so many people.

  25. Marv, what I’m sure that you’re right about is that far more mischief in history has been caused by we the people underestimating threats than overestimating them.

  26. Pete,

    Personally, I’m not so sure it’s ‘now vs future’ which places the ‘present’ in competition with the ‘future’ and subsequently indicates there will be a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’.

    Sounding simplistic perhaps but without considerable attention to the ‘now’, the ‘future’ is handicapped. How about trying ‘now & future’. There’s a hybrid blend somewhere in this discussion.

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