Tag Archives: ignorance

Why Knowledge Actually Matters….

I’m constantly amazed by the number of Americans who look askance at candidates for public office if they have government experience and/or training– the voters who express their preference for electing “outsiders” who will not be “disadvantaged” by actually knowing how government works.

I’m pretty sure those same voters wouldn’t choose a doctor who had never been to medical school, or a mechanic who didn’t know where their car’s engine was located.

Doctrinaire libertarians and “small government” conservatives may be nostalgic for the days of the Vermont Town Hall meetings, but this country is not going to get rid of the agencies that inspect our food and drugs, ensure that airplanes don’t crash into each other, keep businesses from colluding to fix prices, corporations from lying to prospective shareholders, and more. (Nor–despite the fantasies of this Administration and the real harm it can do–are we going to get rid of environmental rules and regulations, enforcement of civil rights laws, or public schools.)

Voting in a “management team” that doesn’t understand what government agencies do or how they do it, a team that is unfamiliar with constitutional checks and balances, and ignorant of settled U.S. foreign policy, diplomatic norms, and the definition of the national interest is like asking the company janitor to assume control of a multi-national corporation.

Even if he was a really good janitor, it isn’t going to go well. If he was an unstable and intellectually limited janitor with very spotty cleaning skills , he’s going to do a lot of damage to the company.

A couple of examples may illustrate the problem.

During the Presidential campaign, Donald Trump confidently asserted that he would bring back jobs in the coal industry. He argued that “burdensome” regulatory activity–like keeping miners safe and coal ash out of Americans’ drinking water–had caused the industry’s declining employment.

But as this article and several others explain, what’s killing coal is the market, not regulation.

The U.S. coal industry basically imploded as Chinese demand slipped. Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal and Walter Energy have all filed for bankruptcy over the past two years. (Peabody Coal is nearing a plan to pull itself out of bankruptcy.) The number of people who work in coal has tanked, too. In 1985, the industry employed 177,000 people. At the end of 2008, that number fell to 86,000. It was at 56,000 by last year.

“The market is telling coal that it’s a dying fuel source because we have abundant supplies of natural gas that are indigenous to the country,” Pete Fontaine, a veteran environmental lawyer who works for fossil fuel companies, told HuffPost. “You can scrap rules that make coal mining more expensive, you can scrap the Clean Power Plan, but ultimately coal is on the way out.”

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton points to another example:

Like virtually every other environmental measure, Trump is trying to roll back the CAFE standards for efficient engines in cars and trucks, on the premise that such regulations increase the price of cars. But in reality, doing so would actually cost consumers more money.

Trump’s misguided move to appease the ever-myopic U.S. auto industry would undo efficiency gains that will provide consumers $98 billion in total net benefits, primarily from reduced fuel use. Individual car buyers would lose “a net savings of $1,650” (even after accounting for the higher vehicle cost) as the EPA concluded in its final January “Determination on the Appropriateness” of the standards.

The savings from the new standards are so significant that the EPA calculates “consumers who finance their vehicle with a 5-year loan would see payback within the first year.”

Rolling back the standards would also boost U.S. oil consumption by 1.2 billion gallons and increase U.S. carbon pollution by 540 billion tons over the lifetime of the model-year 2022–2025 cars.

When managers–private or public–don’t know what they don’t know, and are unwilling to educate themselves or consult people who do understand the way things work, they advocate “solutions” that make matters worse.

When experts are scorned as “elitists” and scores of knowledgable agency employees are told to pack their bags, what comes next won’t be pretty.

Isaac Asimov, the brilliant scientist and science-fiction author, said it best:

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

That cult of ignorance has given us an Administration that rejects science and subject-matter expertise in favor of conspiracy theories and authoritarian ideologies.

I wonder–if America survives this, what lessons–if any–will we learn?

The Age of Vandalism?

Random thoughts prompted by a seemingly interminable election campaign:

  • When I ran for Congress in 1980, women candidates were still rare. One of the “truisms” I encountered about the differences between male and female candidates was “Men run for office to be someone; women run in order to do something.” As with all sexist constructions, it isn’t a “one size fits all” observation, but it certainly is an accurate description of Clinton and Trump. Clinton has issued reams of carefully constructed and highly detailed policy positions; Trump talks only about himself–and from all appearances, has not the foggiest notion of what governing entails or what the constitution permits. The question, of course, is whether a celebrity-obsessed culture wants leadership or entertainment–no matter how dangerous or damaging that entertainment may be.
  • I share in the depressing point of view offered by a reader of Talking Points Memo:”Win or lose, on November 8, Donald Trump will have garnered some 60 million votes. Sixty million Americans will have gone to the polls and voted for him — clear-eyed or self-deluded people, making that choice enthusiastically or resignedly, very much because of what he represents or in spite of it. 60 million people will have voted to entrust themselves and the people they love not simply to a vulgarian narcissist who desperately needs medical help, but also to someone who is so arrogantly and defiantly ignorant that he thinks Supreme Court justices investigate crimes, that federal judges sign bills, that he would have the power to replace leadership in the armed services with officers who have publicly supported him, that the Constitution has (at least) 12 articles, that the United States could use nuclear weapons tactically without initiating nuclear war, that we could have new libel laws that wouldn’t gut the Bill of Rights, etc. Win or lose, Trump has already exposed something about us that we need to grapple with. All of us.”
  • I’ve never understood vandalism. Theft is comprehensible; people want something and take it. But destruction just for the sake of destruction has always been unfathomable to me. I mention this because, more and more, participants in America’s political system have come to resemble vandals–intent on mayhem rather than reconstruction, unwilling to participate in the hard work of productive reform. Whether it’s the members of Congress’ “lunatic caucus” or the thugs acting out at Trump rallies, or the racists relieved that “political correctness” no longer restrains them from spewing their hate, these are people simply venting their rage, trying to bring down “the system,” with no concern about the social or fiscal costs and no apparent concern for what comes after the destruction.

I’m very depressed. The Trump campaign has uncovered and threatens to normalize an America of which I was previously–blissfully–unaware.

Forty-nine more days…..

Ignorant? Or Venal?

Question of the day: are the Tea Party zealots venal? Or are they simply ignorant?

As the nation struggles to emerge from the latest unforced error by the Keystone Kop wannabes we inexplicably elected, I have one small request: let’s retire the loudmouths demanding ever more cuts to programs that don’t personally benefit them.

And yes, Marlin Stutzman, I’m looking at you.

Stutzman wants to cut food stamps that benefit poor children, but not the 200,000+ he gets each year in farm subsidies.

I guess we can categorize Stutzman as “venal”–or at least selfish and hypocritical. But what can we say about Idaho Tea Partier Tedd Collett, who ran for office demanding that government discontinue any and all involvement with medical care–and whose ten children are on Medicaid?

Shades of the idiot who attended a Town Hall a couple of years ago with the now-famous sign demanding that government “keep its hands off my Medicare!”

Okay, I suppose the two categories aren’t mutually exclusive.

History, Cut to Fit

I have often used this blog to complain that Americans know very little about our country’s history and governing structures–not to mention science and economics. A couple of days ago, a friend shared an exchange that once again underscored the point.

One of my friend’s high-school classmates had responded to a Facebook post in which he had saluted Lilly Company’s support for Freedom Indiana, the group formed to fight the effort to constitutionalize Indiana’s existing ban on same-sex marriage. The classmate wrote:
 ”The Constitution is inscribed to articulate inalienable rights we already have by virtue of the Creator. It is not an instrument whereby we are given grant ourselves wishes, no matter how well-intentioned they may be; no matter how noble they may sound.”
Grammatical errors aside, this construction pretty much stands history on its head. As my friend responded:
“What you’re describing here is a theocracy. Because we live in a nation with people of many faiths and people with none, I’m glad we don’t govern ourselves that way. Also, the term “inalienable rights” is from the Declaration of Independence, not the U.S. Constitution. There is no mention of God, Creator, etc. in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights (except to say “the year of our Lord” near the signatures). Even if you want to talk “inalienable rights” with regard to HJR-6 in Indiana, two of those articulated in the Declaration of Independence are “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness.” I would suggest that by banning marriage for a subset of our fellow citizens, HJR-6 tramps on both of those “inalienable rights.”
My friend shared this exchange as confirmation that our concerns about widespread civic ignorance are valid. It certainly provides anecdotal confirmation of that concern. But it also raises some disquieting questions.
Would his high-school classmate see the world differently if he understood the history of America’s constituent documents? If he were familiar with Enlightenment philosophy, the writings of Hobbes and John Locke, the separationist beliefs of early religious figures like John Leland or Roger Williams? Or would he stubbornly “cherry pick” history and philosophy to make them conform to his own worldview? After all, it is enormously tempting to sift through biblical and constitutional texts to find support for our own prejudices, and right wing religious literalists aren’t the only people who do so.
Would we be able to communicate with each other more effectively if we shared a common understanding of the system we inherited–if we occupied the same reality? Or are we all so emotionally invested in our personal belief systems that we lack the openness required for genuine communication?
I have used my columns and blog to hammer at the importance of civic literacy, and I have warned of the dangers posed by our “civic deficit.” The establishment of a Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI was based upon a belief that better civic education will provide us with a common language that will facilitate better communication, that better communication will lead to better policymaking, and that a common understanding of our roots will help ameliorate our toxic politics.
This exchange  between my civically savvy friend and his old high-school classmate reminded me that my premise could well be wrong. It may be that our very human desire to confirm our prejudices– and to deny inconvenient facts that are inconsistent with those prejudices–will always trump evidence contrary to our preferred realities.
Does education matter? Does it make a difference? We have to hope so.