Tag Archives: myths

Insights And Prescriptions

Evidently, I’m not the only person who writes more about problems than solutions–and gets criticized for it. I recently came across a column by someone named Scott Galloway that began with a similar concession.

Galloway began by acknowledging criticizism for focusing on tech, business or social problems, and not proposing solutions. “Well, guilty as charged, I suppose. But let me say two things.

First, these problems flow in part from failures of perception and awareness. My cohort of economically successful people vastly overestimates our own contribution to our success. Society has been telling us that our nice homes and fancy cars must mean we’re hard-working geniuses, and why should we argue the point? The flip side is also true. Society tells those who’ve been dealt a bad hand, who’ve never caught a break, that their failure must come from a lack of grit, an incapacity to dream big. I believe that just pulling the veil of hype that’s been laid across our unequal society is part of the solution to that inequality….

Second, to be blunt, things are really fucking bad. The dashboard of threats, from inflated asset values to irreversible climate change to armed assaults on government proceedings, is flashing red and getting worse. If I spent my entire public life pointing out the risks we face, I would never run out of material.

Those points made, Galloway also points to the ways in which America is, truly, “exceptional.” Certainly not perfect, but he acknowledges a point I have frequently made: what sets us apart is that this nation wasn’t born out of ethnicity or dynastic conquest, but  on the foundation of an ideal, what I’ve referred to in my own books as “The American Idea.”  Galloway says that fact does set us apart; “it holds a special promise. It remains a promise unfulfilled, but one I believe is within our grasp.”

He says that “we’ve gotten closest to realizing our ideals when we’ve balanced ruthless capitalism with the ballast of a strong middle class. We’ve drifted off that course” and he follows that observation with five recommendations to help us find it again. Those recommendations are: simplification of the tax code; reform of Section 230 and incarceration policy; imposition of a one-time wealth tax; and a rebranding of nuclear power.

You can read his reasoning for each of these prescriptions at the link. I have no particular dispute with any of them, although I would add–and prioritize– more civic education and support for the nation’s public schools, and a concerted effort to counter the “veil of hype” he refers to in his opening paragraphs.

So long as well-to-do and financially comfortable Americans can reassure themselves that their economic good fortune is a reflection of superior merit–that poor folks are disadvantaged because they are lazy or lack “middle-class values” and not because of structural and/or systemic social barriers they’ve encountered–we will fail to achieve the very real promise of a country that–despite all its imperfections–has aspired to an ideal of equality of opportunity.

A friend of mine used to remind me that curing disease requires both an accurate diagnosis and an appropriate prescription. An accurate diagnosis of our social ills has to go beyond the obvious manifestations–observations along the lines of “oh look, there are homeless people sleeping under that bridge.” It requires us to figure out just why those people are homeless, and why our society has failed to provide appropriate interventions.

As Galloway notes, social media currently feeds some of our more dysfunctional and harmful impulses. What is it about our legal framework that allows or incentivizes its use to convey misinformation and disinformation, and what changes to that framework are most likely to ameliorate the situation?

In other words–and in defense of those of us constantly pointing to problems that need fixing–we need to accurately diagnose the roots of our problems, and then consider what prescriptions might cure them.

But in order to come up with an accurate diagnosis, we do need civic literacy–an accurate understanding of our history and the institutions that shaped–or failed to shape–that history.


Those Pesky Facts…

Not long after Trump’s childish government shutdown ended, The Washington Post ran an article debunking five “myths” about the federal workforce.

The first myth on the list may be the most pernicious: that government workers earn more than their private-sector counterparts. As the article pointed out, this isn’t true if you are comparing apples to apples. Although workers with only a high-school diploma make slightly more if they work for the government, workers with professional degrees make somewhat less. But overall salary comparisons aren’t useful,

because “federal workers tend to be older, more educated, and more concentrated in professional occupations than private-sector workers,” according to the Congressional Budget Office. There are also comparatively few part-time workers in the government.

Other misconceptions included the belief that most people who work for the federal government are located in Washington, D.C. and don’t “rub elbows” with “real Americans”(actually, only about 1 in 6 federal employees work in D.C.), the belief that government is shrinking (actually, thanks to privatization, it has grown), the belief that private enterprises can deliver services at a lower cost than government (The Project on Government Oversight says that “the government pays billions more annually in taxpayer dollars to hire contractors than it would to hire federal employees to perform comparable services.”), and that it is virtually impossible to fire non-performing government employees (federal employees are fired all the time, although they do have more rights than private-sector employees, who basically don’t have any.)

The linked article includes data supporting each of its corrections, and it’s worth clicking through and reading it in its entirety, but I think the more interesting question involves the reason for these widely-held misconceptions.

I think it comes down to Americans’ ambivalence about government.

A persistent anti-government bias is a long-standing feature of American culture. Reagan’s famous quip that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” is met with fear resonated with so many voters because skepticism about government is “baked in” to the American worldview.

Ironically, however, when most Americans are concerned about a problem, whether local or national, their first impulse is to insist that government solve it.

In a rational world (and yes, I know we don’t inhabit such a world), we would launch a national discussion about what it is we believe government should–and shouldn’t–do.

(Unfortunately, thanks to our deficit of civic literacy, most Americans don’t understand  that the answer to the the question “what shouldn’t government do?” is found in the Bill of Rights. As I tell my students, the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do.)

If we could hold such a national conversation, we might come to some agreement about what we expect government in the 21st Century to do–inspect the food supply, keep airplanes from crashing into each other, protect us from criminals and so forth. We might also reinforce understanding of things government has no business deciding–what we read, who we love, whether and how we procreate or pray.

The lesson we should have learned from the government shutdown is that Trump and his abysmal Cabinet are–thankfully– a very small part of the federal government. Despite their incompetence, thousands of people in government’s much-maligned workforce go to their jobs every day to ensure that government functions as expected. They aren’t perfect, and the incompetence at the top does do considerable damage, but without them, we’d be up that proverbial creek without a paddle. And the creek would be polluted.

Perhaps if Americans had a common understanding of the pesky facts about what government employees do every day, we would be less likely to sneer at “government work.”