Daily Howler logo
DUMMIES LIKE US! Most of us are dummies too. How do we get like that? // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2010

Promoting Senator Ryan: The rise of Senator/President Ryan continues apace in Michael Gerson’s new column. Poor Ryan has been attacked, Gerson says. After that, in a bit of a swoon, Gerson offers this:

GERSON (2/10/10): The attack “came out of the Democratic National Committee, and that is the White House,” Ryan told me recently, sounding both disappointed and unsurprised. On the deficit, Obama's outreach to Republicans has been a ploy, which is to say, a deception. Once again, a president so impressed by his own idealism has become the nation's main manufacturer of public cynicism.

To Ryan, the motivations of Democratic leaders are transparent. "They had an ugly week of budget news. They are precipitating a debt crisis, with deficits that get up to 85 percent of GDP and never get to a sustainable level. They are flirting with economic disaster." So they are attempting some "misdirection," calling attention to Ryan's recently updated budget road map—first unveiled two years ago—which proposes difficult entitlement reforms. When all else fails, change the subject to Republican heartlessness.

From a political perspective, Democratic leaders are right to single out Ryan for unkind attention. He is among their greatest long-term threats. He possesses the appeal of a young Jack Kemp, for whom both Ryan and I once worked). Like Kemp, Ryan is aggressively likable, crackling with ideas and shockingly sincere.

Ryan is “shockingly sincere,” Gerson writes. He’s among the Democrats’ greatest long-term threats. But is the likable fellow competent? Can his factual statements be trusted? Does he actually know what he’s doing? On January 29, Ryan made a presentation to Obama—an “84 percent allegation”—which got a ton of attention (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/4/10). But was his presentation accurate? Checking again on Nexis today, we see no sign that any news org has ever fact-checked Ryan’s claim.

Last week, in the wake of his presentation, we were told that Ryan is “very smart” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/5/10). We were told he should possibly run for president, though he’ll surely become a senator. Today, we’re told that he crackles with ideas. The gentleman is aggressively likable. He has a Kemp-like appeal.

This is the way Group Novels start. But was Ryan’s presentation accurate—the one which garnered so much attention?

In the novelized world of America’s “press,” questions like that don’t arise.

Kemp in the comedy zone: We always thought Kemp was likable too. In the 1990s, for example, he didn’t play the aggressively negative, name-calling/scandal-mongering games which had come to dominate anti-Dem politics. That said, we occasionally told a joke about Kemp back in the comedy days. (Well, maybe once or twice.) It turned on a puzzling idea: The smartest guy in the GOP had to leave his previous job because he’d suffered too many concussions!

Same idea with Senator Ryan! He made a striking “84 percent allegation.” His allegation got lots of attention; conservatives showered him with praise. But was his allegation accurate? Within America’s broken press culture, questions like that don’t arise.

Special report: News for (us) dummies!

PART 2—DUMMIES LIKE US (permalink): Just a guess: The bulk of us, the American people, couldn’t really explain the terms “Keynes” or “Keynesian.” To the extent that we’ve heard these terms, many of us have heard them in passing, as “Keynesianism” is met with derision on a conservative talk show. If someone conducted an information survey and asked random people what those terms mean, most of us would end up saying that we pretty much don’t rightly know.

That brings us back to Ezra Klein’s interesting observation (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/9/10). Back in the time when pavement could still be seen in this country, Ezra wrote a piece in the Washington Post in which he correctly explained that Obama’s stimulus package was “Keynesian economics in practice.” Then, he described a remarkable situation:

College kids learn about Keynesian economics in the first week of class in September, Ezra said. But in the last year, for all his trying, President Obama couldn’t explain it to us:

KLEIN (1/31/10): Students in macroeconomics classes learn all this in the first week of September. After a year of trying to explain it to an economically distressed nation, however, Obama basically gave up. Instead, he bowed before the entrenched, incorrect, conventional wisdom. “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions,” he said. “The federal government should do the same.”

Well, no. It shouldn't. The government should not tighten its belt until the people can loosen theirs. That's why the stimulus was a good idea, and why Obama is asking Congress for another stimulus, although this one's being called a “jobs bill.” But the stimulus proved almost impossible to explain, and it was far too small, given the size of the recession.

College kids learn it in the first week. But when delivered to us, the American people, it “proved almost impossible to explain”

We’re not sure we’d agree with Ezra’s portrait of Obama’s year-long efforts. For our money, Obama didn’t try nearly hard enough, in the past year, to sit down in a fireside setting and explain our remarkable economic circumstances to us, the American people. But almost surely, most people really don’t “understand” the principles of Keynesian counter-cyclical spending. As Ezra noted, the basic idea is counter-intuitive. And can we talk? Most people never took the class which included that helpful first week.

(For the record: Familiarity with Keynesian theory doesn’t necessarily compel belief in its tenets.)

Simple story: We the people often come up short in the matter of “intellectual capital.” Every information survey shows it; we rarely know the basic facts about the biggest public issues. We may not understand the basic theories which drive a great deal of public debate. But then, it’s very hard to be well informed, even for those of us who try to follow the news very closely. In our polarized political and journalistic cultures, we can always accept the narratives churned out by well-meaning helpmates on our own side. (For our money, Rachel Maddow conducted a three-credit course in over-simplification just last night.) But it’s hard to know what is actually true; our system doesn’t really run on information, facts or pursuit of the truth.

Consider something else Ezra wrote, about health reform, in this recent blog post.

“At this point, I don't think it's well understood how many of the GOP's central health-care policy ideas have already been included as compromises in the health-care bill,” Ezra wrote. He went on to discuss what his headline called “the six Republican ideas already in the health reform bill.” He began with a familiar Republican idea: The idea that people should be allowed to buy health insurance “across state lines.”

This proposition has blanketed conservative talk over the past year. The proposition is widely heard on other news programs, where every Republican instantly states it as a tenet of health reform. (Allegedly, this would lower the cost of insurance.) In what follows, we see Ezra’s account of the way this idea has been incorporated into the Senate health bill. Though we ourselves have no idea, we’ll assume that what he says here is perfectly accurate:

KLEIN (2/8/10): “Let families and businesses buy health insurance across state lines.” This is a long-running debate between liberals and conservatives. Currently, states regulate insurers. Liberals feel that's too weak and allows for too much variation, and they want federal regulation of insurers. Conservatives feel that states over-regulate insurers, and they want insurers to be able to cluster in the state with the least regulation and offer policies nationwide, much as credit card companies do today.

To the surprise and dismay of many liberals, the Senate health-care bill included a compromise with the conservative vision for insurance regulation. The relevant policy is in Section 1333, which allows the formation of interstate compacts. Under this provision, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Idaho (for instance) could agree to allow insurers based in any of those states to sell plans in all of them. This prevents a race to the bottom, as Idaho has to be comfortable with Arizona's regulations, and the policies have to have a minimum level of benefits (something that even Rep. Paul Ryan believes), but it's a lot closer to the conservative ideal.

We’ll assume Ezra’s post is accurate. Our point is somewhat different:

As we said, the idea that people should be able to “buy health insurance across state lines” has been an inescapable mantra during the past long year. Meanwhile, it sounds like a perfectly sensible notion; Republicans proponents of this idea often compare it to auto insurance, which (apparently) can be “purchased across state lines.” (Though we ourselves have no idea. Call us a “dummy” when it comes to this point.)

The point has been stated again and again, and it isn’t “counter-intuitive;” it seems to make perfect sense. Many conservatives therefore assume that the point is a solid winner—that this practice would indeed bring down the cost of insurance. They’ve heard it said a million times. They’ve never heard it challenged.

And one other thing: They’ve never seen this point analyzed or discussed by any major news org. It has been a ubiquitous claim in the past year. Have you ever seen it discussed?

For ourselves, we were surprised by Ezra’s post; we didn’t recall ever hearing that “a compromise with th[is] conservative vision for insurance regulation” had been incorporated into the Senate bill. Beyond that, we don’t think we’ve ever seen, read or heard a discussion of this ubiquitous proposal, except for one post by dday, months ago, at Digby’s blog. We’ve heard this proposal advanced a million times. Within our major news organs, we’ve never seen it analyzed.

This helps explain why we the people are such a gang of dummies.

Many voters really couldn’t explain “Keynesian economics.” But before we start to snicker and laugh, let us ask an alternate question: How many college-educated liberals could really explain the pros and cons of “buying health insurance across state lines?” For ourselves, we could take a pitiful stab at the topic. That is, we probably know enough to serve as a cable pundit.

But no, we don’t understand this topic. We’ve heard the proposal a million times. We’ve never seen it discussed.

Last night, we thought we saw Rachel playing a bit of the cable fool, speaking with perfect total confidence about this very topic (and others). To our ear, she massively overstated what Ezra said in his post, while speaking with that air of perfect complete absolute confidence. In our view, this is one of the ways we all get dumbed down within our current culture.

It’s why we need a different, smarter type of news. It’s why we “news for dummies.”

Whenever we visit big bookstores, we see many books for us dummies. Our culture will flounder until our major news orgs start to think the same way.

Tomorrow—part 3: Global dumbing.

Be sure to act now: Bookstores know that we’re largely clueless! To purchase Chemistry for Dummies, just click this.

Crotcheting for Dummies? Yes, even that! Go ahead—just click here.