Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The problem of the dumb voter

A strong argument for minimum government

Be warned: This column probably will offend just about everyone.

We start with news of offensive research at Cornell University. Researchers have challenged the assumption that most citizens can recognize the best political candidate when they see him.

A “growing body of research has revealed an unfortunate aspect of the human psyche that would seem to disprove this notion, and imply instead that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies,” reports LiveScience.com.

“Why is that?” you might ask.

It's because incompetent people are incapable to judge the competence of others, or even the quality of their ideas, according to a Cornell University research team. For example, if voters lack expertise on tax reform, how do they identify a candidate who knows what he is talking about when it comes to tax reform? They simply lack the mental tools to make such judgments, say researchers.

This may explain how Americans chose a community activist devoid of executive skills to be the nation's chief executive, and how voters before that unfortunate selection picked his predecessor, among whose accomplishments was managing an unprofitable oil company, in Texas yet.

Think about it. Who would deem such people competent to hold the office of the world's most powerful person? Voters of similar – or less – intellectual competence, that's who, according to the Cornell research. Dumb and dumber.

The researchers concluded that it won't matter how much information or how many facts voters are given. The inherent inability of many of them to make sense of the data means arriving at a smart conclusion will be a long shot. In short, they wouldn't recognize a good idea if it hit them upside the head.

“We always want the best man to win an election,” mused folksy political sage Will Rogers. “Unfortunately, he never runs.”

But, according to Cornell researchers, how would we know?

There was a day in the U.S.A. when we erred on the side seemingly endorsed by the Cornell research, allowing only the best and brightest, or at least that's what they insisted they were, to vote and to hold office. But within short years of 1776, suffrage broadened throughout the land. Bars to holding office were lowered. Larger segments of the population beyond property-owning white guys were permitted the franchise. Nevertheless, Cornell researchers make a case that allowing nearly any sentient human being to vote hasn't helped much, if at all.

Are we offended yet? Stay tuned, it gets worse.

Large percentages of Americans regard the four remaining Republican presidential candidates unfavorably, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll last week. That, in the words of a Post reporter, is “a sobering reminder for the party that the extended primary season has damaged the brand.”

It seems that the more those perhaps not-so-bright (according to Cornell) voters are exposed to those apparently less-than-impressive candidates, the less they like them.

The upshot? “The Post/ABC poll suggests that move to the ideological middle can't happen soon enough for Republicans.”

Let's now consider yours truly's pet political peeve. Elections almost always are determined by what charitably may be called “the muddled middle,” many of whom are unmoored to ideological anchors, such as political parties. These are people, who for as long as 47 months and three or four weeks of every election cycle, remain “undecided,” apparently incapable of discerning the best of available options. We suspect one reason for the indecision may be the point made by Cornell researchers.

But let's consider the flip side of that equation. What's compelling about any of the candidates?

All three GOP frontrunners' track records while in and out of office belie their campaign rhetoric. Each has advocated and even profited from the very kind of government-as-solution bailout, mandate and interference that they unconvincingly now ask voters to believe they oppose. Despite their posturing, these men are not Reaganesque. Over the years they have acted not as if “government is the problem.” They have behaved as if “government is the solution.”

To sum up, candidates who have failed to inspire even the most committed voters, who are more likely to have convictions to help them sort wheat from chaff, now are facing increasing pressure to appeal to the muddled middle, who apparently have fewer convictions and less ability to discern.

That's offensive. What comes next is simply depressing.

Of those the Post identifies as “independent voters,” no Republican candidate last week had higher than a 38-percent favorable rating, and that was Ron Paul, whose chances of winning the nomination are about as good as Rush Limbaugh's. The GOP frontrunner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, trailed with a dismal 32 percent favorable score, and that was 16 points lower than the 48 percent of independents who viewed Romney unfavorably.

Let's recap. Voters may not be the best judge of competence in presidential candidates, and virtually no Republican candidate for president appears acceptable to “independent” voters, who probably will decide the outcome.

Is it any wonder that the candidate who will emerge as president will be no better than a pig in a poke?

There's another dimension to this perplexing problem. In an age of news saturation and 24/7 campaigning, it seems familiarity indeed breeds contempt. We offer as evidence the recent campaign to sell Americans on the incumbent president's controversial mandate that a morning-after abortifacient pill must be provided by all employers, or their insurance companies.

The Wall Street Journal reported that a poll on the Obamacare mandate had 53 percent support and 33 percent opposed. But when people were asked about applying the mandate to religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges with the insurer paying the cost, support dropped sharply to 38 percent. When the morning-after pill was specifically mentioned concerning Catholic institutions, support for the mandate dropped further, to 34 percent.

“In other words,” Journal columnist James Taranto deduced, “the less you know about the Obamacare mandate, the more likely you are to support it.”

The devil, they say, is in the details. If exposure brings more awareness of issues, it certainly must have the same effect on candidates, who are nothing if not bundles of issues. Gratuitous sound-bites and glamour photos give way over a year-long campaign to a lot of up-close-and-personal inspection. There are a lot of warts up close.

In other words, the less you know about candidates, the more likely you are to support them.

Here's a glimmer of hope that Cornell's researchers seem to have overlooked. Even if people are too dumb for democracy, that ignores more important factors, such as good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, freedom vs. slavery.

If voters, dumb or smart, paid closer attention to those criteria, the outcome probably would be better than it has been in recent years.

It doesn't require much smarts to make those choices. Weighing candidates against the golden standard of their humility and devotion to mercy and justice does require wisdom, however.

Wisdom recognizes that it is not charity to forcibly take from one in order to give to another, even under color of authority. Robin Hood was not charitable. He was a thief. It is not justice to infringe on one person's God-given rights to property, religion and speech in order to provide benefits to another. Our nation's principles stem from 1776, not 1984.

So, the question as we proceed down the stretch in the primary and then the general election is whether voters will be wise enough, even if they aren't smart enough, and then whether any candidate can emerge as worthy enough, rising out of the muck of endless recriminations, perhaps at a brokered convention.

Unfortunately, given the circumstances, George Washington probably couldn't be elected today. If that doesn't offend you, nothing will.



The Great TARP Cover-Up

Some folks want to pretend government intervention never happened.

In one of his reportedly few sober moments, the legendary statesman and tippler Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) is rumored to have said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Weirdly, the lack of definitive sourcing for that quotation only confirms its essential validity. But what happens when the facts seem so different to different people that there is virtually no common ground for conversation, much less resolution of basic differences?

I thought a lot about that question—not to mention drinking—while reading Thomas Frank’s new book, Pity the Billionaire, which he describes as “a chronicle of a confused time, a period when Americans rose up against imaginary threats and rallied to economic theories they understood only in the gauziest of terms.” A University of Chicago–trained historian who co-founded the hip left-wing journal The Baffler and did a stint as the token liberal on The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages, Frank has written a series of books about American culture and politics, most famously What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004). He now occupies the “Easy Chair” column at Harper’s, a centuries-old seat of curmudgeonly, anti-capitalist editorializing once held by Lewis Lapham.

To Frank, fears that debt-fueled spending and government intervention in the economy helped cause and perpetuate the financial crisis are plainly “imaginary.” He believes the economic “theories” America is currently embracing are hardcore austerity measures ripped from the playbook of Herbert Hoover, circa 1929. “The revival of the Right,” says Frank, “is as extraordinary as it would be if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster; if we had reacted to Watergate by making Richard Nixon a national hero.”

Where to begin separating facts from opinions? For starters, it’s simply wrong to claim, as Frank does, that “the main political response to [the financial crisis of 2008] is a campaign to roll back regulation, to strip government employees of the right to collectively bargain, and to clamp down on federal spending.”

Certainly the Tea Party, a handful of people in Congress (most of them with the last name Paul), and some policy wonks would welcome such moves. But far from being powerbrokers, these folks are little more than marginalized dreamers, as likely to be attacked by their allies as by their enemies. The toughest fight that Tea Party favorite Rand Paul had in becoming the junior senator from Kentucky in 2010 came not from his Democratic opponent but from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who did everything he could to keep Paul from gaining office.

Lest we forget, the major response to the financial crisis in 2008 was the bailing out of Wall Street and the auto companies under a conservative Republican president and the implementation of an $840 billion stimulus plan promoted by a Democratic president. That’s not to mention a massive overhaul of the nation’s financial regulations and a health care reform package that was routinely described as “historic” and “transformational” at its passage. Ironically, such immediate, massive and—in the case of the stimulus—ineffective actions are in keeping with Herbert Hoover’s policies.

That’s because, contrary to Frank’s claims, Hoover was never a fan of government austerity (at least while in office). According to Florida State University economist Randall G. Holcombe, Hoover increased federal expenditures in real terms by 88 percent between 1929 and 1933.

Perhaps the major interventions of the last few years sneaked through under the wire because too many of us were traumatized by the collapse of Bear Stearns. But in fact, spending and regulations ballooned tremendously all through George W. Bush’s presidency—and still show no sign of slowing down.

In constant 2010 dollars, the federal government spent about $2.3 trillion in 2001. By 2010 the total was around $3.6 trillion. And although the federal government has not passed (and will not pass) a budget for a third straight year, the two plans currently on the table envision spending either $4.7 trillion or $5.7 trillion in 2021. The lower figure comes from the budget that passed the GOP-controlled House last spring. The higher number comes from President Barack Obama’s budget proposal.

If austerity is the new black, the news has yet to reach the people who actually wield power in the capital. And if the Washington elite aren’t serious about cutting spending, they sure aren’t hell-bent on cutting red tape and regulations either. For self-evident reasons, George W. Bush and the Republicans soft-pedaled the fact that over the course of his presidency he hired 90,000 net new regulators; signed the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, which radically complicated corporate accounting practices; passed a record number of “economically significant” regulations, costing the economy $100 million or more per year; and, according to economist (and reason columnist) Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, spent more money issuing and enforcing federal regulations than any previous chief executive. Obama is continuing the trend, increasing employment at regulatory agencies by more than 13 percent and issuing 75 major rules in his first two years.

All this happened during what Frank calls “the golden years of libertarianism.” So I have difficulty understanding what he is talking about when he issues dicta such as “free-market theory has proven itself to be a philosophy of ruination and fraud.”

Frank is surely correct that many anti-government types conveniently minimize the role that private-sector bad actors at banks, financial houses, and elsewhere played in causing the financial crisis. But he also never provides a compelling response to the argument (common among libertarians) that the root of the problem is implicit and explicit bailout guarantees that socialize the costs of irresponsible risk taking. When it comes to free markets, I feel like quoting Gandhi’s answer when asked how he felt about Western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Pity the Billionaire suffers not just from a lack of engagement with what I consider reality. It dismisses out of hand those with whom the author disagrees. Members of the broadly defined right, says Frank, “blow off the facts when they feel like it; they swipe symbols from the other side.” I hear him, and I even have some sympathy when he cries in exasperation, “What kind of misapprehension permits the newest Right to brush off truths that everyone else can see so plainly?”

We live in an era of “beer summits,” diplomatic “resets,” and a screwed-up economy in which inflated housing prices are not allowed to fall to the depressingly low levels they might actually be worth. In ways he surely didn’t intend, Frank’s Pity the Billionaire helps explain why so many of us seem to be talking past each other.




A great artificial hysterical fuss: "It turns out, of course, that Fluke is not some dewy-eyed college coed as she was first advertised to be by her press agents -- the press themselves -- but a hard-faced, grim-jawed 31-year old Marxoid operative, a socialist parasite, a Nancy Pelosi in training, for whom 'slut' represents only the mildest of calumnies. She seeks to be a lawyer, which says it all: a career of gnawing at the bones of human misery."

DoJ blocks Texas voter ID law: "A controversial new Texas law requiring voters to present personal identification before going to the polls has been blocked by the Obama administration. In a letter Monday to state officials, the Justice Department said the legislation could have a discriminatory effect on Hispanics and other minorities."

Switzerland: Voters reject six-week vacation mandate: "Swiss polls closed Sunday on several national referendums, including one pushed by a union to raise the minimum holiday from four weeks to the standard used in Germany, Italy, Russia and other European nations. ... Swiss public broadcaster SSR said two-thirds of voters and each of the nation's 26 cantons (states) had rejected the measure, which required majority approval of all federal and cantonal voters."


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Remeber, the founding fathers, in their wisdom, only allowed those who paid taxes (land owners of the time since property tax was the sole domestic tax) to vote. The are reasons for that are: (1) to own land you've proven ability or potential, (2) those who don't pay should not be entitled to those who do.