Mike the Mad Biologist

A study showing that many people who receive assistance from government programs don’t believe they have done so has been making the rounds once again (you heard it here first! Months ago!). My favorite idiocy is how 43% of Pell Grant recipients–federal aid for college–don’t realize it’s a government program (one does wonder how that 43% successfully graduated from grade school). I argued that this delusion was willful:

This seems a case of willful ignorance by definition. Government aid is for lazy slackers, for ‘welfare queens’, and, in some people’s minds, for those people. Decent, hard-working people don’t receive government aid, even when they do. In other words, any program that helps middle-class people, people like themselves, is, by definition, not aid, because government aid is inherently pejorative.

Mark Thoma makes a similar point about the study:

So it’s true that people want the budget cut, but only the parts where people are forced to pay for “underserving” recipients of these government services. The feeling is that they get up every day and do what’s needed to support themselves and their families. They go each day to jobs they hate, hate, hate, hate with a passion because that’s how life is, and they don’t appreciate seeing their hard-earned money taken away and given to people who don’t even try, people who could work if they wanted to, but rely on the system instead.

Now, I happen to think that is a very wrong view of the circumstances of the typical aid recipient, but true or not I do think it is the source of the opposition to many social programs. People don’t object to Social Security and Medicare because they believe they paid for these programs in full, or close to it. Same for disability, food stamps, and other programs. They paid into these programs for years, just like medical insurance, and now it’s their turn to consume some of the funds they put in. They won’t object to that even if you point it out to them, it’s the people who consume without contributing that raise their ire and cause objections to these programs. It’s the “handouts” that are the problem.

Here’s a nice little vignette illustrating the astonishing ignorance:

1. Jane had NO IDEA what she was talking about. This wasn’t even like, “I’m going to come up with a bunch of rationalizations about why gays can’t get married without ever actually examining them in any intellectually honest way.” This was way beyond that. She barely seemed to understand that paying taxes actually does something. She appeared not to think Americans payed sales tax, and she apparently conceived of Sweden as a place where everyone paid the same low amount of taxes and received no welfare. She seemed to like the idea of already paying for college* through taxes by the time you get there, but didn’t want to have paid for Social Security or Medicare by the time she got old…

2. Despite the rabid caps lock in the original status, Jane didn’t seem to have any real ill will toward anyone. She didn’t retreat into ridiculous bullshit or dismiss me as a brainwashed liberal who had gotten incorrect facts from the liberal media. She admitted she did think aid should be sent to places like Haiti. Though I’m sure there was a certain amount of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” thinking behind her original statement, I think I can safely say that she didn’t want people to suffer from having Medicare or Social Security taken away. She just didn’t fully grasp, or hadn’t completely thought through, the issues she was talking about.

This was a huge departure for me. When I get into political fights online, it’s usually with trolls who are actually fairly knowledgeable about the subject at hand, but act deliberately evil or ignorant, e.g., selectively quoting numbers from a biased study and interpreting them through a highly ideological lens to “prove” that women are not as good at math as men are. Jane didn’t have a standard party line or a biased source, just some incomplete, misinformed impressions.

It makes me wonder what percentage of people share her same level of education on fundamentally important political ideas like taxes?

And some followup with Confused Jane:

Sure enough, one day after I read that post, here’s Jane’s Facebook status:

Homeowners pay around $1.40 a day for a full-time Fire Dept., including salaries & benefits. If you own a smart phone, you pay $3.40 on avg. a day for it. That cell phone won’t DIE for you, protect your property, or save your life. Copy & paste if you agree & encourage everyone to support their local Firefighters. Help stop the war that politicians have waged on professional Firefighters!

This status raises some questions. Does she hate taxes and social services, or does she love them? Does she understand that there’s a connection between the two? How many Americans understand that? Not very many, apparently. Surely it must be possible to increase that number via education…but this woman is middle-class and white and has probably had access to decent educational opportunities. When civic education was a bigger part of school curricula, did people understand this better, and did they vote differently? Maybe the first question on every ballot should just be “Do you understand that your taxes pay for firefighters?” and if you say no, they throw your ballot out.

Yesterday, Paul Krugman wondered whence all this STOOPID:

How can voters be so ill informed? In their defense, bear in mind that they have jobs, children to raise, parents to take care of. They don’t have the time or the incentive to study the federal budget, let alone state budgets (which are by and large incomprehensible). So they rely on what they hear from seemingly authoritative figures.

And what they’ve been hearing ever since Ronald Reagan is that their hard-earned dollars are going to waste, paying for vast armies of useless bureaucrats (payroll is only 5 percent of federal spending) and welfare queens driving Cadillacs. How can we expect voters to appreciate fiscal reality when politicians consistently misrepresent that reality?

While Krugman is right to lay this at this feet of dumbass, weakling politicians and their apparatchiks, they’re not the sole culprits here. Another critical element here is the political press corps. That so many people lack even a basic understanding of how government works and what it does–even among likely voters (keep in mind that your average Tea Buggerer spends a lot of time gathering ‘information’ and is a likely voter)–is a catastrophic failure of our news media. I don’t think it’s fair to blame a lack of knowledge on a poor education, especially for programs and phenomena that didn’t exist when they were students. At some point, the political press corps has to face up to just how awful they are at imparting basic information.

A major cause of this is ‘he said, she said’ reporting, which should be familiar to anyone who has had to deal with creationists or global warming denialists. Glenn Greenwald on how the political press corps is shocked by Anderson Cooper’s willingness to accurately describe Egyptian dictator Mubarak as a liar (boldface original; italics mine):

To Kurtz, when a journalist accurately points out that a powerful political leader is lying, that’s “taking sides,” a departure from journalistic objectivity, something improper. In reply, Dickey agreed with that assessment, noting that “part of the soul of [Cooper's] show is to take sides” and be “committed to a certain vision of the story.” Like Rainey, Dickey was forced to acknowledge that all of the statements Cooper identified as “lies” were actually lies, and thus magnanimously decreed: “I think Anderson can be forgiven for using that word in that context.” Kurtz then patronizingly noted: “And of course, Anderson Cooper was repeatedly punched in the head when he was covering the demonstrations” — as though his departure from good journalistic objectivity can at least be understood here (though of course not justified) because of the emotional trauma he suffered.

Rainey, Kurtz and Dickey all have this exactly backwards. Identifying lies told by powerful political leaders — and describing them as such — is what good journalists do, by definition. It’s the crux of adversarial journalism, of a “watchdog” press. “Objectivity” does not require refraining from pointing out the falsity of government claims. The opposite is true; objectivity requires that a journalist do exactly that: treat factually false statements as false. “Objectivity” is breached not when a journalist calls a lie a “lie,” but when they refuse to do so, when they treat lies told by powerful political officials as though they’re viable, reasonable interpretations of subjective questions. The very idea that a journalist is engaged in “opinion-making” or is “taking sides” by calling a lie a “lie” is ludicrous; the only “side” such a journalist is taking is with facts, with the truth. It’s when a journalist fails to identify a false statement as such that they are “taking sides” — they’re siding with those in power by deceitfully depicting their demonstrably false statements as something other than lies.

At this point, we should recognize that the political press corps overall, with only a few exceptions, has been a major component of our ignorance of how government works, what the consequences of policy decisions are, for even the most basic questions. I’ve always questioned the viability of a business model that makes your audience dumber, but I’m really starting to think that media concentration and monopoly (as well as access control, such as excluding Al Jazeera from most U.S. cable systems) has led to a very poor media product.

Worse, it’s led to a very poor democracy. Because we’re not only bombarded with misinformation, but too many people are so perplexed that they can’t really comprehend the political system–something if you’ve ever done door-to-door canvassing, you’re acutely aware of:

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. (This was also true of a number of committed voters in both camps–though I’ll risk being partisan here and say that Kerry voters, in my experience, were more likely to name specific issues they cared about than Bush supporters.) At first I thought this was a problem of simple semantics–maybe, I thought, “issue” is a term of art that sounds wonky and intimidating, causing voters to react as if they’re being quizzed on a topic they haven’t studied. So I tried other ways of asking the same question: “Anything of particular concern to you? Are you anxious or worried about anything? Are you excited about what’s been happening in the country in the last four years?”

These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment. As far as I could tell, the problem wasn’t the word “issue”; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the “political.” The undecideds I spoke to didn’t seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief–not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

Our media-led discourse fails many people at the most basic level. To many people, politics is like the mysterious black monolith in 2011 (and we’re the monkeys). This seems so basic that I don’t think it can be chalked up to a failure of our K-12 school system. But if you think it is a reflection of our school system, none of the policies put forth by the ‘reformers’ would deal with this problem: they focus exclusively on math and reading standardized testing scores–not civics or history.

Before we start firing teachers for poor performance, let’s fire some political reporters first.

Comments

  1. #1 JasonTD
    February 15, 2011

    Mike,

    I often disagree with you, but not about everything, and you are dead on here. You recently posted about FL Gov. Rick Scott. I am a Florida public school teacher, and I totally saw the writing on the wall with him during the election (hence my vote for his opponent, Alex Sink). Among other cuts to education, he wants to require teachers and other public employees that are part of the Florida Retirement System (FRS) to pay 5% of our salaries into it. Currently, the contributions to FRS funds are made by our direct employers. (The county school board, in my case.)

    Every mention about this proposal in the news either ignores or misconstrues basic facts about the system. First, we aren’t getting something for nothing in terms of our pension, since the employer contribution to the FRS is part of our total compensation, whether it nominally comes out of our salary or not. Second, they haven’t done anything to counter the misinformation in regards to the health of the FRS funds. The FRS pension fund is among the healthiest in the country, but Scott and other Republicans talk as if it is going to go broke if we don’t contribute 5%. (Not that they’ll mention that they really just want to shift the cost to us, rather than actually increase the total contribution per employee.)

    This is just yet another example of how the media is just not doing its job and is letting politicians dictate the truth.

  2. #2 becca
    February 15, 2011

    I’m pretty bothered by the vague inherently contradictory taxpayer complaining that I see passing as political opinion (i.e. the ‘Confused Janes’). On the other hand, I see plenty of evidence that poorly-thought out ‘lumping’ mentality of ‘those guys are bad’ tribalism trumping investigation into issues from *everybody*- irrespective of primary political tribe, occupation, or issues that they would care about if they actually bothered to research them.

    I caught myself doing it again with Egypt. I was feeling all happy for “the Egyptian people”- just because others that I generally agree with seemed to feel that way. Truth is, I didn’t have the faintest clue what the last dude did or what he represents. I’ve since done a little more research into it, but really, I know so little I have no real right to an opinion on it at all. Doesn’t stop me from being happy about ‘a toppled dictator’ though. Rather silly, really.

  3. #3 Nescio
    February 15, 2011

    My take, supporting your position, on those intrepid reporters: http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2011/01/facts-are-overrated-anyway.html

  4. #4 Yahzi
    February 15, 2011

    I got a solution for ya. Move to a country that hasn’t been poisoned by 30 years of self-serving ideological quasi-religious propaganda.

    Works for me. (Waves from overseas). Sucks to be you, though.
    :D

  5. #5 eddie
    February 15, 2011

    Catastrophic success would be a better term, given that this is what many of them are paid to achieve.

    *is more depressed now*

  6. #6 scathew
    February 16, 2011

    I’m with “eddie” – while I’m not sure the the reporters are anything but dupes themselves, my opinion is the current situation is by design, not accident.

  7. #7 katydid13
    February 20, 2011

    As a federal employee, I’ve been dreading what is looking like a more and more likely shut down of the federal government.

    However, the more and more people I hear say they wouldn’t miss it, the more and more, I want to say “go for it, shut it down, but shut it all done.”

    Obviously, I don’t mean throwing patients out of VA hospitals or even letting the animals at the National Zoo starve. However, I do mean shutting down airports because TSA can’t man the check points and air traffic controllers don’t direct traffic.

    When we try to prevent shut downs from doing too much damage, we feed the perception that government doesn’t do anything useful. I think a few high profile things people tend to forget about could be useful.

  8. #8 dfhgrth
    February 24, 2011