Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Monday, June 06, 2011

The Dumbing Down Sweepstakes

Stupidity is so rampant now that the problem is to distinguish between the trivial and the significant.

Lost in the flood of sewage news about Anthony Weiner’s underwear and Sarah Palin’s Paul Revere gaffe are much more important examples of the dumbing down of American politics, where knowledge and insight keep giving way to slogans and invincible ignorance.

“Last October,” writes an MIT professor, “I won the Nobel Prize in economics for my work on unemployment and the labor market. But I am unqualified to serve on the board of the Federal Reserve--at least according to the Republican senators who have blocked my nomination...

“Analytical expertise is make government more effective and efficient. Skilled analytical thinking should not be drowned out by mistaken, ideologically driven views that more is always better or less is always better. I had hoped to bring some of my own expertise and experience to the Fed. Now I hope someone else can.”

Shutting out knowledge is only half of dumbing down. Replacing it with misinformation is the other, as Paul Krugman points out in analyzing the Paul Ryan Plan to replace Medicare with Vouchercare:

“Medicare is a government-run insurance system that directly pays health-care providers. Vouchercare would cut checks to insurance companies instead...If you couldn’t afford a policy adequate for your needs, even with the voucher, that would be your problem.

“And most seniors wouldn’t...A Congressional Budget Office analysis found that to get coverage equivalent to what they have now, older Americans would have to pay vastly more out of pocket under the Paul Ryan plan than they would if Medicare as we know it was preserved...the typical senior would end up paying around $6,000 more out of pocket in the plan’s first year.”

If we can’t get facts and figures straight on such tangible issues as employment and health care, how can we deal with anxiety over the relatively unknowable risks of giving ourselves brain cancer with cell phones, as new research warns?

One reasonable approach is suggested by columnist Virginia Heffernan who, while acknowledging that “pressing a hot tile of trembling polymers and metals against your skull for hours on end is probably not a good idea,” refuses to “take an icepick to my Blackberry.”

Instead, she favors using critical judgment and following World Health Organization advice: “Text instead. Use speakerphone. Keep calls short. Switch ears.”

But in public life “critical judgment” is not highly valued these days. If cell-phone dangers become a political issue, the debate will be, as it is in global warming, over the ulterior motives of the scientists and the free-market dangers of discrediting cell phones.

Ignorance may not be bliss, but it certainly helps in a “What? Me Worry?” world.


Solomon Kleinsmith said...


Your post was going SO WELL... until you quoted one of the worst examples of people who leave their intelligence at the door so they can stick to their partisan ideological talking points. Krugman is just as bad as many of the freak shows on the right.

Southern Beale said...

Aw Solomon, what do you have against Nobel Prize-winning economists?

Krugman is the perfect example of how we've devalued knowledge and expertise in this country. Krugman does have a Nobel Prize, the nimrods setting our economic policy and harping about the budget deficit being the worst problem EVAH do not.

You'd think we'd listen to the smart people in the room but sadly we don't and look at where we are.

Just once I wish President Obama and the Democrats in Congress would listen to the people who have been right about everything from day one.

Wishful thinking, I know.

xephyr said...

Actually the Krugman reference was spot on. Excellent (but sad) post Robert.