How Do You Deal With Morons?

That’s not a hypothetical question. How do we deal with people that don’t recognize facts?

Let’s say, for example, that we are doctors and we have an ill patient. A quick test reveals a bacterial infection, and the standard treatment is a penicillin like antibiotic. But let’s say that another doctor says that he doesn’t believe in modern medicine and thinks the best solution is the application of leeches and bleeding. Most people would say ignore the other doctor. But what if he is the chief resident? Or what if he is a United States Senator and the question is not what to do with a sick patient, but what to do with a sick economy?

Republicans are saying that President Obama’s stimulus package was a complete failure. Senator Mitch McConnell has said it, Republican Senatorial Candidate Rand Paul said it, and Congressional Candidate Andy Barr said it. Here’s a news report that says otherwise:

According to the report: 

The massive stimulus package boosted real GDP by up to 4.5 percent in the second quarter of 2010 and put up to 3.3 million people to work, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said on Tuesday. 

CBO’s latest estimate indicates that the stimulus effort, which remains a political hot potato ahead of the November congressional elections, may have prevented the sluggish U.S. economy from contracting between April and June.

That is hardly a failure. Now the stimulus may not have been the best way to revive the economy, it might be bad economic theory, and it might be an inappropriate governmental intrusion into the economy. All of those statements are matters of political opinion. But to call the stimulus a failure is simply false.

And that brings me back to my question: how do you deal with people that do not recognize facts?

How can we address important public policy issues with people who are simply incapable of dealing with facts that they do not like? Would we go to a doctor who does not believe in modern science? Probably not. But the problem is that we have people who are in positions of power who are incapable of believing in facts and much of the modern world. And because of their elected position we have no choice but to deal with them on some level. But how?

I think that the only thing that we can do is to restate the base line facts in every interchange. Every time a Republican politician says the stimulus was a failure, point out that the CBO says otherwise, and then say we can debate the policy but we shouldn’t have to debate the facts.

There is an exercise in philosophical debate called the definitional inquiry. Before any philosophical discussion the parties agree on the basic underlying facts and the meaning of the terms that they will be using. That way they can have a rational debate. The law engages in a similar exercise. Early on in any case the parties have to set out some agreed facts so that the court and the parties know roughly what is in dispute. You don’t want the parties to a car wreck wasting time on issues regarding divorce or defamation. Unfortunately there is nothing even remotely similar in public and political discourse. But there should be. How can we debate the economy, and possibly craft a solution to current economic problems when the parties to the debate don’t even agree on underlying facts? It makes the process impossible. And that it part of the problem with our current national debate on most issues.      

Rush to Judgment, Rush to Stupidity

I will assume that you know the story of Shirley Sherrod the USDA worker who was recently fired for allegedly making racists comments only to be rehired when it was revealed that her comments were part of a longer speech about overcoming racial prejudices. If not you can read the latest version of the story here:

I am not going to comment on the story itself, but rather discuss that the story tells us about how some conservatives (and in particular Andrew Breitbart) view the human nature and the American public. The Sherrod saga began when Breitbart posted on his web site a short snipped of a speech that Ms. Sherrod gave to a state NAACP gathering in Georgia. (Ms. Sherrod was an official with the US Department of Agriculture based in Georgia.) He then notified all of the usual right wing media outlets about the snippet, and implied that it proved that Ms. Sherrod was a racist, and by implication the NAACP condoned racism. Within a day the snippet was all over the news, starting of course with FoxNews, and within another day Ms. Sherrod was fired by the USDA. Then, within another day, the full tape came out, and it showed that Ms. Sherrod was really talking about overcoming racism.

This incident should bring into crisp focus what some conservatives think about human nature and the American people.

First they think we are idiots. They think that they can release heavily edited tapes and sway public opinion because we are all a bunch of shallow nitwits. And apparently they are right. Breitbart did it earlier this year with the selectively edited ACORN tapes which purportedly showed staffers from the community activist group ACORN advising a purported pimp about how to establish a prostitution ring. Subsequent state investigations showed that these tapes had been heavily edited to show things that had not actually happened. The problem with the ACORN situation is that the facts did not come out until months after the incident. Fortunately this time the facts came to light close enough to the incident. But the fact that Breitbart is perfectly willing to manipulate information proves that he thinks that the American public can be manipulated with phony information. This indicates that he thinks we are idiots.

Second they think that people are one dimensional. In the snippet first posted, Ms. Sherrod does say that she was reluctant to help a white farmer. But the entire speech was about how she learned to overcome her own prejudices. The speech shows the breadth and depth and complexity of human nature. It shows how people deal with situations based on preconceived notions, but also about how people can learn and change. But many conservatives do not see that. They think that people are simple and one dimensional. They think that a single racist statement proves that a person is a racist. It is a strange and constrained view of human nature, and one that is disproved by history and disproved by people daily. One good example of the lack of correlation between nasty words and actual beliefs comes from President Lyndon Johnson. He had a foul mouth, and frequently made racists comments. But he forced a number of civil rights laws through Congress, which changed this nation and put it on a path to be a fairer more tolerant country.

In any event, people are clearly not one dimensional. They can and do overcome past prejudices. They learn and grow and improve.

But Mr. Breitbart and his fellow travelers apparently don’t believe that because they think we (me and you, but perhaps me most of all) are idiots.   


Take Your Pick: Complex Laws or Legislating from the Bench

President Obama signed the sweeping financial reform bill on Wednesday, July 21. One of the criticisms by Republicans and other opponents of the bill is its complexity. The bill itself is over 2000 pages long. This was a major complaint about the Health Care reform bill that Obama signed earlier this year.

It is certainly troubling that bills are so long that our elected representatives are not able to read them completely, and certainly not able to understand them fully. In many cases these complex laws are written by staffers in consultation with lobbyists. TIME Magazine recently had an article about how Lobbyists were helping draft the Financial Reform Bill. It was enlightening if not a bit scary. It is available here:,8599,2000880,00.html   

Many critics say that things were better back when Congress passed simple laws. Critics noted that the law establishing social security was only a few pages long. But is it really better to pass short and simple laws? The problem is that short and simple is not the same as clear. Short and simple often means broad and vague, and this leaves the law open to a variety of interpretations.

When Congress passes a broad law the matter moves to legislative agencies to create the rules necessary to administer the law. And this means that a second set of laws (make no mistake, Federal Rules are laws) are drafted by unelected government bureaucrats. Is that what we want? That is inherently undemocratic. (It should be noted that there is a detailed administrative rule making process that is supposedly designed to ensure public input on these rules, but the reality is that only interested parties (read lobbyists) get involved at this level.) So a broad law leads to undemocratic rule making by vested interests. Is this better than a detailed and complex law? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.

The second problem with broad laws is that they leave lots of room for judicial interpretation: you know, legislating from the bench. Courts are generally bound by the laws that are enacted by Congress (the exception is when the law violates the Constitution). But where the law does not address a specific issue the Courts (by the long established judicial tradition known as the common law) fill the gaps. The more gaps, the more the courts write the law. And when Courts write the law they are engaged in an undemocratic process that is known as judicial activism or legislating from the bench. So broad laws lead to judicial activism. Is that better or worse than a detailed and complex law?

It is interesting that the people who complain the loudest about the complexity of these laws are also the same people who complain the most about legislating from the bench. It think it points to their naiveté about politics, law, government and the modern world.