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The dumbing down of America

f_grade2_268426148Watching a little TV this morning, I heard the umpteenth example of just how dumb some of the media “experts” are. The host was relaying a story about a dinner at the White House. It was just after Gerald Ford had become president and he and Betty invited their long time friends, Tip O’Neill and his wife, Millie, over. Ford supposedly quipped that his bump to President had done wonders for his pension.

The young guy, whose name I didn’t bother to catch, was like, ” What? Explain what you mean.” While using imprecise terminology, the host and another guest explained that this was a “fixed” pension, as opposed to the 401(k) plans we mostly have today. (It is actually defined benefit plans versus defined contribution plans.)  The young guy still looked perplexed. A few minutes later, he’s offering his opinion on the fiscal cliff.

Um, OK. You’re on national TV, talking about national issues, and you don’t know the difference? How in the world can you possibly discuss the things like right to work or public pensions without an understanding of how things work? And if you don’t know, why should I believe anything that comes out of your mouth?

Another recent example occurred on a TV show whose panel consists of all young people. One of them made the statement that Hillary Clinton may have a hard time becoming president because she’d have to face the right-wing noise machine, and she didn’t have any experience with that.

Um, hello. Hillary coined the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

And we wonder why Americans don’t know anything. The media, with its obsession over young, good looking airheads, is doing us a great disservice.

Back in the day, TV news consisted of reading the copy that was put in front of them. Young, good looking male (and later, female – Jessica Savitch comes to mind) airheads provided that service. The folks who did opinion were older and well-informed, not only about the single topic at hand but about lots of different things. It was why Tim Russert, and others before him, was so respected. Looks were unimportant – knowledge was the value.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, we’ve come to value looks over substance. And because we don’t know the substance ourselves, we vote for the folks who look good, and who can reduce complex issues to soundbites. This isn’t necessarily new – part of the reason voters chose John F. Kennedy in 1960 was because of his “youth and vigor.” Unlike today’s pretty boys, though, JFK was no lightweight.

So we end up with folks in Washington who look great on TV, but have the mental capacity of an ant (my apologies to all the ants). There is simply no other reason why we are about to head over the fiscal cliff and into another recession. “Stupid is as stupid does.” The folks in Washington adopted these rules, thinking that they were so bad no one would allow them to happen, yet here we are, staring at the abyss.

Slogans are great for campaigns, a lot less so for governing. But between the airheads on TV and the airheads in Washington, this is what we’ve come to.

Here’s a tip – and one that I tell my students often: reading is fundamental.

Stop hanging out on Facebook and pick up a book. Stop worrying about how many Twitter followers you have and actually take the time to to learn something new, every day.

Don’t understand Keynesian economic policy? Get a book about it. (No, Wikipedia is not a book.)

Don’t have a clue who John Dillon or Harry Byrd were? Get a book.

Want to understand why some say the founding fathers intended the states to elect the president – and not the voters at large? Get a book. (Tackling this one myself.)

Somebody before you had the same questions. And somebody before you figured out the answers. You may not agree with them (I think the mob was involved in the JFK assassination, with the help of some government folks) but at least you will get an understanding of where they are coming from.

We have the capacity to understand complex issues. But as long as we rely on superficial sound bites from the media and our elected representatives, we are truly just like sheep being led to the slaughter.

10 thoughts on “The dumbing down of America

  1. Yep. I have had to correct my son’s government teacher who has told her students we will default if we don’t raise the debt ceiling.

    That’s like saying you’ll default on your mortgage if you don’t get a new credit card because your current cards are maxed out. You may have to break a few promises to the kids — sorry, no vacation this year — but you don’t have to default on your debts because you refuse to go further into debt.

  2. I think the takeaway message on the fiscal cliff in general is that there is no such thing as a Plan B. Once it’s voted on, it’s simply The Plan. Boehner’s bill from last week is the most recent example of an ill-conceived Plan B, but the Cliff itself is supposed to be a Plan B as well. They were calling it the trigger 16 months ago, as though we were putting a gun to our own heads and would never, ever be dumb enough to pull the trigger. No one took it seriously.

    But once both chambers voted on it, and the President signed it into law, it stopped being the endpoint if negotiations failed and started being the beginning point for any negotiation in the future. Because the requirement for passage of any alternative deficit reduction measure had to be that it would be simultaneously more attractive to both sides than the fiscal cliff.

    Which for some reason the Republicans on the Joint Select Committee for Deficit Reduction never, ever realized. They kept throwing deals to the Democrats that were basically, “we want everything our side gave up in the Budget Control Act of 2011 back, and we want your side to eat the costs, and we aren’t going to raise taxes on the rich by so much as one slender dime.” Of course nothing made it out of the Supercommittee when one side is approaching the negotiations with that sort of attitude! We already had a deal basically nailed to the table by the BCA; in what universe were we expected to actually accept a deal that was even worse than the one we’d already voted on?

    I had been holding out hope that maybe if we got the tax hikes and sequestration out of the Supercommittee and put more eyes on the problem, maybe someone would realize that, oh yeah, there is a really easy deal to be made here. Let’s patch the AMT and extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone but the top two percent, and we will put some of that money we just raised to offset the cost of restoring part of sequestration along with extending unemployment and preserving education tax credits. We get back some of what we want, and they get back part of what they want. Cake and punch for all! I guess I failed to take into account the fact that a statistically significant number of Republican House members would rather gut national security than let taxes rise a little bit on people who net a million dollars in taxable income annually.

    Because, again, if that really is the overriding interest of the Republican Party–diminished national security as long as Mitt Romney continues to pay an effective rate of somewhere around 13%–we have to put a better deal on the table than the one they agreed to with the Budget Control Act, and I have no idea how to do that.

    It’s just so sad to realize that the worst case scenario was quite possibly the best we have been capable of all this time.

  3. I know better than to believe I can engage in a productive conversation with someone who puts “cuts” in quotation marks.

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    So Vivian, I imagine that you already knew this from past experience, but I’m given to understand that the IRS has been operating during this last year under the assumption that the AMT would be patched because it always gets patched every year, and they can’t wait until New Year’s to start planning for tax season. So all of the computers are programmed for an AMT patch, all of the forms they’ve printed out include an AMT patch, etc., and consequently, they’re going to have to completely redo everything in a patch isn’t signed into law tonight. They think it’ll affect between 80 and 100 million filers, and it will take them until the end of March to be physically prepared to handle those filers.

    …Anyway, this is just my roundabout way of saying that I won’t hound you into giving up smoking this year. Frankly I’d consider taking up binge drinking if I was an accountant right now. I’ll send you a care package.

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