Doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, writer, blogger, amateur student of history, chess player and teacher. Retweets are not necessarily endorsements.
55 stories
·
1 follower

How We Killed Expertise

1 Comment

Average Americans have never much liked eggheads. That’s not a bad thing in itself: Americans are a skeptical but level-headed people—or were until recently—whose common sense and ingenuity allowed their nation to achieve great heights in science, diplomacy and the arts, while never displacing the ordinary voter as the deciding voice in affairs of state.

But recently skepticism has curdled into something more toxic, even dangerous. Donald Trump explicitly campaigned against experts, calling them “terrible” and saying he didn’t need them. As president, he seems determined to prove that experts are unnecessary to the running of a superpower—winging important conversations with foreign leaders, issuing an executive order without advice from his own Cabinet and picking a radio talk-show host with no background in science or agriculture for the top science position in the Department of Agriculture.

In the far less grand homes of ordinary American families, knowledge of every kind is also under attack. Parents argue with their child’s doctor over the safety of vaccines. Famous athletes speculate that the world might actually be flat. College administrators ponder dropping algebra from the curriculum because students keep failing it. This is all immensely dangerous, not only to the well-being of individual citizens, but to the survival of the United States as a republic.

How all this happened, and why it threatens our democracy, is a complicated story. Even Alexis de Tocqueville took note of the American distrust of intellectuals in the 19th century, and it only deepened with the social and political traumas of the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, globalization and technological advances have created a gulf between people with enough knowledge and education to cope with these changes, and people who feel threatened and left behind in the new world of the 21st century.


As a result, the implicit social contract between educated elites and laypeople—in which professionals were rewarded for their expertise and, in turn, were expected to spread the benefits of their knowledge—is fraying. Americans live increasingly separate lives based on education and wealth, part of a decades-long “big sort.” What is qualitatively different today is that ordinary citizens seem increasingly confident in their views, but no more competent than they were 30 or 40 years ago. A significant number of laypeople now believe, for no reason but self-affirmation, that they know better than experts in almost every field. They have come to this conclusion after being coddled in classrooms from kindergarten through college, continually assured by infotainment personalities in increasingly segmented media that popular views, no matter how nutty, are virtuous and right, and mesmerized by an internet that tells them exactly what they want to hear, no matter how ridiculous the question.

It is easy to dismiss hostility toward experts as a function of a poor education, but that’s inaccurate. The affluent, educated parents of Marin County in California, after all, led the way on the anti-vaccine madness. “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams, who holds an MBA, has a large audience for his attacks on experts, including his astonishing claim that there’s nothing a president can’t master in a conversation with a specialist in an hour. Narcissism and know-nothingism are not afflictions found only among a few disgruntled high-school dropouts in the heartland. They are endemic across the country, exacerbated over the past half-century by affluence, technology, a permanent youth culture—and, above all, politics: academic postmodernism and fashionable relativism on the left, and the anti-intellectualism of certain evangelical strains and a long history of populist skullduggery on the right.

Voters say they reject expertise because experts—whom they think of as indistinguishable from governing elites—have failed them. “Americans might look back on the last 50 years and say, ‘What have experts done for us lately?’” one USA Today columnist recently wrote, without irony. Somehow, such critics missed the successful conclusion of the Cold War, the abundance of food to the point that we subsidize farmers, the creation of medicines that have extended human life, automobiles that are safer and more efficient than ever, and even the expert-driven victories of the previously hopeless Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. Experts, in this distorted telling, have managed only to impoverish and exploit ordinary Americans; anything that has benefited others apparently happened only by mere chance.


This mythology was central to Trump’s 2016 victory. The experts, voters were told, waged wars they didn’t know how to win, signed trade deals that depopulated America’s towns and unleashed a plague of terrorism. Trump adviser Steve Bannon even required new White House staff to read The Best and the Brightest, the landmark study of the origins of the Vietnam War, as a cautionary tale about intellectual pinheads who rammed the United States into a ditch in Southeast Asia. But Bannon, like so many others, misunderstood the book’s message, which was not about the domination of experts, but rather about what happens when experts are ignored. Before and during the debacle in Vietnam, actual experts on Asia and other subjects were pushed aside, often by people who thought their own intelligence and professional success in other endeavors (running a car company, for example) made them more capable. Bannon is right that the book is a cautionary tale—but one mostly about people like Steve Bannon.

Sure, there’s truth even in the stereotypes about the educated classes. They do, in fact, run the day-to-day affairs of the nation, and often in ways that voters would not approve if they understood them. Nor are the experts blameless; their track records are full of mistakes, some of great consequence. Worse, because experts tend to speak mostly to one another, they often display a lack of empathy with those who do not understand them or their specialized jargon. They barely veil their pleasure at the distance, both physical and intellectual, they enjoy from laypeople. And they too easily fall prey to the arrogance of believing that their expertise in one subject can be applied to almost any issue—especially if there’s a healthy paycheck involved.

The cure for these transgressions, however, is not to replace expertise with ignorance: It is to replace it with better expertise. If complaints about experts were meant to restore a balance between experts and laypeople, experts would be the first to support it. But this requires voters to be at least modestly informed, not simply convinced they are automatically right. And as it stands now, attacks on expertise often amount to a demand from ordinary citizens—sometimes encouraged by politicians and hucksters—that their views, no matter how contradictory or hazardous, be considered equal to those of the most experienced expert.


No country, and especially not a republic based on delegated powers, can maintain the values and practices that sustain democracy when voters remain ignorant about their own system of government. When most Americans think a quarter of the U.S. federal budget is devoted to foreign aid, when more than 70 percent of them cannot name all three branches of government—and nearly a third can’t name even one—the basic structures of American democracy cannot survive.

The Founding Fathers believed that civic virtue was built on education and knowledge. In a republic, citizens need not be experts, but they must learn enough to cast an informed vote. Or, in the words of James Madison: “A people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” If Americans do not rediscover this foundational truth about their own system of government, they not only court disasters from pandemics to wars; they risk ceding their government either to the corruption of a mindless mob—or, in the wake of a disaster, to a new class of technocrats who will never again risk asking for their vote.


Read the whole story
cdupree
1719 days ago
reply
Serious take on the reduction of belief in expert opinion.
San Francisco Bay Area
Share this story
Delete

The D.J. Trump Medicine Show Comes to Israel

1 Comment
Debbie Hill, Pool via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. 

In the American legend of the confidence man, he arrives in a small town by train or riverboat. He claims to be a professor who can teach children to play expensive musical instruments without effort, or a minister and the heir of the richest man in town.

He talks quickly, thinks of lies even faster. He is everything to all people. The legend dates from an era before radio or television. So the confidence man succeeds in fooling the yokels just as long as no one shows up from the last town he took in. When word does catch up with him, as in Mark Twain's version, he's likely to be tarred and feathered, and run out of town on a rail.

In the 2017 remake, the American confidence artist arrives in a small country in the Middle East aboard Air Force One. In a plot twist that defies credibility, he actually is the president of the United States. In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, he aims at convincing Palestinian and the left-leaning half of the Israeli public that he will lead them to the peace agreement that has eluded everyone before him—and at convincing the Israeli prime minister and the right-leaning half of the Israeli public that he is the Republican president they've dreamt of, the one who will stop talking about Palestinian rights, recognize that “united Jerusalem” belongs to Israel, and even blow up the perfidious accord with Iran.

And strangely enough, even with minute-by-minute Twitter updates of the scandals consuming him in Washington, even with most of the shocked and awed Israeli media headlining those scandals daily, he flimflams nearly everyone in the country for 28 hours before flying away again.

A sculptor works with stone. A confidence artist works with people's desire to believe. It would be wonderful to learn how to play a cornet or trombone just by thinking about it, without practicing or learning notes. The swindler in The Music Man tells them they can.

As prime minister in the late 1990s, Benjamin Netanyahu had a testy relationship with President Bill Clinton. After he regained power in 2009, his relationship with President Barack Obama could have been written by Edward Albee. He and his loyalists needed to believe that the problem was with Democrats, not with basic U.S. positions and interests. They wanted to believe that a Republican president would smile and give Israel everything it wanted.

For a few weeks last summer, Netanyahu had an episode of clear vision and saw that Trump wasn't the Republican he was waiting for. Instead of waiting for the next administration to negotiate a new 10-year American aid package, he quickly accepted the (actually quite generous) offer Obama was making.

The episode passed. Netanyahu followed many of his GOP friends and attached his fantasy of Republican rule to Trump. After the election, Trump's promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and his choice of a far-right settlement advocate as ambassador to Israel seemed to show that he was just what the Israeli right wanted. Netanyahu's government celebrated Trump's inauguration by approving lots of new homes in West Bank settlements.

Then came hints of trouble. When Netanyahu visited Washington, Trump asked him—as if it occurred to him on the spot—to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” Trump regularly repeated that he was the dealmaker who'd make Israeli-Palestinian peace. He hasn't (yet) moved the embassy; he hasn't (yet) torn up the Iran deal. It doesn't much matter whether Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster have sweet-talked him back toward classic American positions, or he discovered that it's fun to be applauded by Arab leaders as well, or just wants to show that he can make the deal that eluded Obama.

Some Israeli commentators, ones who wouldn't be expected to, started taking Trump's peace talk seriously. Look, they too have reasons to want to believe. Israel has a hope deficit. And if Trump really drags Netanyahu to the table, it will show that the prime minister made a colossal error. That thought is so delicious that it has outweighed the evidence of Trump's inability to negotiate with a Republican Congress.

So by the time Air Force One touched down, all too many people in this small town of a country were ready to give him his heart's desire: applause, respect, honor. He managed, almost entirely, to speak from a script of platitudes. Trump visited the Western Wall, a first for a serving U.S. president. Beforehand, this caused a kerfuffle. The American advance crew told Israeli officials not to come with them to the site, saying it was part of the West Bank. Netanyahu let it drop, because he could tell himself that the visit itself was closer to recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the holy site than anything a president has done before. Trump met Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Bethlehem, to show that he really does care about peace, or at least being the dealmaker. 

He closed the visit with a speech to an audience of VIPs that was carried live by national television channels and news sites. The text was an entire rack of Hallmark cards to Israel. “The ties of the Jewish people to this Holy Land are ancient and eternal,” Trump said, and, “I make this promise to you: My administration will always stand with Israel.”

He talked about Jews, Christians, and Muslims praying in Jerusalem in phrases that could have been taken from Netanyahu PR releases. He met the very lowest bar of maintaining U.S. policy by not referring to the city as “united” or by announcing he was about to move the embassy.

He said that he is “committed” to making peace and that Abbas is “ready to reach a peace deal,” and if you really want to believe this, you can. Just note that he did not say “two states,” or mention occupation, Palestinian independence, settlements, refugees, claims to holy places, or any other issue that Israelis need to confront in order to make peace.

The most revealing moments were the ones where he slipped off script. “Iran's leaders routinely call for Israel's destruction,” he read, and then ad-libbed, “Not. With. Donald. J. Trump.”

A standing ovation followed.

Trump responded, “Thank you. I like you, too.” In other words, this was all about the crowd liking him.

“America's strategic partnership with Israel is stronger than ever—under my administration, you see the difference, big big beautiful difference—including the Iron Dome missile defense system,” Trump said. The part about his administration was impromptu. He may not precisely have intended to steal credit from Obama for funding the anti-missile program. He definitely did want to claim, with no relation to reality, that some grand upgrade in the strategic relation has taken place since January 20. It's all about him.

He left for the airport. Netanyahu and partners remained happy they'd found their savior. Peace advocates looked for the subtle clues that he was serious about diplomacy. He put peace back on the Israeli political agenda, one commentator wrote, simply because the right can't dismiss him the way that it dismissed Obama and John Kerry.

Perhaps. I, too, would like to be optimistic. Maybe the one impossibly unlikely accomplishment of Donald Trump will be an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. At the end of The Music Man, the kids do manage to get blats out of their horns.

Maybe, but I don't see the evidence. And word of Trump's swindles is catching up with him. The likely ending is the way Mark Twain told it: With some equivalent of tars, feathers, and a rail. 

Read the whole story
cdupree
1819 days ago
reply
Yes, it does look like the Music Man's swindles may be catching up with him.
San Francisco Bay Area
Share this story
Delete

Barack Obama Is Using His Presidency to Cash In, But Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter Refused

1 Comment

Defenders of Barack Obama’s decision to do things like accept a $400,000 check for a speech to a Wall Street brokerage house argue that the former president might as well cash in — everyone else does.

That was Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s defense of Obama. “People are like why doesn’t he not accept the money? No, f*** that,” Noah said. “So the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards? No no no my friend. He can’t be the first of everything! F*** that, and f*** you. Make that money, Obama!”

This argument, while common, is based on historical ignorance. It assumes that presidents have always found a way to leverage their political connections post-presidency to make money from interest groups and wealthy political actors.

But that isn’t the case.

It used to be the norm for presidents to retire to ordinary life after their stint in the White House — just ask Harry Truman.

When the Democratic president was getting ready to leave the White House in 1953, he was approached by many employers. The Los Angeles Times noted that if he was “unemployed after he leaves the White House it won’t be for lack of job offers … but [he] has accepted none of them.”

One of those job offers was from a Florida real estate developer, asking him to become a “chairman, officer, or stockholder, at a figure of not less than $100,000” — the sort of position that is commonplace today for ex-politicians. Presumably, had Truman taken the position, it would have been a good deal for both parties: the president’s prestige and connections would also enrich the company.

Truman declined. “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency,” he wrote of his refusal to influence-peddle.

Although he had access to a small pension from his military service, Truman had little financial support after leaving office. He moved back into his family home in Independence, Mo., and insisted on being treated like anyone else. He would tell people not to call him “Mr. President,” and settled on a fairly ordinary routine once he was back in Independence. He would take a morning walk through the town square. He kept an office nearby where he would answer mail from Americans. He chose to engage with just about anyone who walked into his office — not only people who wrote him big checks, or invited him onto their private yachts and private islands.

“Many people,” he once said, “feel that a president or an ex-president is partly theirs — they are right to some extent — and that they have a right to call upon him.” Indeed, his office number was even listed in a nearby telephone directory.

He eventually agreed to write a memoir for Life magazine, but it was a lengthy project that provided far from luxurious stipends.

Truman’s modest life post-presidency moved Congress in 1958 to establish a pension system that provides an annual cash payout as well as expenses for an office and staff.

Gerald Ford nevertheless shattered precedent when he joined the boards of corporations such as 20th Century Fox, hit the paid speech circuit, and was made an honorary director by Citigroup.

But his successor, Jimmy Carter, who grew up in a modest home in Plains, Georgia, did not follow Ford’s example. He refused to become a professional paid speaker or join corporate boards. He moved back to Plains, and was welcomed home by a crowd of neighbors and supporters.

He quickly made himself busy as a nonprofit founder and a volunteer diplomat. He did make money post-presidency — but by serving ordinary people, not elites.

He wrote dozens of best-selling books bought by millions of people across the world — the post-presidency equivalent of small donors.

Carter explained his thinking to the Guardian in 2011, telling them that his “favorite president, and the one I admired most, was Harry Truman. When Truman left office he took the same position. He didn’t serve on corporate boards. He didn’t make speeches around the world for a lot of money.”

The presidents who came after did not choose the same path. At a time when Japan was a major trade rival with the United States, Ronald Reagan flew to Japan for a series of paid speeches after he left office. He accepted $2 million for a pair of 20-minute speeches to the Fujisankei Communications Group. An additional $5 million was arranged for expenses related to the visit.

Both Bushes also joined the paid speech circuit, and the Clintons made over $100 million from banks and other corporations, shortly after the Clinton presidency deregulated Wall Street. “I never made any money until I left the White House,” Bill Clinton lamented to a student group in 2009. “I had the lowest net worth, adjusted for inflation, of any president elected in the last 100 years, including President Obama. I was one poor rascal when I took office. But after I got out, I made a lot of money.”

Obama was hardly facing poverty. He already has a $65 million book deal and that $200,000 annual pension.

By joining the paid speech circuit — his spokesperson Eric Schultz told the press that paid speechmaking will be a fixture for the former president — Obama was making a conscious choice.

Obama could have been like Truman or Carter, but instead chose to be like Bush and Clinton.

Top photo: Former President Barack Obama listens as participants speak during a forum at the University of Chicago, on April 24, 2017.

The post Barack Obama Is Using His Presidency to Cash In, But Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter Refused appeared first on The Intercept.

Read the whole story
cdupree
1827 days ago
reply
No way around it, Obama should be ashamed to take that $400,000 speaking fee. Even if he donates it all to charity.
San Francisco Bay Area
Share this story
Delete

Zero house price inflation is to be welcomed not feared | Larry Elliott

1 Comment

Stalling property prices are a chance to rebalance the UK economy towards manufacturing and exports

Ready to go house hunting? Tradition has it that no sooner have the hot cross buns been buttered on Good Friday than potential buyers start the search for a new home. Estate agents look forward to Easter the way retailers relish Christmas, but perhaps with less exuberance this year than is customary.

As things stand, 2017 looks set to be the weakest year for housing transactions since 2013. The latest surveys from Nationwide and Halifax show house prices are no longer rising.

Continue reading...
Read the whole story
cdupree
1868 days ago
reply
As usual Larry Elliott provides incisive explication of the real meaning of economic stories. And the last sentence is key.
San Francisco Bay Area
Share this story
Delete

Remember

1 Comment

It is worth remembering that with any other President, making up out of whole cloth false allegations of serious crimes on the part of his predecessor, would trigger at least talk of resignation.

In this case, most seem willing to move on since it's now been shown that the President was clearly lying.

Read the whole story
cdupree
1888 days ago
reply
This is critical. We have to remember how aberrant this allegation, and by extension this Presidency, really are.
San Francisco Bay Area
Share this story
Delete

Don't let establishment opportunists ruin the resistance movement | Thomas Frank

1 Comment

As a powerful grassroots movement emerges, some want to use it for their own gain. The history of the Tea Party has important lessons on how to avoid that

The fury currently welling up against our demagogue president is a gorgeous thing. The Women’s March on Washington bowled me over by its sheer numbers. The town hall meetings calling Republican representatives to account are delicious payback for decades of phony populism. The combination of the two is one of the healthiest political developments I have seen in many years.

Related: Who are the key players in the resistance against Donald Trump?

Continue reading...
Read the whole story
cdupree
1898 days ago
reply
Once again Thomas Frank cuts to the chase: "A bunch of tech companies have declared their undying hostility to Trump’s immigration policies. Before long, no doubt, Nike or Reebok will be encouraging you to make a stand against fascism with a specially branded line of resistance sneakers."
San Francisco Bay Area
Share this story
Delete
Next Page of Stories