Reframing Public Ignorance

I think the right way to interpret the news that most Americans think the stimulus money has been wasted rather than helping them is pretty obvious. Most people don’t know a lot of macroeconomic theory, most people don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, and most people recognize that the unemployment rate is ridiculously high. Ergo, they’ve decided the money was wasted.

Joe Klein has a good piece laying out the truth but I also think it’s a textbook example of how not to talk about gaps in the public’s knowledge of policy disputes. Calling the country “too dumb to thrive” or wondering if we’ve become “a nation of dodos” is way too harsh. It also opens the door for basic observations about public ignorance to be caricatured as elites sneering at the common man.

The fact of the matter, however, is that most people don’t know much about most things. I know a lot about US politics and policy debates and the NBA. I know less about the NFL, indie rock, various TV shows, etc. I know very little about contemporary literary fiction or soccer or plumbing or automobile repair or legitimate theater or chemistry or firearms or fashion or any number of other topics that lots of people seem extremely well-informed about. The simple fact of the matter is that there’s only so much time in the day and everyone can only know about so many things. I write about politics and policy debates for a living so I’d really better know a lot about it. Plenty of people who don’t deal with these issues professionally find them interesting, which is great. But plenty of other people don’t find them interesting and consequently they don’t know much about it. That’s not the same as them being “dodos.”

The problem isn’t that we need people to turn into utopian citizens, Stakhanovites of deliberative democracy eager to sink their teeth into every issue. The problem is that we need elected officials and political operatives who are willing to take responsibility for the idea that they will be judged first and foremost on the basis of outcomes. You don’t need an economic policy that people approve of, you need an economic policy that produces results people approve of — i.e., growth and jobs. You wouldn’t fix the toilet by polling people about what they think you should do, you would ask someone who knows how to fix toilets.