02 February 2010

The Difference Between Experts and Expectorate

"McCain was in communication with Bernanke and Paulson, too, but to less useful effect. In one exchange with the Fed chairman, McCain compared the causes of the crisis to some recent management troubles at Home Depot. It's kind of like that, isn't it? he asked Bernanke. No, it's not, a flabbergasted Bernanke replied.
[p. 381 of Game Change by Heilemann and Haperin]

When even the man who came close to becoming president doesn't understand the difference between macro and microeconomics*, I suppose I ought not to be so dismayed by what we see among the talking heads and the general public. Of course there is nothing unique about the dismissal of economic experts. The public has rejected the claims of experts from domains as varied as astronomy (well, now that we have pictures we accept the notion that we're hurtling through space at high speeds in spite of the fact that our hair is not blowing back every time we stand outside), climate change, evolution and medicine.

Perhaps in the future, we'll have a series of questions one has to answer about what best we know. It seems probable that we'll know more and better in the future and some of that will refute what best we know now. But I have little respect for people who reject the claims of experts until they can first explain those claims. If you understand current science and theories on these topics and THEN choose to reject them, good enough. Your rejection I can accept. If the only thing you know about what the experts assert is that they are wrong, whatever you're expressing doesn't really even qualify as an opinion: it might just be gas or, well, expectorate.

So, what about a new phase of democracy? We make people take a driver's test before they can get a license and yet bad policy is more dangerous than bad driving. Perhaps we ought to give out different levels of voting license to our representatives in Congress. On some things, anyone can vote. On other issues, one needs a special license. And again, you don't even have to agree with the conventional wisdom - you just have to understand it.

The making of policy is wonderfully public. This is good. Or can be, if the public and their politicians knew when they didn't know. Sadly, too many take Palin's approach.
"Palin was waging a persistent internal crusade to reverse one of the [McCain] campaign's major strategic decisions. ... When her traveling chief of staff, Andrew Smith, pointed out to her that McCain, Schmidt, and Davis had reached their conclusion on the basis of complex calculations involving the polls and the budget, Palin simply shrugged and uttered one of her signature phrases: 'I know what I know what I know.'"
[p. 409 of Game Change by Heilemann and Haperin]

One of my favorite thinkers, W. Edwards Deming, said you could trust a man who knows his limitations. It seems that we could say the same thing about a polity and its media and representatives.

* The difference between macroeconomics and microeconomics is this simple: when Keynes helped to define macroeconomics he essentially said that the whole (the macro) economy has characteristics different from its parts (the microeconomy). Implied in this is the use of fiscal and monetary policy to stimulate or dampen demand but chronic deficits are no more essential to Keynesian economics than atomic bombs are to Einstein's theory of relativity. Keynesian economics does, however, suggest that regional, national, and even global economic policy will need to depend on something other than a laissez faire approach to economics or simply relying on agents within the economy to do what seems best from their perspective.


Lifehiker said...

Perhaps most voters more readily identify with ignorant politicians; after all, those voters also "know what they know what they know".

The longer I watch our government, the more I believe the framers were right to limit suffrage. "One person, one vote" is a mistake.

When those on the dole, chiefly Social Security/Medicare recipients and low income people, become powerful political constituencies all sorts of disfunctional behavior ensues.

I'd enact education requirements for both politicians and voters, because pure democracy only works when the population is somewhat homogeneous in its awareness of facts and its ability to discriminate between ideas.

Ben said...

Ah yes, the people who dismiss (quite vocally, in fact) climate change anew every time the temperature drops a few degrees on their front step. I love that type.