Posted in Rants on August 4th, 2014 by Ed

In his younger days, Walter Lippmann wrote the following about Henry Ford. Mr. Ford, as you are all no doubt aware, was staggeringly successful, wealthy, and nuts. He devoted as much or more energy to spreading his ideals (a curious mixture of Jeffersonian pastoralism, pacifism, worship of industry, and rabid anti-Semitism) as he did to making cars. In hindsight, of course, we ask why someone with an 8th-grade education and innate engineering skills would think himself qualified to rebuild society and reshape Americans to conform to his theories. Said Lippmann:

We Americans have little faith in special knowledge, and only with the greatest difficulty is the idea being forced upon us that not every man is capable of doing every job. But Mr. Ford belongs to the traditions of self-made men, to that primitive Americanism which has held the theory that a successful manufacturer could turn his hand with equal success to every other occupation. It is this tendency in America which installs untrained rich men in difficult diplomatic posts, which puts businessmen at the head of technical bureaus of the government, and permits business men to dominate the educational policies of so many universities. Mr. Ford is neither a crank nor a freak; he is merely the logical exponent of American prejudices about wealth and success.

He wrote that about a century ago and almost nothing has changed in the interim. We still elect rich people who appoint other rich people to do jobs about which they know nothing on the unspoken assumption that anyone who has made (or worse, inherited) a lot of money must be good at everything. The part about appointing people to university boards of regents and trustees based on wealth is something that I've covered before and is a bigger problem than most people would imagine.

One thing that has changed, however, is that the ultra-wealthy no longer engage in the kind of utopian social engineering schemes that were all the rage around the turn of the century. It was hard to find a robber baron or other holder of great wealth who didn't have some crackpot idea about remaking society based on whatever pet cause he (or more rarely, she) happened to have: vegetarianism, spiritualism, Luddite leanings, socialism, free love, worship of the soybean, etc. Today a more skeptical society – more skeptical about some things, that is – would brand these people insane in a heartbeat. Imagine Henry Ford's lectures about International Jewry today or Bill Gates talking about building a utopian community where everyone farmed cassava and lived in group quarters. That would be…weird. Hell, it was already weird in Ford's time. Look at the way candy magnate Robert Welch's one-man anticommunist crusade, the John Birch Society, transitioned from a small but relevant force to a tiny fringe group of complete lunatics to see how attitudes toward the eccentric obsessions of the rich have changed over time.

Instead, today's rich try to normalize their efforts at social engineering by explicitly steering them toward politics. Electoral politics and governing in 1920 looked almost nothing like they do today, and the ultra-rich treated the political world as a minor sideshow compared to the almost limitless power of the oligarchy. Whether it's the Koch Brothers' economic and political brainwashing campaign or the Gates-Zuckerberg-Everyone Else heavy involvement in "education reform" and charter schools, the rich express the same impulse to remake society in a different manner today. Some of it, certainly, is motivated by plain greed; lowering taxes, staying on top of wealthy-specific issues like the estate tax, and securing fat government contracts are all as important as ever to the people pouring money into the political process. Underlying it all, though, is that "primitive Americanism" Lippmann identified, the idea that he who is good at making money knows best about everything. That they've gotten more media savvy about how they do their paternalistic meddling under the guise of charitable giving or political activism does not change the motive.


Posted in Quick Hits on August 4th, 2014 by Ed

Political scientists have been well aware since the early 1960s that what most people know about politics and government is minimal and that their beliefs lack constraint. Constraint is the idea that the things one believes should make sense together. Philip Converse (who is still alive, believe it or not) made his name by demonstrating that only a small percentage of Americans constrain their thinking in ideological terms. In the past decade or two we've seen an explosion of the use of ideological terms – liberal, conservative, socialist – but that doesn't mean they are used correctly. To the average crank, "liberal" means "Stuff I don't like."

This is not news to anyone. Whether you keep yourself current on public opinion data, study political science, or merely listen to the nonsense ideas people express constantly about politics, we recognize that opinions about one issue are not necessarily connected to opinions on another. This is true of Americans of any demographic, although better educated people tend to have slightly more coherent belief systems.

Writers who need to generate some content but can't think of a good idea can reliably churn out a "Look how stupid Americans are!" piece using polling data. It's hardly surprising. That said, I think most of us were a little floored to see just how little sense the political beliefs of "millennials" make. As in, they appear to make no sense at all.

This made the rounds online recently, and they do require some caveats. One is that young people generally know the least about politics, and this is not unique to the current crop. The second is that it is possible to have somewhat useful political beliefs without being able to answer the kind of questions that academics and pollsters expect you to be able to answer. Even with those caveats, this is pretty bad. A couple things stand out.

Even more than most Americans, their beliefs appear to hinge on how things are pitched and what terms are used. They are repelled by the term "Obamacare" to a greater extent than their elders, despite liking Obama and being supportive of national healthcare (What?). It seems that these responses are twisted by opposing forces – these kids have been bombarded by conservative propaganda since birth (hence their allergy to terms like "liberal" and "Obamacare") while their own political preferences, to the extent that they have any, are not nearly as paleolithic. The years of Fox News and Tea Party-themed lectures from dad lead to them rejecting things that contain the wrong keywords – Government bad! Liberal bad! Taxes evil! – but that aversion is not necessarily connected to any of their actual opinions.

Perhaps I'm trying too hard to read something into the aggregate data; maybe they really are as ignorant as the numerous "OMG look at how dumb they are" pieces suggest. Nonetheless, the data imply that things won't be getting much better in the foreseeable future.