Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The wonk gap

I don't read Paul Krugman nearly as often as I used to, not since The New York Times went behind a paywall. That's a real shame, as his recent column clearly demonstrates:
On Saturday, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming delivered the weekly Republican address. He ignored Syria, presumably because his party is deeply conflicted on the issue. (For the record, so am I.) Instead, he demanded repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “The health care law,” he declared, “has proven to be unpopular, unworkable and unaffordable,” and he predicted “sticker shock” in the months ahead.

So, another week, another denunciation of Obamacare. Who cares? But Mr. Barrasso’s remarks were actually interesting, although not in the way he intended. You see, all the recent news on health costs has been good. So Mr. Barrasso is predicting sticker shock precisely when serious fears of such a shock are fading fast. Why would he do that?

Well, one likely answer is that he hasn’t heard any of the good news. Think about it: Who would tell him?

My guess, in other words, was that Mr. Barrasso was inadvertently illustrating the widening “wonk gap” — the G.O.P.’s near-complete lack of expertise on anything substantive. Health care is the most prominent example, but the dumbing down extends across the spectrum, from budget issues to national security to poll analysis. Remember, Mitt Romney and much of his party went into Election Day expecting victory.

About health reform: Mr. Barrasso was wrong about everything, even the “unpopular” bit, as I’ll explain in a minute. Mainly, however, he was completely missing the story on affordability.

For the truth is that the good news on costs just keeps coming in. There has been a striking slowdown in overall health costs since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, with many experts giving the law at least partial credit. And we now have a good idea what insurance premiums will be once the law goes fully into effect; a comprehensive survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that on average premiums will be significantly lower than those predicted by the Congressional Budget Office when the law was passed.

But do Republican politicians know any of this? Not if they’re listening to conservative “experts,” who have been offering a steady stream of misinformation.

The "wonk gap" isn't original with Krugman. Indeed, he links to this column from last year in Washington Monthly: state it more simply, the right has us licked on the propaganda front. As I was saying before, when it comes to catchy slogans premised on their ideological assumptions (“job creators,” etc), lockstep message discipline, and mind-numbing repetition, liberals just can’t compete. ...

However, the left has an equally lopsided advantage when it comes to a different type of pundit: wonks. The left’s wonk bench is both wide and deep. These folks are ideologically inclined, certainly, but are also dedicated to study, empirical analysis, and informed debate. They argue mostly through evidence-based reasoning, sometimes shot through with a bit of sarcasm or anger, but they’re uncomfortable with abject partisanship.

They do have a strength, though, which was on vivid display yesterday when Mitt Romney finally released a few niggling details about some of his policies. Team Wonk sank their teeth into that like a bunch of half-starved wolverines. (Finally, something we can analyze!) Jon Cohn dug into Romney’s health-care plan (yikes), while Matt Yglesias found some disturbing implications in the education plan. Today, Suzy Khimm took a more even look at Romney’s education plan, and they’ll probably be gnawing over the scraps all weekend.

The right simply doesn’t have that kind of policy muscle, though it remains to be seen whether their increasing disregard for evidence and policy will hurt them electorally.

The thing is, Republicans are faith-based, not evidence-based. What's important to them isn't that their beliefs are true, but just that they're their beliefs. Their strength lies in propaganda, partly because the facts don't back them up, but mostly because they don't care if the facts back them up.

Now, there's way too much faith-based thinking on the left, too, but for the most part, it's not in the mainstream. Evidence-based thinking is very welcome in the Democratic Party. Indeed, most liberals care a great deal what the truth is - and aren't shy at criticizing their own side, if necessary. All of that is evident in this "wonk gap."

Krugman continues:
At the same time, in an echo of the Romney camp’s polling fantasies, other conservative “experts” are creating false impressions about public opinion [of 'Obamacare']. Just after Kaiser released a poll showing a strong majority — 57 percent — opposed to the idea of defunding health reform, the Heritage Foundation put out a poster claiming that 57 percent of Americans want reform defunded. Did the experts at Heritage simply read the numbers upside down? No, they claimed, they were referring to some other poll. Whatever really happened, the practical effect was to delude the right-wing faithful.

And the point is that episodes like this have become the rule, not the exception, on the right. How many Republicans know, for example, that government employment has declined, not risen, under President Obama? Certainly Senator Rand Paul was incredulous when I pointed this out to him on TV last fall. On the contrary, he insisted, “the size of growth of government is enormous under President Obama” — which was completely untrue but was presumably what his sources had told him, knowing that it was what he wanted to hear.

For that, surely, is what the wonk gap is all about. Political conservatism and serious policy analysis can coexist, and there was a time when they did. Back in the 1980s, after all, health experts at Heritage made a good-faith effort to devise a plan for universal health coverage — and what they came up with was the system now known as Obamacare.

But that was then. Modern conservatism has become a sort of cult, very much given to conspiracy theorizing when confronted with inconvenient facts. Liberal policies were supposed to cause hyperinflation, so low measured inflation must reflect statistical fraud; the threat of climate change implies the need for public action, so global warming must be a gigantic scientific hoax. Oh, and Mitt Romney would have won if only he had been a real conservative.

It’s all kind of funny, in a way. Unfortunately, however, this runaway cult controls the House, which gives it immense destructive power — the power, for example, to wreak havoc on the economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. And it’s disturbing to realize that this power rests in the hands of men who, thanks to the wonk gap, quite literally have no idea what they’re doing.

To my mind, this is where religion and politics intersect - and why I think faith-based thinking is so dangerous. If you're going to believe in anything without evidence or even despite the evidence, where do you stop?

You might think that it doesn't matter if religious people believe a pleasant fantasy, just because they really want to believe it. What does it hurt, after all? Can't we atheists just let them believe whatever makes them happy?

But if you're going to believe in things just because you want to believe them, where will you draw the line? Believers tend to think that their religion is the most important thing in the world. So if you're going to accept that on faith, why wouldn't you do the same with everything else?

And that's exactly what's happened in the Republican Party. On the right, it's no longer important what's true and what isn't. The right-wing has become entirely faith-based. Reality is whatever they want it to be, and if the facts disagree, the facts must be wrong.

Faith is not a virtue. I'll keep hammering that here, over and over again, because it's so important. You might think that it's harmless to believe in gods and fairies and living forever and ever in Heaven, and maybe it would be if you restricted faith-based thinking to one hour every Sunday, but that's not what happens.

What happens is that it becomes easier and easier to just believe, rather than going to the work of finding out. After all, sometimes reality isn't what you'd want it to be. And if you're not going to accept reality all of the time, where do you draw the line?

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