Universal Translator

Friday, September 9, 2011

I'm Dumb, Like Everybody Else

Looking over the specific proposals contained in President Obama's Jobs Plan last night, I noticed he proposes spending $25 billion to renovate and repair the nation's schools. "That's a really good idea," I thought immediately. And then I stopped myself to wonder why I thought that, and why that was my immediate reaction.

After all, I don't really know if it is a good idea or not; I don't know how many people will be put back to work if this is done, or how much of a stimulative effect it will have on the economy, or whether that $25 billion could be put to better use elsewhere. Nevertheless, after reading about the proposal I immediately formed a very positive and strong belief that this was a good idea.

And then I recalled that only a few weeks ago I had been talking with a friend of mine and he had told me about a guest he had seen on The Rachel Maddow Show who had proposed doing the same thing. The guest had argued in favor of this proposition because (i) our schools need it, (ii) it can be done immediately, (iii) unlike a lot of other construction projects, this type of work is fairly labor intensive and thus employs a lot of people, and (iv) at a bare minimum it at least gets funds pumping through the economy again.

Now, all of that may be true and it certainly sounds right, but the fact remains that I really don't know enough about the situation to definitely say I know what I'm talking about. But even though I recognize that fact, that recognition still doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for the project.

When it comes to persuading people, I don't think the necessity for laying groundwork can be overestimated. I am fond of saying that no lawyer ever wins a case by persuading the judge that he is right; the lawyer wins the case by persuading the judge that the judge is right, and that the lawyer just happens to agree with him.

I was ready to sign onto this school renovation proposal immediately simply because I had heard this idea before. When Obama suggested it, I recognized the proposal as familiar and then my brain, in turn, translated "familiar idea" into "good idea." That doesn't really make a lot of sense from a strictly logical perspective, but the fact remains that this is a good example of how people actually tend to evaluate plans make decisions in the real world.

And I think it would be good for the Left to recognize this fact. Perhaps the Conservatives' most important and furthest-reaching accomplishment has not been passing any particular piece of legislation, or winning any particular election, or embarking on any particular (and, as a rule, disastrous) foreign policy, but instead is the creation of numerous "think tanks" and conservative scholarships whose sole function is to promote Conservative ideas. While the Left occupied itself fighting battles in Congress and in State Houses, Conservatives were changing the very terms of the fight itself by developing Conservative memes and ideas which they then relentlessly marketed to the general public. The sheer repetition of these ideas has made them almost ubiquitous in our society, and Conservatives rely on that ubiquity to substitute for actual validity.

And so now we have Conservative politicians who will tell you that tax cuts always pay for themselves, or that tax cuts always increase revenue, or some variation on that theme . . . and while this claim is demonstrably false, nobody ever corrects them or call them on it. Why? Because we've heard this repeated so often it feels right. The same thing holds true for Conservative claims that we can drill our way to energy independence, or that the science is still unsettled on climate change, or that the federal deficit and government overspending depresses the economy and leads to unemployment, and on and on and on.

None of these assertions are true, but if you repeat a lie often enough it will feel true to a lot of people -- it develops what Stephen Colbert famously termed "Truthiness" -- and having enough people feel something is true is really all you need to win a political argument. Regardless of the validity of an idea, people will flock to it if it is familiar.

But it can work the other way too. Liberal thought, Keynesian economic principles -- these are all valid ideas, but they no longer seem familiar to the general public; they have been drowned out by the screaming megaphone that is Fox News and the Republican Wurlitzer. But how great would it be to fund a couple of Left-leaning think tanks whose only job would be to churn out marketable, easily digestible versions of liberal ideas that speak to the average low information voter, and then push the marketable versions of those ideas until they, too, were ubiquitous.

(Well . . . I can dream.)

Repeat a good idea often enough, it becomes familiar. Repeat a good idea so often that it becomes familiar, and it becomes believed. Repeat a good idea so often that it becomes believed, it gets enacted.

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