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America’s Hearing Problem

Photo credit: Jim Linwood

Photo credit: Jim Linwood

Ah, Jonah Goldberg.  Is there a better embodiment of the Upton Sinclair quote about how difficult it is to get someone to understand something they’re paid not to?  Today Jonah helpfully explains that because no experts foresaw the debt crisis or the failure of Obama’s stimulus plan, that we liberals are terribly misguided for listening to smart people who actually know stuff:

The cult of experts has acolytes in all ideological camps, but its most institutionalized following is on the left. The left needs to believe in the authority of experts because without that authority, almost no economic intervention can be justified. If you concede that you have no idea whether your remedy will work, it’s going to be hard to sell it to the patient. Market-based ideologies don’t have that problem because markets expect events in ways experts never can.

Of course, the problem is that not all the experts got it wrong – just the ones that Jonah and the media paid the most attention to.  In essence, Jonah is using the ineptitude and outright corruption of conservative and neoliberal “experts” to discredit the lefty experts who actually got it right, like Paul Krugman, Dean Baker and Nouriel Roubini (PDF).

The problem isn’t that all experts are worthless, the problem is that the worthless experts are the only ones that get heard.  A present or future Jonah Goldberg could just as easily use the Iraq debacle, or global warming, or the drowning of New Orleans, or the failure of health care reform, or the next Wall Street crash as further examples of the experts’ supposed “failures.”

The underlying problem is that money has completely skewed the incentive system for experts just as it has skewed our political system.  Instead of being rewarded for being right and punished for being wrong, experts (or columnists) are rewarded for playing ball and punished for rocking the boat.  And so we get “expert” analysis that just happens to support the status quo and moneyed interests, or tells people in power what they want to hear, instead of unpleasant truths that might lead to actual positive reform.

Speaking of which, reform is the flip side of the same coin.  The rotten state of our campaign finance system ensures that no matter how desperately an industry needs to be reined in and regulated, the only reforms that will be allowed are those which cause that industry the least pain.  Solutions which might actually work are rarely even contemplated, much less implemented.  So captive “experts” advocate weak or outright harmful “reforms,” and captive politicians execute them.

The USS America is hopelessly adrift, and anyone who suggests turning on the engines – or even rowing – is a crackpot.

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