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People Don't Know Anything About the Government
Stop pretending voters have actual opinions about all of these agencies.
Here we are entering “campaign season,” and I suspect that you will soon be reading quite a bit about the grand and noble American democratic experiment that it entails (a dozen of the nation’s greediest egomaniacs jockeying to tell the most alluring lies). As the press and the public alike segues into this interminable period of discussing what we call “politics,” I want to suggest one useful thing for all of us to keep in the forefronts of our minds: Almost nobody knows what the fuck the government does. Not really.
I am not just talking about the familiar embarrassing ha-ha polls showing that Americans don’t know the names of their Congresspersons or how many Supreme Court justices there are. I’m talking about the actual substance of the government. People do not know the size of their local, state, or federal budgets. They do not have a good sense of proportion about how much various government programs cost. They don’t understand the pluses and minuses of various economic and regulatory tradeoffs. They do not have much of a grasp at all on what each specific government agency does. They don’t know who runs the agencies on paper or who really makes the decisions behind the scenes or why those people were selected or what those choices say about the relative standing of various interest groups. They don’t understand law—not even criminal and civil laws, much less the esoteric encyclopedias of regulations governing commercial activity. The bureaucratic maneuverings and internal negotiations that make up much of Washington, DC’s most important material power struggles are completely invisible to the general public. There are well over 20 million government employees in the United States of America. Once you get past the cops and the teachers and sanitation workers, the vast majority of citizens have only the haziest idea about what all these workers do all day, or whether they should be doing it at all.
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When I say that people are ignorant about the activities of the government, I mean: we. All of us. Let’s be very honest here. I am a professional journalist who writes about politics. An important part of my job is understanding what the government does. I am certainly in the top decile of Americans in “paying attention to the government” (a measurement not of intelligence, but of how much time you can spend thinking about this stuff.) How much do I really know about the activities of The Government? As a labor reporter, I have fairly up to date and relatively detailed knowledge on the activities of the NLRB—a single, and comparatively minor, government agency. How about the Department of Labor? Do I have precise knowledge of their budget and how it is spent and how wisely it is spent? Do I have specific knowledge about the billions of dollars it awards in government contracts? Do I know if those contracting jobs are carried out well? Do I know exactly where they need to spend more or less? Do I know which of their departments need more staffing, and which are lazy, and which should be reorganized, and which could be doing whatever they do better? Fuck no. I really don’t. With a good deal of effort and of reporting I could draw some reasonable conclusions about the answers to one of those questions, but even then I would not know as much as someone who worked in the agency itself. And this is the federal agency closest to the area that I cover. Can I intelligently hold forth on the myriad activities of the Department of Agriculture, or the Department of Commerce? Not a chance. I could bullshit it, maybe. I could offer vague, sweeping proposals about what I think these enormous agencies should do by appealing to my own political beliefs (“Be more socialist!”). But I could not come close to putting forward a well informed, worthwhile criticism of the activities of a single one of these agencies without first diving into intense research that would take, at minimum, months—and it would take years before I could, say, sit down with a veteran employee of one of those agencies and engage in a conversation about the agency’s history and priorities and future that would not bore that person, because they already knew all that stuff.
And most people don’t have lives that would allow them to do any of that necessary research about any of these things. Not a bit. Instead, they just don’t know shit about what the government is doing. If we, the media, want any of the staggering pile of public discourse we are about to create about the presidential election to be marginally worthwhile and reflective of reality, we need to avoid doing the thing where we pretend that the various things that people are angry about are fully developed beliefs about the operations of the federal government, rather than important but extremely broad feelings about the fucked up nature of American society itself.
There is no shame in not understanding what the government does. I don’t understand how cars work. But if I’m riding in one and it breaks down, I will get out and say: “Hey, this car is broken. We need to make it go again.” That is, in fact, a decent metaphor for the way that the voting public interacts with the process of choosing our government leaders. We are irate and befuddled passengers shouting at the mechanics to fix the damn thing. If we get so impatient that we shove the mechanic aside and start banging on the engine ourselves, bad things are bound to happen.
It is possible to be fully and healthily engaged in politics without knowing all the intricacies of the government’s operations. Politics is the way that people try to put their own vision of how the world should be into effect. Political beliefs flow from values. We all have those. The more people are engaged in the political process, the more robust a democracy is. That’s good. But mixing up arguments about politics and values with specific prescriptions about highly technical aspects of governance will lead to very dumb things.
There are two ways this all gets confused. One is when the media does polls or, worse, interviews The Average Voter, and then presents those responses as fully formed and strongly held beliefs about definitive policy prescriptions. I’m not talking about “Should abortion be legal?” I’m talking about “Should the government roll back the money it appropriated to hire thousands of new IRS agents?” A public opinion poll about such a question is borderline worthless, due to the second and far more nefarious way that this mixup occurs: Political leaders weaponize the public’s ignorance for their own ends. Anyone who has served in the US Congress, who has sat through committee meetings about budgets and appropriations and agency staffing and the fine tuning of regulations, knows damn well that Joe Average Voter does not have a well honed sense of what is happening there. (If it was possible for everyone to keep track of all that stuff ourselves, we wouldn’t need to have a representative democracy). An honest politician can stand up and say: “I know you don’t know exactly what the IRS does or the full scope of its operations or how adequate its staffing levels are in each region and department. How could you?? You have a job. But let me explain to you, with these charts, with these budget graphs, with these accurate numbers, why I believe the staffing levels are unfair. Let me explain to you what the consequences would be—not just for you, you selfish fuck, but for the whole country—of changing these staffing levels. Let me first give you the knowledge you need to have the discussion, then advocate for my own position, and then engage in an intelligent conversation with you about why you should support my position.” That would be fine. Instead, politicians say: “Hey YEW. Woo buddy—I like guns too! I got guns to stop all them jack booted IRS thugs from bustin in my front door! Is that what you want—more of the damn IRS thugs lurking around every corner? Comin for yer babies? Hell no! We’re gonna defund the damn place! Sign here!” And then they go and tell the billionaires who fund their campaigns that they have successfully rallied support from the rubes to ensure that the billionaires won’t be audited this year, due to staffing shortages.
I started thinking about all of this the other day as I read about the proposal of newbie Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, a man who is full of shit even by the standards of Republican presidential candidates, to abolish the Department of Education. Okay dude. Sure. This is a good way to make policy for a nation of 330 million people: First, you have Fox News run a story about how school libraries are carrying books that will make your child gay, and then, you abolish the department that oversee federal student aid. A simple two step process. Great. We cannot stop Republicans from clamoring to shut down the Department of Education—they’ve been doing that since it was established, because its existence makes it somewhat harder for local schools to be wildly racist—but we can go to the people in the crowd at a Vivek Ramaswamy rally and say, “What exactly do you think the consequences of shutting down the Department of Education would be?” and marvel at the vacuity of all of the answers, and stop taking them seriously.
The same thing goes for the candidates who want to eliminate the EPA and the CFPB, who want to reduce the federal workforce by a specific percentage, who want to “unleash energy” by slashing climate change regulations. It very much goes for Trump’s plan to scrap civil service protections and purge the federal work force if he is reelected. We must always keep in mind that the voters who are being recruited to support these candidates don’t have any fucking idea what the true consequences of these moves would be. This is a separate and distinct thing from saying that these policies are bad ideas; it is saying that you are not equipped to know if they are bad ideas. Ideally, seeing a politician try to slip in some highly specific government policy measure under cover of grand appeals to patriotism and/ or hate would always prompt skepticism and requests for more information. In practice, this two-step move is one of the most common things in all of politics. It works well.
If we can’t stop the politicians from doing it, we can, at least, stop giving it any credence in political reporting. It is one thing to say, “Mike Pence wants to abolish the CFPB,” but it is quite another to say, “Mike Pence’s supporters want to abolish the CFPB.” The second thing is false. Do they really? All those debt-ridden small farmers in Indiana can’t wait to see more predatory debt collection practices and scam robocalls? No. That is not true. They don’t know what the hell the implications of the policy are. The press unwisely and illegitimately gives power to dishonest politicians when it conflates all the crooked shit they are trying to usher in with the genuine will of the voters. “Voters” is another word for “people.” One thing about people is: most of them don’t know what the government is doing. Can we find out? Yes! We can find out! That’s a good thing for the press to help us with, actually. But treating voters as oracles, as consultants, as wise architects with their fingers on the pulse of the sprawling federal government, with strongly held feelings about how to right-size agency staffing levels… that is stupid.
Mostly, voters want you to fix their problems. Lead with that, and the policies will dictate themselves.
I commend Connecticut senator Chris Murphy for publicly stating his support for my last post here at How Things Work. It is high time that the senator who represents the location of every hedge fund office in America finally embraces full socialism. Please be sure to remind Chris Murphy at all times of his vow to move towards a system of soviet control of our sick nation’s economic system. We will get there together, comrade Murphy.
I wrote a piece for The Guardian the other about the moral sickness inside of Elon Musk’s soul that ensures that he will never win a fair fight. Never has there been a better example of why you shouldn’t go around challenging people to fights.
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