Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

January 19, 2011

'THE WONK GAP'.... To overcome reports from the Congressional Budget Office that the health care reform law lowers the deficit, Republicans have been reduced to making stuff up. And yet, they have their defenders.

This week, National Review ran a piece sticking up for the demonstrably false GOP argument. It prompted Jon Chait to note, "One of the unusual and frustrating aspects of the health care debate is the sheer imbalance of people who understand the issue at all from a technical standpoint. Even the elite policy wonks of the right make wildly incorrect claims about the issue."

Most people are not policy wonks. We really on trusted specialists to translate these details for us. This is true as well of elected officials and their advisors. Part of the extraordinary vitriol of the health care debate stems from the fact that, on the Republican side, even the specialists believe things that are simply patently untrue. As with climate change and supply-side economics, there isn't even a common reality upon which to base the discussion.

Paul Krugman added that Chait's concerns about "the wonk gap" should be expanded.

First of all, I don't think this is unique to health care, or especially unusual. Monetary policy, fiscal policy, you name it, there's a gap, although not quite as large as on health.

Second, I'm surprised that Chait doesn't refer to Upton Sinclair's principle: it's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. In fact, in general right-wing think tanks prefer people who genuinely can't understand the issues -- it makes them more reliable.

Doesn't this apply to both sides? Not equally. There was a time when conservative think tanks employed genuine policy wonks, and when asked to devise a Republican health care plan, they came up with -- Obamacare! That is, what passes for leftist policy now is what was considered conservative 15 years ago; to meet the right's standards of political correctness now, you have to pass into another dimension, a dimension whose boundaries are that of imagination, untrammeled by things like arithmetic or logic.

I realize this is well-covered ground, but the wonk gap remains a constant source of frustration. The scope of the nation's challenges are enormous, but the debate remains stunted -- any policy discussion has to progress from a shared foundation of reality, and at this point, the right isn't even prepared to accept the basics.

There are, to be sure, conservative think tanks that ostensibly work on a variety of issues, but note that these institutions, when they're not just rehashing tired and debunked talking points, tend to fire scholars who question the rigid party line.

The issue is not just someone on the left thinking those on the right have the wrong answers. Rather, the issue is the lack of intellectual seriousness on the right, making it impossible to get beyond the questions.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

Bookmark and Share

Speaking of Heath Care: Governor Brewer wants to cut 280,000 people from AHCCCS, Arizona's version of Medicaid, without any provisions for people who have high maintenance diseases like AIDS and diabetes. If this is just a game to draw attention to the incompetent way Arizona has given up revenue streams to businesses and rich the tactic is in really poor taste. If not, how utterly callous this policy is to balance the state budget by hurting the health of those who can least afford it. We are consciously creating a tragedy of potentially epic proportions. Arizona needs health care equality for all its citizens, not just the favored few.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on January 19, 2011 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

The right doesn't depend on "wonks."
It depends on 'winks.'
Even if they know better, they 'wink,' and everyone else 'winks' all along the lemming line.

And anyone who doesn't 'wink' back, is disappeared.
And, since in order to work for a Reich Wing "Think" Tank, you have to be a 3rd or 4th caliber mind, you can't get hired anywhere else. Not even a WAWA or 7-11 will hire you because you're too stupid to even stock their shelves. So, you wink right back, and collect your paycheck, benefits, and pension, as long as you keep 'winkin'' along.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on January 19, 2011 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

There are plenty of wonks on the Right. They work as lobbyists. They're not ignorant of facts or logic; it's just that facts and logic are detrimental to their clients.

Posted by: Grumpy on January 19, 2011 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

"Rather, the issue is the lack of intellectual seriousness on the right, making it impossible to get beyond the questions."

Your bug is their feature. This is not some unintended by-product. This is the whole point of their endeavor.

Posted by: Jim Pharo on January 19, 2011 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

Jon Chait: "... Even the elite policy wonks of the right make wildly incorrect claims about the issue ..."

They are not "policy wonks". They are propagandists.

And they don't "make wildly incorrect claims". They lie.

Steve Benen wrote: "... the issue is the lack of intellectual seriousness on the right ..."

The issue is not a "lack of intellectual seriousness". The issue is the deliberate lying by the right.

If there's a "gap", it's the gap in the willingness of "sensible liberals" to speak plainly about the DELIBERATE LYING of the bought-and-paid-for corporate stooges who masquerade as "conservative" ideologues.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on January 19, 2011 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

As with most things these days, the only realistic remedy for restoring sanity and rationality in terms of good governance (defined here as what is best for the people and the country, and not just corporations) is campaign finance reform.

Take the money out of political campaigns, and see that Sinclair's principle diluted or even dissolved. Alas, I don't see that happening. And we are doomed to forever repeat history: rich get richer, people rise up, bloodshed leading to a semblance of equality, rich get richer, people rise up... What has happened is money appears to be effectively quashing the "people rise up" part. The corporatists recognized the power of bread and circuses...

Posted by: terraformer on January 19, 2011 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

"There was a time when conservative think tanks employed genuine policy wonks . . . "

Perhaps; but I remember what passed for wonky wisdom on the right in the 1980s with respect to foreign policy, and even there, a supposed bastion of strength on the right, there was some pretty questionable thinking going on. So much of this harkening back to the "good old days" of Republicanism is just plain bullshit. Many of them were wackos then too.


Alan Tomlinson

P.S. Yes, I know that the malady has become an epidemic.

Posted by: Alan Tomlinson on January 19, 2011 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

If there is one thing that defines politics in America, it would be the extraordinary contrast between the realities perceived by people who vehemently support either the Dems or the GOP.

I would argue, however, that liberals have overwhelmingly proven that their world actually exists. A cursory look at pretty much any topic demonstrates this with the force of a head-slap, e.g. Claims by conservatives about Iraq's WMD and connection to 9/11, that tax cuts solve literally everything, climate change is a hoax (despite the last 10 years being the warmest on record), etc.

Posted by: Kiweagle on January 19, 2011 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

by definition, anyone hanging around republican circles these days is a thug, a propagandist, or an idiot....

Posted by: howard on January 19, 2011 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

"Wonk gap"?
Is there truly not one person anywhere to the left of the Cheneys, Bushes, Buchanons, Kristols, Boehner, Ryan, American Heritage Society, American Enterprise Institute, Rove, or Murdoch who understands political communication?
"Wonk gap" is not just a euphemism (glossing something ugly with an apparently inoffensive term), it's affirmatively dishonest.
It supports that most damaging of all the mass media's tropes, the suggestion that there are valid points on "both" (there are way more than two) "sides" (there's no single divide, and no monolith on either of the conventional "sides"); that any differences are merely those of minor and arcane technicalities, degree, personal preference, and position in the world; and (most important by far) that these "valid points" on "each side" are roughly equivalent in number, importance, impact, and truth / accuracy / reality contact / whatever you want to call it.
Of course they are not any of these.
One set of forces, enterprises, groups, and players actually cares about, and actively works to ensure, truth, and by and large means what it says about its purposes and intentions.
The other does not. It does almost exactly the opposite in almost every respect.
That is not a "wonk gap."
That might be an "honesty fissure," or an "integrity wall," or something else more accurately descriptive and more emotionally and poetically apt.
(Cause I'm sure not a talented, trained, experienced political communicator. But then, I don't claim to be, nor earn my keep as one.)
But it sure as hell isn't a "wonk gap."

Posted by: smartalek on January 19, 2011 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

And one more thing:
How many times have any of you described something a conservative has said and/ or done as either "criminal or stupid"? God knows those 3 words pretty much describe Bush's 8 years to a "T".

A criminal act suggests that actually knew what they were doing, the latter says they were just dumb enough to do it regardless of the consequences.

Seriously, I think I'd have better luck counting the stars.

Posted by: Kiweagle on January 19, 2011 at 11:12 AM | PERMALINK

I'd go further - it's not just a "wonk" gap, it's an intelligence gap.

They just aren't very smart.

Posted by: fourlegsgood on January 19, 2011 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

Okay, fine, there's a "wonk gap," at least in product if not in capability, and "the media" aren't calling out the Republicans for their falsehoods.

But whose job is it really? Certainly not the Republicans, who are doing just fine, thank you. And the media have only so much responsibility. Like a judge, if one side presents a case and the other doesn't, the judge is not required to take up the absent side's duties.

Where are the Democratic politicians?!

Why aren't they out there slugging away every day, on the side of the facts and good analysis and their own think tanks? Why aren't they advocating the same policies and taking the same points of view? Why are the Democrats MIA?

The answer is well known: most of them support most of the Republican agenda as much as many Republicans do. They're for policies that benefit the rich and corporations, and they're ambivalent about policies that benefit the poor and the broader interests of society. "Democrat" and "Republican" are in many ways fictional labels, and the real party is the Money Party.

So don't blame the think tanks, and be realistic in blame for the media. The real villains here are the missing and/or two-faced Democratic politicians.

Posted by: bleh on January 19, 2011 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

Here's the real reason why conservative arguments are so deficient in terms of logic, rationality, and connection with the real world: they don't *care* about their own arguments enough to make them rigorous. They are just going through the motions, because they feel that they should at least pretend to consider the consequences of their policies.

But the fact is that for conservatives, the consequences for the nation or the world is irrelevant. They don't base policies on the goal of producing good consequences. Instead, they base their policies on a notion of morality that places the freedom to control one's own wealth above all other considerations.

They may argue that government run health care will have adverse consequences, in terms of long lines, bureaucracy, interference of bureaucrats into decisions that should be left to the individual and his doctor. But that's *not* the reason they oppose government involvement in health care. The real reason they are opposed is because they don't believe that tax money should go to treating those who can't otherwise afford it. They don't believe that the government should tell insurance companies how to do business. In general, it means abridging the freedom of people and companies to conduct their financial affairs they way they choose. That's the same reason they oppose government efforts to control global warming, to guarantee a minimum wage, to control pollution, to guarantee worker safety.

There would be no conservative global warming denialism if there were not efforts to get government involved in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on January 19, 2011 at 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

It is a bit difficult to get good help, (substantive, intellectual analysis of salient issues), when your is/ought orientation has you playing pious do-gooder in other people's homes,and avarice atheists in the market place!

The Right is schizophrenic, and seemly has no serious or credible desire to change itself! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on January 19, 2011 at 11:39 AM | PERMALINK

Let's get real. Pumping disinformation into empty minds is very effective. Without the Fourth Estate sorting out the actual FACTS a job that used to be relegated to these arbiters of journalism, all is lost in a skunk peeing event.

Too bad corporate America owns it. Nauseating...

Posted by: stevio on January 19, 2011 at 11:48 AM | PERMALINK

Let's not forget the "centrist" wonks like at Brookings Institute, which employs E.J. Dionne among others. Ever wonder who pays their bills while they are rendering "their" opinions. Maybe they are just filling the "gap" (between extreme right and center right).

Posted by: tko on January 19, 2011 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

"Part of the extraordinary vitriol of the health care debate stems from the fact that, on the Republican side, even the specialists believe things that are simply patently untrue."

Belief is not a component. THEY ARE LYING.

It's up to Dems to rub their faces in it, and they have failed.

Posted by: bdop4 on January 19, 2011 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK
The issue is not just someone on the left thinking those on the right have the wrong answers. Rather, the issue is the lack of intellectual seriousness on the right, making it impossible to get beyond the questions.

The real question we have to ask ourselves is why now and why here? Why is this a problem in 2010 when it was not in 1990? And why is this a problem in the United States and not a problem in Britain?

And the answer is that that for our degenerate vestigial MSM, the lack of a shared reality between the two parties is a feature, not a bug. Modern "journalists" simply no longer perceive their job as to inform, but rather to create "content" to fill up the spaces between commercials or, in the ancient paper analog delivery systems, the white space between increasingly scarce advertisements. They generate that content by using a simple template. The broadcast version is: "[Democrats say x], [Republicans say y], [conclusory platitude[ (e.g. 'whichever side is right, one thing for is certain: this controversy is not going away anytime soon'), handoff ('back to you Wolfe'), [segue] ('Thanks Candy, we'll have to leave it there. Coming up next, attractive young white woman in peril!')"

The MSM literally doesn't care what's true. All they want is the sweet, delicious, conflict and, above all, to deflect conservative criticism of "bias" by "picking sides." Countries that still have functioning press corps, like Britain, don't have major political parties completely divorced from reality.

Posted by: Another Steve on January 19, 2011 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK


Yeah, they are real dumb. Those health insurance and pharmaceutical CEOs. Those corporate lobbyists. They are all so dumb. They don't understand ANYTHING about policy except how to pass laws that magically maximize their profits. So stupid, those people.

Steve Benen is like a character out of Groundhog Day. Every day he wakes up thinking "this is the day that Republicans stop being 'confused' about policy debates."

As SecularAnimist said, they are lying propagandists. They do it because they make a lot of money being lying propagandists and they care more about making money than looking intelligent in an intellectual discussion.

Immoral? Yes. Stupid? no.

Posted by: square1 on January 19, 2011 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

square1 wrote: "Steve Benen is like a character out of Groundhog Day."

Or like a guy who gets mugged, and after the mugger takes all his money and clubs him over the head, complains about the mugger's "lack of intellectual seriousness".

Posted by: SecularAnimist on January 19, 2011 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

... "You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone! ..."

Posted by: LarryK on January 19, 2011 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

This is a very important line of commentary. I believe that good work by credible, intellectually honest conservative policy wonks would help dampen those parts of the liberal fold that gild the lily on policy issues. That expectation, though, requires substantive debate and back and forth on shared information--be it a CBO report or Census numbers or some other basis of discussion. We risk now having no real conversation at all. The more the conservative folks move into their own alternate, fact-free universe, the freer liberals are not to challenge their (our, truth be told) own assumptions and ideas. That leaves us dangerously close to entering our own false or insulated universe. People learn to sharpen their thinking by facing tough, skeptical questions from a variety of ideological viewpoints. The absence of credible conservative policy voices to raise those questions of liberal policy is no favor to us.

Posted by: wesfromGa on January 20, 2011 at 5:40 AM | PERMALINK



Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM

buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly