Sunday, August 9, 2015

Analysis of Inferences and Assumptions: A Homework Assignment for “We the People”

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both strongly believed that the continued viability of a republic depends on an educated and virtuous citizenry. Public education and even the practice of some of the professional schools (e.g., medicine and law) since at least the early twentieth century to require a degree in another school (e.g. Liberal Arts and Sciences) before being admitted to the undergraduate program (i.e., the M.D. and J.D. or LLB, respectively). This lateral move is unique to the U.S.; entering medical and law students in the E.U. need not already have a college degree. I submit that the Founding Fathers’ firm political belief in the importance of an educated electorate concerns the value of not only having a broad array of knowledge, but also reason being able to assess its own inferences, or assumptions; for inferences, or leaps of reason, go into political judgments. Ultimately, voters make judgements, whether concerning the worthiness of candidates on a ballot, their policies, or proposals on a referendum. To the extent that subjecting assumptions to the “stress test” of reasoning is not a salient part of secondary education, an electorate is likely to make sub-optimal judgements, resulting in suboptimal elected officials, public policies, and laws.

Government ultimately by “We the People” can be risky business, especially if any plank of a constitution can be changed by amendment. Were a super-majority of Americans intent on bringing back slavery, the constitutional-amendment process would enable the people through their elected representatives to repeal the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages was repealed in 1933 after thirteen years. Clearly, the assumptions that had gone into the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment turned out to be faulty. Had the American electorate have subjected those assumptions to better critical-analysis  when that amendment was being debated in the first place, perhaps organized crime would not have prospered and grown as much as it did. My assumption here is in need of critical analysis, however, as I know very little about the history of Prohibition. Yet I just made the assumption nevertheless. I contend that such a making of assumptions—out of very, very imperfect information yet made nonetheless—is a huge problem that remains largely invisible in representative democracy as a form of government. My aim here is to improve it by making one of its fault-lines transparent, and thus potentially treatable.

Speaking recently with a construction worker—a man of about 30 years old—I was impressed with his knowledge of how to put windows on buildings. “If you use a finger to smooth out the caulking around a window, you are getting chemicals such as the oil on your finger on the caulk, and this could diminish the sealing ability.” I was stunned that something I would admittedly do without a thought would be in his eyes an elementary error. “Even some of the guys who do residential windows don’t know this,” he said. He worked on office buildings. He went on to complain that the company, with his union’s consent, takes as much out if his paycheck for health-insurance as from the paychecks of workers who have families insured. “It’s just me,” he lamented, “so I’m subsidizing my union brothers whose health insurance covers their wives and kids.” I agreed with him that the arrangement seemed unfair.

Then, unfortunately, he turned to politics. It was as though he was suddenly on drugs. “I’m for Hillary,” he asserted. “Bill Clinton was one of the best presidents, and if Hillary were president, the two of them would talk in bed about stuff. Bill would be president again. Hillary had influence when Bill was president.” I asked why Bill Clinton was such a good president, to which my interlocutor replied, “Unemployment was low, the economy was humming, and the [federal] government had a [budget] surplus.” Exhausted just from contemplating the guy’s leaps in reasoning alone, I did not comment.

I could have added that Bill Clinton had signed off on legislation repealing the 1933 Glass-Steagal Act forbidding commercial banks to do investment-bank work and vice versa. The risk taken on by many of the largest banks in the U.S. would play a significant role in freezing up of the commercial paper (i.e., overnight inter-bank lending) market in September 2008. Additionally, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, played a significant role in lobbying Congress to keep financial derivative securities, such as the bonds that are based on risky home-mortgages, unregulated. With Larry Summers, also in the Clinton Administration, and Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Fed, Rubin lobbied members of Congress to ignore the pleas of Brooksley Born, chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to give her agency oversight of the off-exchange markets for derivatives.[1] She resigned in 1999, just after Congress passed legislation prohibiting the CFTC from regulating derivatives.[2] As a result, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chair Ben Bernanke had no idea how many subprime-mortgage-based bonds existed when so many of them defaulted in 2008. In that financial crisis, the U.S. Government was flying purblind, as if the Titanic in the North Atlantic at night.

Viable assessments of Bill Clinton’s presidency would have to include the above, whereas the impact of his administration on unemployment and GNP-growth is more questionable. That the bubble collapsed in 2000 may suggest that any impact Clinton may have had on the U.S. economy was not necessarily good in the long-run. Even so, my interlocutor simply assumed that Bill Clinton was largely responsible for the economic boom.

Even to assume that Clinton should get the credit for the federal government’s budget surpluses ignores the vital role that the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, played. Furthermore, to the extent that a president does not have an appreciable impact on the U.S. economy as a whole, any surplus due to increased tax revenues from the economic boom could also not be credited to Bill Clinton. In fact, that he decided to spend half of the surpluses rather than use all of the extra money to reduce the government’s accumulated debt—perhaps under the assumption that the boom would continue for decadescan be said to be problematic, or at least short-sighted.

In terms of Bill and Hillary’s relationship, I must confess complete and utter ignorance. In the movie Dave, the fictional U.S. president and his wife hate each other and thus perpetuate the illusion that they are sleeping in the same bed. The assumption itself of any knowledge of the Clinton’s relationship, and more specifically even who would “be president” were Hillary elected in 2016, is a red flag. In other words, that the construction worker presumed so much on a matter so private, and so very distant, told me just how carried away people can get in making assumptions and yet be wholly unaware of how deeply problematic the sheer making of the assumptions is. In other words, I saw no evidence of an internal feed-back corrective in the man’s mind, such that he might beg off his declaratory asseverations. 

Moreover, I realized that his faulty chain of inferences would play a key role in the construction worker’s eventual vote for U.S. President in 2016. I contend that he is by no means alone. In fact, bad assumptions may play a very significant role the American—and indeed any—electorate’s votes.

Consider, for example, how many Americans have declared that Barak Obama is a Muslim. The very ideational act of presuming to know the faith of a person so distant is itself a red-flag. If the assumption played a role in how some of the electorate voted in 2008 and 2012, and if the assumption is wrong, then the phenomenon of unchecked assumptions really does play a significant role in how an electorate—the popular sovereign—does as the “We the People” of a representative democracy. In other words, popular sovereignty itself, to which governmental sovereignty (i.e., governments) is, theoretically at least, an agent, has a rather basic downside, or vulnerability.

If I am correct, then public education in any representative democracy should include assumptional analysis, wherein students are taught how to assess their assumptions and any “supporting” inferences. As a result, the future electors should be able to get a better grip on how far they go in making inferences based on no or scant information. I contend that representative democracy would be a much better form of government were the human, all too human, assumptional “brain sickness” made transparent and treated.

[1] Peter S. Goodman, “The Reckoning: Taking a Hard New Look at a Greenspan Legacy,” The New York Times, October 9, 2008.
[2] Michael Hirsh, Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2010).