Monday, March 21, 2011


I saw two articles recently that go together. First, Newsweek has one that talks about how poorly informed Americans are, showing that we don't even know the answers to the test you have to pass to become a citizen.
They’re the sort of scores that drive high-school history teachers to drink. When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar. How Dumb Are We?

The answer to the question "How dumb are we?" is, obviously: pretty dumb. But you knew that. We know we don't know anything. Never mind the rest of the world, we mostly don't even know about our own country's history.

Newsweek goes through and discusses the reasons for this. Complicated political system, etcetera. Seems like it's always been this way, Europeans know a whole lot more about the world than we do.
In March 2009, the European Journal of Communication asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. to answer questions on international affairs. The Europeans clobbered us. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same—even though we’ve led the charge in Afghanistan. It was only the latest in a series of polls that have shown us lagging behind our First World peers.

You're not surprised.

Does it matter? You bet. The ignorant person's vote counts exactly the same as the knowledgeable person's. That's probably the most serious argument against democracy, the counterargument being that there is no system that can reliably tell the two apart, and whatever you set up will immediately be exploited by the power-hungry.

Here's where it matters:
The current conflict over government spending illustrates the new dangers of ignorance. Every economist knows how to deal with the debt: cost-saving reforms to big-ticket entitlement programs; cuts to our bloated defense budget; and (if growth remains slow) tax reforms designed to refill our depleted revenue coffers. But poll after poll shows that voters have no clue what the budget actually looks like. A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that Americans want to tackle deficits by cutting foreign aid from what they believe is the current level (27 percent of the budget) to a more prudent 13 percent. The real number is under 1 percent. A Jan. 25 CNN poll, meanwhile, discovered that even though 71 percent of voters want smaller government, vast majorities oppose cuts to Medicare (81 percent), Social Security (78 percent), and Medicaid (70 percent). Instead, they prefer to slash waste—a category that, in their fantasy world, seems to include 50 percent of spending, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.

Needless to say, it’s impossible to balance the budget by listening to these people. But politicians pander to them anyway, and even encourage their misapprehensions. As a result, we’re now arguing over short-term spending cuts that would cost up to 700,000 government jobs, imperiling the shaky recovery and impairing our ability to compete globally, while doing nothing to tackle the long-term fiscal challenges that threaten … our ability to compete globally.

There you go, democracy at work.

You want to take the test? Newsweek has it HERE.

On the other hand, Slate had an article last week where a Canadian who took the citizenship test points out that you have to give a lot of wrong answers to pass it. After some introductory fluff, the author, Dafna Linzer, writes:
After years of steep filing fees and paperwork (including one letter from Homeland Security claiming that my fingerprints had "expired"), it all came down to a test. I passed, and, my fellow Americans, you could, too—if you don't mind providing answers that you know are wrong.

Take Question 36. It asks applicants to name two members of the president's Cabinet. Among the correct answers is "Vice President." The vice president is a cabinet-level officer but he's not a Cabinet member. Cabinet members are unelected heads of executive departments, such as the Defense Department, or the State Department.

The official naturalization test booklet even hints as much: "The president may appoint other government officials to the cabinet but no elected official may serve on the cabinet while in office." Note to Homeland Security: The vice president is elected.

Still, a wonderful press officer in the New York immigration office noted that the White House's own Web site lists the vice president as a member of the Cabinet. It's still wrong, I explained. I told her that my partner wrote an entire book about the vice president and won a Pulitzer Prize for the stories. I was pretty sure about this one. A parade of constitutional scholars backed me up.

My immigration lawyer accompanied me to my interview. In the security line, I told her I was bothered by Question 16: Who makes the federal laws?

Each of the three possible answers, it seemed, was incomplete. The official answers were: "Congress"; "Senate and House (of representatives)"; "(U.S. or national) legislature." I'm not a lawyer but even Canadians watched Schoolhouse Rock. Where, I wondered, was the president, whose signature is what makes a bill into a law?

My lawyer sighed, she agreed. But: "If you get asked that question, just give the official answer," she said. I didn't get that question.

I also wasn't asked Question 1: What is the supreme law of the land?

The official answer: "the Constitution." A friend and legal scholar was aghast. That answer, he said, is "no more than one-third correct." He's right.

Article VI, clause 2 in the Constitution, known as the Supremacy Clause, explicitly says that three things—the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties—together "shall be the supreme law of the land."

Question 96 asks: Why does the flag have 13 stripes? The official answer: "because there were 13 original colonies." In fact, the flag has 13 stripes for the 13 original states. The Problem With Question 36: Why are so many of the answers on the U.S. citizenship test wrong?

She gives lots more examples. It's like her lawyer says, don't try to give the right answer, just give the official one. It seems to me a lot of things are like that.


Anonymous David S. Fishback said...

The Slate article is interestng, but it is nitpicking around the edges.

The broader ignorance -- while nothing entirely new, I don't think -- is a terrible threat to effective democracy. If the electorate is ignorant (not necessarily "dumb", because being ignorant and stupid are two different things) then it is much less likely to make wise choices. Of course, even with that ignorance, democracy is still a superior system. As Winston Churchill once said, democracy is a terrible political system -- except for all the others. But if, due to ignorance of the electorate, democracy can't function well, then the human race is in deep trouble. Our responsibility is to extend knowlege so that democracy can be as effective as possible.

March 23, 2011 6:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the "citizen" who thinks Hillary is the one who caused the Obama administration to go after Libya, here is the part of Diane Sawyer's interview with Sec. Clinton last night that addresses that falsehood. Take your citizenship seriously and educate yourself with Sec. Clinton's own words about your misconception.

"DIANE SAWYER: We have read repeatedly that you were decisive in this. Did you persuade President Obama? Was yours the-- was yours the voice that turned around the opponents?

HILLARY CLINTON: That-- that is-- absolutely-- you know, I think part of-- a storyline that needs to be-- corrected-- soon and decisively. There was a-- broad debate and discussion-- within the administration. And that's one of the--

DIANE SAWYER: Secretary Gates opposed we were-- we were told.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well I-- I-- I'm not going to characterize anybody's opinion, because what happened indeed was that the facts evolved in a way that made the President-- and the administration-- convinced that we had to support U.N. action against-- Gadhafi and his forces. And I-- you know, I think it was a very thoughtful process. And I don't believe that there would've been the level of commitment had there not been a series of actions, culminating with the Arab League statement-- Saturday before last, which was so unprecedented and which called on the United Nations Security Council to take this action. And the United States of course-- is going to support-- the kind of coalition that was coalescing around the goal of protecting the people on the ground from this onslaught from the air, and even prepared from the sea as well as the ground against civilians.

DIANE SAWYER: So you're not going to characterize yourself in the hierarchy?

HILLARY CLINTON: No. I-- I'm not going to characterize anyone because it was a decision that was made, and the decision speaks for itself."

March 23, 2011 11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

doesn't change my mind about the reports

that's exactly what I'd expect her to say

and there is also no question that Obama's dithering, hesitant-to-lead approach has made the situation much more difficult and caused significant suffering

if Obama had taken decisive action when the rebels were only miles from Tripoli, Gadaffi would probably be gone already

March 23, 2011 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah yes, "dithering" -- the GOP word of the week. It's Wednesday already, what took you so long?

Apparently some people think waiting to build an international consensus in the form of a UN Security Council resolution for an international response to a madman's attack on his own people before attacking that madman is "dithering."

Of course some of these same people have done more than "dither". They have flip flopped. Back during the GWBush Administration, they didn't accuse Bush of "dithering" for waiting to attack Iraq until after there was international consensus in the form of another UN Security Council resolution.

March 23, 2011 5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wisconsin Republicans say the state is too broke to pay for teachers, but they just gave the 26-year-old mistress of a union-busting Republican Senator a state job with a fat raise. It's a classic Republican scandal filled with hypocrisy, cronyism, and their special version of "family values."

Last year, Wisconsin Republican state Senator Randy Hopper left his wife to live with a young Republican political operative. Last month, as Governor Scott Walker unveiled legislation calling for deep cuts in state workers' salaries and collective bargaining rights, Hopper's mistress was hired by the state on the advice of Scott Walker's cabinet as a "communications liaison." Her salary is 35% higher than her predecessor's.

March 23, 2011 6:42 PM  
Anonymous What a Hopper-crite! said...

June 16, 2009

Hopper, Harsdorf, and Kapanke

Offer Amendments to Strip Budget


All Policy and Earmarks

Digging out of budget hole requires fiscal responsibility and honesty

[State Capitol] Senators Randy Hopper (R-Fond du Lac), Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls), and Dan Kapanke (R- La Crosse) announced their intention to offer budget amendments stripping out all non-fiscal policy and all earmarks from the 2009-11 biennial budget.

“Budgets should not be used to conceal controversial policy that has little chance of passing as separate legislation,” Hopper said. “None of the non-fiscal policy will help solve our budget deficit and much of it will harm working families all over Wisconsin.”

March 24, 2011 9:12 AM  

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