Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Using Sound Bites instead of Thought

The other day a friend asked me, “What is the attraction Sarah Palin has for some voters?” My immediate answer was, “She’s hot and she’s dumb.” By hot I meant “sexy” and by dumb I meant “no intellectual challenge to the average male human.” I compared her with Hillary Clinton who is bright and is perceived by many men to be a serious challenge. I added that another attraction Sarah has for the average man is that she likes to have many children.

I’ve been thinking about the “dumb” adjective. I didn’t mean “dumb” in the sense of being unaware or being stupid or being poorly educated. Ms Palin is aware of her surroundings, she’s not stupid, and she’s at least fairly well educated. I used the term in the sense of “unthinking.” A “dumb” person in that sense doesn’t think about why things are as they are. He or she recognizes that there are things in the environment that are annoying or even stressful. However, the “dumb” person doesn’t devote any original thought to these problems. Instead, the person uses a stock phrase that sums up a simple and usually incorrect assessment of the problem.

Many political junkies use these stock phrases or sound bites as substitutes for original thought. A popular example is that increasing the taxes on the very rich will increase unemployment because the very rich will have less money with which to hire the rest of us to work in factories or offices or farms or whatever. If you give that phrase any thought at all you realize that it’s a bit of nonsense concocted to justify favorite tax treatment for the rich. Rich people don’t invest money in new businesses or new equipment just because they have the money. In fact, a successful enterpriser doesn’t invest his or her own money at all. He or she borrows money from a bank and sells shares to raise the money to start a new business. The bank and the potential stockholders won’t part with their money unless the enterpriser can convince them that there is a market of people with money eager to buy the product. That is, the phrase “make it and they will buy” doesn’t apply. What applies is “if they want it and can afford it, make it and sell it to them.”

Another popular example, propounded by President Reagan, is that increasing the tax rates on the rich discourages them from working hard because they get to keep less of the money that they earn. Again, if you think about this sound bite for a moment you realize how absurd it is. No matter the tax rate, as long as it is less than 100 percent, extra work provides extra income. It may not be as much as you’d like, but it is extra. This is simply another rationale for favored tax treatment of the rich.

I can go on all day with these simple sounding explanations in favor of or against specific policies. Some original and careful thought will convince you that the explanations make no sense as explanations. They make sense only as rationales for certain policies.

I invite you to find your own examples of these sound bites that masquerade as thoughtfulness about politics and economics.

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