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27 March, 2010

Made by Washington: Ignorance and Hackery

Tying  partisan hackery and propaganda with the general populace's ignorance of affairs of state is a popular trope of late. This week's New York Times provides a fine example:

AT the White House signing ceremony for health care legislation on Tuesday, President Obama declared, “In a few moments, when I sign this bill, all of the overheated rhetoric over reform will finally confront the reality of reform.” For Democrats nervous about political fallout from the bill in the November midterm elections, it’s reassuring to imagine that the myths about the legislation — that it provides free coverage to illegal immigrants, uses taxpayer money to subsidize abortions and mandates end-of-life counseling for the elderly — will be dispelled by its passage.

But public knowledge of the plan’s contents may not improve as quickly as Democrats hope. While some of the more outlandish rumors may dissipate, it is likely that misperceptions will linger for years, hindering substantive debate over the merits of the country’s new health care system. The reasons are rooted in human psychology.

Studies have shown that people tend to seek out information that is consistent with their views; think of liberal fans of MSNBC and conservative devotees of Fox News. Liberals and conservatives also tend to process the information that they receive with a bias toward their pre-existing opinions, accepting claims that are consistent with their point of view and rejecting those that are not. As a result, information that contradicts their prior attitudes or beliefs is often disregarded, especially if those beliefs are strongly held.

I am not very fond of ideological media outlets or blinding partisan worldviews. However, I believe any attempt to blame either for public misperceptions concerning legislation hopelessly confuses cause and effect. The real problem lies not with the way legislation is spun, but with the legislation itself.

To put it simply, important legislation is not friendly to the curious citizen. Consider a few numbers provided by breaking down the original draft of House's health care reform bill:

"While it has 363,000 words, only about 234,000 have an impact on substantive law. Presumably, those who regularly read legislation develop the ability to tell the wheat from the chaff, and so an experienced legislator would pretty quickly figure out the relevant 234,000 words....

While 234,000 words are no mere bagatelle, they don’t present an impossible barrier to reading, either, Mr. Katz and colleagues [the crew who first crunched these numbers] suggest. They compared the bill’s substantive words with the length of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, devoured by fans worldwide, and found the total comparable to the longest book in the series: “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which weighed in at 257,000 words. "

While the good men at the New York Times and the number crunchers they interviewed did their best to assuage any worries readers might have about the bill's length, they left me feeling rather cold on the matter.

I ask you to approach this as would the average citizen with no special expertise in health care administration or lawmaking. Any such person interested in reading the bill would have to wade through 363,000 words. It should not be too hard. Apparently one third of those words have no substantial impact on their live, or the lives of anyone they know – but how are they to tell which words those happen to be? How are they to analyze a bill that can be deciphered only by "experienced legislators"?

Then there is the matter of the bill's size. The Times article favorably compares the bill to a 3 pound, 827 page book. Outside of children novels, how popular are books of this size? Does the average man read 800 page works very often? For most Americans, reading a book of this size is regarded as a major undertaking. And none of those books are written in legalese.

 For those not employed by the Congressional Research Service the laws passed by Congress are  opaque, inaccessible, and mysterious. Lacking the hours of time needed to understand the legislation under debate, citizens go to a different source to stay informed: Fox News, MSNBC, and other partisan media outlets.

Let me be clear: Every recondite bill proposed in the House and Senate empowers pundits whose currency is hyperbole and spin.

The blogs, radio programs, and talk shows of ideologues are the only place left for citizens seeking a quick update on affairs of state. Duplicitous pundits stand as the gate keepers between the citizenry and the laws designed to govern them.

This is the driving force behind the ignorance and hackery so common amongst our people.

ADDENDUM:

In anticipation of those who claim that abstruse bills are a necessary evil, I provide links to the full text of  some of the most significant pieces of legislation published between 1787 and 1964. None are larger than 30 pages; many could fit within a newspaper column. Nor do any require any special legislative education to understand.

The Northwest Ordinance                           Federal Judiciary Act


Fugitive Slave Act                                          Interstate Commerce Act

Sherman Anti-Trust Act                               Federal Reserve Act





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