Monday, November 26, 2012

What kind of fools are we?


By Bill Kraus

One of Lee Dreyfus’s favorite aphorisms was to never underestimate the people’s intelligence or overestimate their information.

Important point. A strong, transparent, ubiquitous communication system makes a democracy work. It’s important products are an informed citizenry and an accountable aristocracy.

Neither appears to be thriving.

The governing class, even in this communication-rich country, has rarely communicated at what I consider a high level. The least effusive public corporation reports on its activities (thanks to the Securities and Exchange Commission rules), and these resports describe what companies do and how they raise and spend their money much more clearly and completely than governments do.

People running governments will tell you that there is simply too much to communicate. More than any long suffering taxpayer can be expected to absorb. And it’s all available for those who want it and are willing to plow through thousands of pages of dense, impenetrable prose to find out how the government really works and where it gets and how it spends its money.

People running governments don’t admit that there is a power connected to knowing more than anybody else knows, and people in high positions are, often subconsciously, reluctant to share everything and diminish the power that exclusive knowledge bestows. This, however, is a hidden snake in the communication grass. This “need to know” philosophy inhibits rather than expands. I think everybody needs to know everything. This is not a view that is widely held in the bureaucracy.

I have at various times with a notable lack of success suggested that the communication of what the government does, how it works, and what resources pay for it could be simplified for mass consumption. At one time I recommended a double-funnel visual which showed where the money comes from and flows to. Another idea that is practiced in one place where I once paid taxes gives a grocery store-like itemization with every tax bill. Wisconsin could but doesn’t.

The lack of understanding that this breeds is one of the reasons voters are gullible enough to accept all kinds of nonsense up to and including bald-faced lies.

In the not-too-distant past the once powerful print press was a dispenser and a validator of information about and from the various governments that serve us.

I know, I know. This was an imperfect medium. The press did not always practice disinterested reporting. We expected newspapers to have a point of view and hoped it would be confined to the editorial page. But it slipped through the not impenetrable wall between news and opinion when editors determined what was covered and where stories were displayed as well. My own experience was helping run a statewide campaign in which a story about my candidate made the front page of the then dominant Milwaukee Journal just twice. When he won his parties‘ endorsement and when he lost the general election. But I forgive the institution and the paper, because it provided the essential go-to source that everyone shares and that every democracy needs.

We now have the fire hose library called the Internet, which is said to do what the press did, but only incidentally, whereas it was what the press did. Period. We have talk radio which, when questioned, makes no claim to either objectivity or even fact gathering: “We’re in show business,” one talk radio host told me. And, not unlike the superficial and otherwise flawed television medium, they are, for the most part, in business to deliver listeners and viewers to advertisers not information to the populace.

I have no idea what is going to replace “I read it in the paper” as a universal medium read by and responded to by citizens and elected officials alike. I only know that it must be replaced or revived or something.

While that is shaking out, however, our political leaders could be asked to feed us better, more complete information in ways that are both intelligible and interesting.

That is not too much to ask. So ask already.

Follow Bill Kraus on:

twitter / wmkraus

No comments:

Post a Comment