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Idiocracy By the Numbers: New Data Show Many Americans Have No Idea They Receive Government Benefits

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How aggressively stupid is America when it comes to our debates over taxes, budgets and the size of government? That's been difficult to answer with any precision, beyond simply citing the Tea Partier who famously told his congressman to "keep your government hands off my Medicare." But now we have some hard numbers to tell us how deep this ignorance really goes.

According to new data crunched by Cornell University's Suzanne Mettler, large numbers of Americans who receive benefits from government social programs nonetheless tell pollsters they "have not used a government social program." And when I mean large, I mean large. For example, a majority of those who have received federally subsidized student loans, 44 percent of Social Security beneficiaries and 40 percent of G.I. bill recipients say they have not used a government social program.

These numbers go a long way to explaining why the economic debate in our country is so insane. Indeed, at a moment when taxes have hit a historic low, most politicians -- from presidents to governors to state legislators -- insist we must further cut taxes and shrink allegedly "Big Government." And they are finding a receptive audience in the general public because, as the numbers show, so many Americans wrongly believe they don't receive direct financial benefits from government.

Obviously, this aggressive stupidity politically props up the arguments of the anti-government right. With so many Americans evidently not knowing they receive benefits from the government, it's easy for opportunistic politicians to seize on our "me-first, screw everybody else" culture and misleadingly deride the government as some distant entity that exclusively benefits the "other." And if you don't know that, in fact, you are "the other," then you are more likely to conclude that that opportunistic politician is correct, and more likely to cheer on that opportunistic politician as he/she slashes the programs you directly rely on.

This, of course, is what Idiocracy looks like in practice -- a nation whose politics is inspired by "greed is good" self-interest, but whose voters often don't even know what "self-interest" actually is. In this case, we get many beneficiaries of government services actually cheering on cuts to their own benefits, not because they are ideologically against government -- but because they don't even think they get those benefits, when in fact they do. It's beyond the ignorance of not knowing that Medicare is a government program a la the fool who screamed "keep your government hands off my Medicare" -- it's not even knowing you are the beneficiaries of the policies you say you hate.

Beyond any single issue, that kind of aggressive stupidity is the true crisis in America.