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Frank A. Weil

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Well Informed Versus Ill Informed

Posted: 05/24/2012 7:12 pm

Much needed attention is being given today to the growing disparity of income between the few and the many. There are several concerns about this problem that go beyond simple fairness issues.

Too much inequality for too long a time can lead to corrosive relationships between parts of society that are inevitably interdependent and which need to work together smoothly to make our whole system work properly.

Managers and workers, along with governmental regulators, have common problems, goals and needs but they often cannot see the other groups' points of view because of preconceived perspectives, stemming from disparities in education, experience and income.

Income inequality can be addressed in a variety of ways through taxation, disclosure and even culture changes, fostered by recognition of the importance of better balance. Henry Ford's genius in paying his Model T workers better so that they could afford to buy Ford cars was perhaps history's best example to date of that kind of inspired thinking.

Parallel to the income inequality issues today is another grave problem, which, correlates to the income issues: a growing gap between people who are well- versus ill-informed about the world they live in.

This problem is partly due to serious issues with our educational system but it appears to go way beyond academics. There is an old semi-serious expression that people often use, "Don't confuse me with the facts." Too frequently, too many people in this country have made up their minds about something based on very little knowledge and simply are not open-minded enough to even want to know more before digging in to defend or oppose any change in their world.

There are two substantive sets of issues where this problem is especially acute. Economics is perhaps the biggest problem. Politicians often use individual household economics to explain economic problems. While there is some utility in doing this, because of the vast difference between one household and a million, the truths about "not living beyond one's means" can become distorted and mislead ill-informed people into taking terribly counterproductive positions.

At the same time, efforts to teach the masses more economics runs into several major obstacles, including people's unwillingness to read and comprehend subjects which are sometimes of necessity counterintuitive.

Foreign Affairs is the other serious problem, although it is less acute in some ways because the president has more latitude under the Constitution to lead and take action alone without Congress being a permanent obstacle. Where Congress has to be involved, the misconceptions of large swaths of our population bogs Congress down in taking right, timely governmental actions, because elected representatives hate not to be reelected. Dick Lugar is the latest example of that.

While most Americans know where the continents and oceans are it is always surprising to learn how few Americans know enough about the rest of the world to either formulate their own thoughts about our relationships beyond our borders or even understand what our government has to do to stay at peace and keep trade and finance doors open.

Several times in the last century our leaders have sadly misled us, for which we have paid dearly. Not being prepared for World War II and barging into Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan ill prepared and for wrongheaded reasons are cases in which pressure from the American people has helped to get us back on a sound track.

The problem is that the American people were not equipped to participate usefully in advance of the above examples, simply because their lack of awareness and knowledge failed to equip them with the skill to speak up and out and influence events.

What can we do about the problem of an ill-informed public? As long as we lived protected by two giant oceans, we were somewhat insulated from the problem's effect on both economic and foreign issues.

Now we are virtually completely unprotected. Money moves across the globe in milliseconds and lasers and missiles only take a little longer. We must find a way to inform and educate our adult population about these kinds of subjects so we can more often be smarter as a whole nation.

One of the things we can control to some extent is access to our airwaves/the cloud. There can be no doubt that we have the smarts everywhere to conjure the messages. The problem is, airtime is expensive. If we could find a way to mandate that as little as ten percent of prime time by all forms of broadcasters had to be directed to public education on these types of topics, perhaps over a decade we could make inroads on these problems.

 
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