Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

11 April 2008

Inaccurate


“Inaccurate” is an interesting word. It’s understated and lifeless. It doesn’t catch the eye or ear like “lying” or “dishonest.” It’s not an insult. It’s a word used by careful, thoughtful, understated people—accountants and scientists. It’s the kind of word you might have expected to hear from a gentleman, before that word left our everyday lexicon as obsolete.

But “inaccurate” is an important word for two reasons. First, it’s about the strongest negative thing Barack Obama ever says. Despite enormous provocation, he never accused Hillary Clinton of being or saying anything more, even during the height of the recent so-called “mudslinging.” In refuting claims of her or her campaign, no matter how absurd, he restricts himself to calling them “inaccurate.”

The second reason why “inaccurate” is an important word today is that it describes accurately what brought us low. So many of the claims, assertions, predictions and promises of recent years have been “inaccurate.”

It was “inaccurate” to predict that we could successfully occupy Iraq and build a new nation there with less than half the troops prescribed by our best generals. The idea that Iraqis would greet us with flowers and song was “inaccurate.” So were the claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was conspiring with Al Qaeda.

Our troops abroad have suffered keenly from inaccuracies. It was dangerously “inaccurate” to believe that they had all the body armor and vehicle armor they needed. It was “inaccurate” to boast that troops returning home have the best possible care, with the least possible bureaucracy and delay. It is “inaccurate” to predict that we can win two wars without the least sacrifice on the part of nonmilitary families.

The evils of inaccuracy are not limited to war. They’ve gutted our economy as well. It was “inaccurate” to believe that housing prices would rise forever. It was “inaccurate” to think that financial markets could thrive on loans made without any evidence of ability to repay them. The predictions that crises in housing and construction wouldn’t spread to the larger economy were “inaccurate.” It was “inaccurate” to believe we could meet our energy needs and insure our national security just by pumping more oil and gas. The repeated claims that global warming isn’t real and that we can reverse it by relying on individuals’ voluntary effort are “inaccurate.” Millions of aging workers now know that promises of generous pensions were “inaccurate.”

Even our best and most prestigious companies got into the act of inaccuracy. The balance sheets of Citigroup, Bear, Stearns and other erstwhile financial giants were “inaccurate.” Dates on Apple Computer’s stock options were “inaccurate.” Boeing’s estimates and promises for delivery of its new “Dreamliner” aircraft were “inaccurate.”

When Dubya gave his last State of the Union speech in January, he concluded with the usual formula, assuring us that the state of our Union is strong. That was “inaccurate.” The state of our Union is self-evidently the weakest it has been in my lifetime, and I’m over 60. Relative to our history and the rest of the world, it is probably the weakest it has been since our Civil War. Our trendline is down, not up, and the slope of our decline is getting steeper by the week.

Why is this so? Once reason is that we’ve built our public policy, public life, commerce and economy on so many inaccuracies. We have let ourselves be led and misled by marketers, advertisers, public-relations experts, and propagandists like Karl Rove. We have drunk our own cool aid and are governed by hucksters.

It’s therefore not surprising that many of us don’t know what to do with a man like Barack Obama. In our pervasive culture of inaccuracy, he’s a fish out of water. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t spin. He doesn’t exaggerate—about his record or anything else. He’s a self-restrained gentleman in a culture of braggarts, self-promoters and con artists. His race is the least unusual thing about him.

Reality is a tough taskmaster. It’s tough to discern, tougher to understand, and tougher still to accept. Modern science has undertaken those tasks for the last 400 years, ever since Galileo. Only now is it beginning to make headway on the questions that really matter: who we are, where we came from, and how we can make our lives longer and sweeter.

Outside of science, our contact with reality is tenuous. We believe what we want to believe, even if it is “inaccurate.” Twenty percent of us still think the Sun revolves around the Earth, four centuries after Galileo. Substantial minorities disbelieve evolution. Many more still believe Saddam had WMD and a close working relationship with Al Qaeda. Lots of women still think Hillary landed in Bosnia under a hail of sniper fire.

Our media encourage factual relativism. They relegate “fact checking” to unknown authors laboring in obscurity on the back pages and in the wee hours. Real reporters just parrot what leaders and celebrities say, however “inaccurate.”

In our better moments, we all know the price of inaccuracy. We call people who lose contact with reality “insane.” We know they are rarely successful and suffer unenviable fates. Yet as a nation and a culture we are drifting perceptibly in that direction.

Perhaps the most important change we can make is to reverse that drift. We could start by electing a leader who is not a huckster, who can recognize, chide and perhaps correct our growing collective insanity with dignity, humor and understatement.

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