Native Village
Youth and Education news
Volume 4   April 2011

How dumb are we?
Condensed by Native Village

When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test:
29% couldn’t name the vice president;
73% couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War;
44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights;
6% couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.

Take the newsweek Test!

Since World War II, yearly shifts in public knowledge have averaged under 1%. But the world has changed, and it's inhospitable to incurious know-nothings—like us.

In March 2009, citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. were asked to answer questions on international affairs. The Europeans clobbered us. When asked to identify the Taliban, for example, those who did:

68% of Danes, 75% of Brits, 76% of Finns, and only 58% of Americans -- even though we led the charge in Afghanistan.

To appreciate the risks of our ignorance, we must understand where it comes from. Most experts agree that the complex U.S. political system makes it hard for Americans to keep up:

Most European countries
Have parliaments with Proportional representation.
The majority party rules. 
They don't have to share power with a lot of subnational governments.
The United States has
A nonproportional Senate;
A tangle of state, local, and federal bureaucracies;
Near-constant elections for every imaginable office (judge, sheriff, school-board member, etc)

“Nobody is competent to understand it all, which you realize every time you vote,” says Michael Schudson, author of The Good Citizen. “You know you’re going to come up short, and that discourages you from learning more.”

It doesn’t help that the U.S.:

Has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world.  
The top 400 households bring in more money than the bottom 60% of households combined.

Has a decentralized education system run mostly by individual states. 
Centrally managed curricula creates more common knowledge and a stronger civic culture.

Relys on market-driven media instead of public broadcasting.
 Public broadcasting offers more world and public affairs news. This fosters greater knowledge in these areas.

Civic ignorance is a big problem. We can't afford to mind our own business. What happens in China, India, or a nuclear power plant in Japan affects a Detroit autoworker.  What happens in the statehouse and White House affects  competition in China and India.

Take the newsweek Test!

Before the Internet, brawn was enough; now the information economy demands brains instead. We used to rely on institutions such as organized labor to give us leverage. Now we now have nothing.

“The issue isn’t that people in the past knew a lot more and know less now,” said
Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker. “It’s that their ignorance was counterbalanced by denser political organizations.”

The result is a society of wired activists with extreme views who dominate politicaldebates. They also lead politicians astray at precisely the wrong moment.

One current example of our ignorance is the conflict over government spending:

Every economist knows how to deal with the debt:
Cost-saving reforms to big-ticket entitlement programs;
Cuts to our bloated defense budget;
And (if growth remains slow) tax reforms designed to refill our depleted revenue coffers.

But polls shows that voters have no clue what the budget actually looks like:

A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that
Americans want to tackle deficits by cutting foreign aid from 27% (what they believe the budget is) to 13%.
However, America's real foreign-aid budget is under 1%.
A CNN poll found that 
71% of voters want smaller government, yet they oppose cuts to Medicare (81%), Social Security (78%), and Medicaid (70%).
Instead, they prefer to slash waste—a category they believe constitutes 50% of U.S. spending!

While we'll never balance the budget by listening to these people, politicians pander to them anyway.  As a result, we’re now arguing over short-term spending cuts that impair

Take the newsweek Test!

our long-term recovery and ability to compete globally.

But Americans can change. Stanford professor James Fishkin has conducted experiments in deliberative democracy. It's simple. He polls citizens on a major issue, blind, then tracks how their opinions evolve when they’re forced to confront the facts.

What Fiskin has learned is that people start out with deep value disagreements. But after learning the ins and outs of the issue, they most often agree on rational policies.

“The problem is ignorance, not stupidity,” Hacker says. “We suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.”

This is the time to search for a cure.

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