PERSPECTIVE: Obscuring What Made America Prosper

by Jacob S. Hacker Distrust in public institutions is a broad cultural trend. It is whipped up in popular entertainment and reinforced by a news media that sometimes seems to relish treating every person and organization as equally venal. Distrust in government, we have seen, is also, however, spread systematically, deliberately, and relentlessly—by GOP leaders who gain politically by “destroying the village to save it” and by powerful interests that have profited from the confusion and disaffection that widespread distrust feeds.

Consider the biggest threat facing our planet: global warming. Sowing doubt about climate change has proved a huge and hugely successful enterprise. Indeed, the fossil fuel industry deserves some special prize for chutzpah: In its propaganda, the bad guys aren’t carbon-emitting corporations trying to preserve trillions in dirty assets but instead climate scientists supposedly ginning up a false crisis to get research grants.

The modern GOP has joined the industry in its endorsement of whatever egregious defense seems most effective at the moment. Although the first lines of resistance (“global warming isn’t happening”; “it is, but for natural reasons”) have more or less crumbled, and “I’m not a scientist” doesn’t seem likely to work for long, either, there are plenty of additional trenches to retreat to: “Reform won’t work.” “It will be too expensive.” “It is pointless absent efforts by other countries.” “We want reform, just not this one —or the next one.” In the meantime, the fossil fuel industry continues to book huge profits and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to rise.

The marketplace of ideas is of great value. But just as in the actual marketplace, we all need help deciding which products are reliable and which are not. Consumer Reports is available for car buyers—whose decisions are a lot simpler than the typical policy choice. Yet, in our hyperpolarized political world, institutions recognized as credible sources of independent knowledge continue to lose ground.

Take the news media. As much as the decline of broadcast and print news has hurt independent journalism, the media remains the main mechanism through which people learn about the broader world. Too often, however, reporters structure stories to create controversy or convey catastrophe…The basic story of this book—that governments and markets, working in tandem, have steadily increased human welfare (if, of late, far too gradually)—offers no hook that will excite reporters.

What’s more, even when journalists cover important policy debates, they tend to fall into the trap of “he said, she said” reporting on political conflict. Simply recounting the claims of both “sides” in a debate—each debate having exactly two—imparts a potentially misleading message of unresolved controversy and false equivalence. When the weight of the evidence is in fact on one side, the “he said, she said” approach provides journalists with a safe posture of neutrality that, in practice, advances particular agendas and makes it harder for readers to understand events…

Our discourse about government has become dangerously lopsided. The hostility of the right is unceasing and mostly unanswered. Eloquent leaders defend individual programs, but too rarely defend the vital need for effective governance. Politicians facing electoral pressures participate in a spiral of silence. Chastened by government’s low standing, they reinforce rather than challenge it…

Rhetoric is only one part of problem. Cowed policymakers also design programs that send much the same message.

The political scientist Suzanne Mettler has documented the increasing tendency to “submerge” policies so the role of government is hidden from those who receive benefits. These subterranean policies include tax breaks for private savings for education and retirement, as well as reliance on private companies and contractors even where these proxies are less efficient than public provision. These submerged benefits are usually bad policies, but they are even worse politics. Voters who don’t recognize government are not likely to appreciate what government does. Nor are they likely to form an accurate picture of government’s role, seeing only its visible redistribution but not the vast numbers of ways in which it enables prosperity…

Consider the most maligned policy of recent years: the Affordable Care Act. Even as the law has expanded health coverage while moderating costs, critics continue to spew out disinformation and insist their direst predictions have come true (and get a respectable hearing from the news media). They claim millions are losing good insurance despite a historic expansion of coverage. They claim costs are skyrocketing despite a historic slowdown of medical inflation...

Given all this, it’s no surprise that Americans know strikingly little about the most important social policy breakthrough of the past half-century. Asked how the actual cost of the law compares with estimates prior to enactment, roughly 40 percent admitted they had no idea. Another 40 percent thought costs were higher than predicted. Only 8 percent knew that costs were substantially lower than anticipated.

Here, as in so many areas, voters have a limited understanding of government performance, receive scant guidance from the media, and are encouraged by a barrage of negativity to assume the worst. In the 2014 election campaign, anti-ACA ads outnumbered favorable ones by a ratio of 13 to 1…

A government that effectively promotes human flourishing is a government worth fighting for. More than ever, the problems we face demand a sustained and principled defense of a vital proposition: The government that governs best needs to govern quite a bit. Americans must remember what has made America prosper.


Excerpt from AMERICAN AMNESIA by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson.  Copyright © 2016 by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY. 

Hacker was the keynote speaker at the Connecticut Data Collaborative conference, “Counting What Matters: Better Data for Better Policy in Connecticut,” on Dec. 9.  He is the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University, and a member of the Steering Committee of the Scholars Strategy Network, research to improve policy and strengthen democracy.