Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: Are People Confused, or Just Not Very Bright?

Posted at 12:30 pm, February 25th, 2012
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Paul Krugman in a February 17 column noted that many Americans make use of government programs but are oblivious that they are beneficiaries. He quoted a Cornell University professor who found that 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those receiving jobless benefits, and 40 percent of those on Medicare say they “have not used a government program”. The professor attributed the denials to respondents who were “confused about their own place in the system.” Krugman agrees with the confusion thesis.

There’s another, less flattering explanation: the electorate is basically not too bright. Being unaware that Medicare, Social Security and unemployment insurance are federal government programs is well beyond confusion. A person has to be in the neighborhood of dimwitted not to be aware that the Social Security checks from Uncle Sam that arrive in the mail or are deposited in bank accounts are from the federal government. The origins of Medicare coverage or jobless benefits are equally obvious.

Politicians exaggerate and lie because they have a well-founded belief that voters are readily bamboozled. Huge sums are spent on political advertising because there is a payoff at the polls. It takes skill to convince people to vote against their economic interests. That voters regularly do so is testimony both to the expertise of the ad-makers and to the dimness of the audience.

Newt Gingrich declared during the Feb. 22 Republican presidential candidate debate in Arizona that Barack Obama is “the most dangerous president on national security grounds in American history.” Gingrich doubtless figures he was on safe ground bashing Obama because his opponents wouldn’t dare be caught defending the president. As for the audience, the slurs and questionable comments were flying so thick and fast during the debate that bewildered viewers couldn’t be expected to sort fact from fiction.

Another surprising feature of the debate in Arizona was how little of it featured immigration policy. After all, Arizona has been at the center of controversy over the subject. It would have been refreshing if the moderator challenged candidates to go beyond offering platitudes about protecting borders to reminding viewers what migrants have contributed to American life. As the historian Paul Johnson has written:

“History is continually teaching us that the very fact of displacement and resettlement has an invigorating effect on ideas and ways of doing things, and so turns the immigrant into a more efficient economic animal. As far back as the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., impoverished Greek herdsmen and olive growers, leaving their ancient soil, blossomed into merchant-colonists throughout the Mediterranean. In the 19th century, clansmen who had starved in the Highlands, wretched bog-Irish from Clare and Kerry, semi-serfs from Poland, landless peasants from the Mezzogiorno, transformed themselves into enterprising citizens in Ontario and New Zealand, in Boston, New York and Chicago, in the Midwest, Argentina and New South Wales. In our own day we have constantly seen the almost miraculous effect of movement as mainland Chinese settle in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Vietnamese come to California and Australia, and Cubans to Florida.”

That’s not the picture present politicians paint. Instead of acknowledging the upside of immigration, politicians especially are fixated on fences. It would be smart politics for candidates to remind voters that we are, after all, a nation of immigrants.

5 Responses to “Are People Confused, or Just Not Very Bright?”

  1. Solomon Kleinsmith says:

    There are also a lot of people who are under the mistaken impression that social security is a retirement program, where the money they get in the mail is from an account they put money into. It’s a bit shocking to find out how many people don’t get that people working now are the ones paying for the benefits of the people collecing benefits now. Just clearing that up would be a very good thing.

  2. Skeptical says:

    Attacking people for “participating” in a government program that will result in their jailing if they don’t “participate” is something only a dimwitted liberal could or would do.

    You will be taxed for social security and medicare or go to jail for tax evasion. Employers have to pay unemployment taxes or go to jail.

    I would gladly forgo any Social Security “benefits” if I could have my “contributions’, not the employers’ portion, refunded to me. I don’t wan to be a ward of the nanny state as do liberals. We are stuck with Medicare because the feds have prevented any primary health insurance for people > 65 yrs old.

    There is a big difference in working people being forcibly taxedfor 40 or 50 years for social security and medicare and receving benefits and welfare queens pumping out kids to garner food stamps, section 8 housing, free cell phones, earned income credits, WIC, AFDC, etc.

  3. Rich P says:

    I’m happy for “Skeptical” who would gladly forgo Social Security and Medicare. This is clearly a person who can afford retiring and health care. But before Social Security existed, more than 50% of people over 65 lived below the poverty level. What kind of heartless country would do that to their people? I’ve talked to numerous older people who have voted Republican for years, and are now scared, because they say they can’t afford to live without Social Security, and would not be able to afford health care without Medicare, yet they’re told this is what makes sense.
    And about being “forcibly taxed”, which sounds very Libertarian, most of that money goes for things that make America function. How great would we be without roads, schools, hospitals.
    When the writer gets to the tired old argument about how food stamps make poor people have more children (and, I suppose, unemployment makes people not work), I can only believe this poisonous rhetoric comes from the Ayn Rand cult of selfishness, and a willingness to believe twisted statistics. There was a time when people felt it was a privilege to live in this country, and our cost for that privilege was to pay our fair share. It’s also a privilege to live in a country where people aren’t hungry, malnourished and without housing, decent schools or health care. We don’t live in a country like that, but we should (Romney actually says he isn’t worried about the poor). We never will, however if selfish ideologues convince people that America should turn its back on its own.

  4. Suzon Gordon says:

    It’s considered a wonderful, generous thing to do when someone “pays ahead” at a drive-through fast food restaurant at Christmas. It is a fact that workers “pay ahead” on Social Security–and, to some extent, on Medicare.

    It’s also a fact that people don’t comprehend it. What does it hurt to pay ahead every day? Eventually you benefit from the process. FDR knew it would work, and it has. We have two programs that have prevented poverty and in many cases premature disability or death. Further, they have helped fuel our consumer economy. Is this bad? I don’t think so. I think it’s fantastic.

    Oh, yes, and I think people are not confused, they’re plenty bright, and in this case, uninformed.

  5. Katikam says:

    Skeptical, the govt has never prevented private health insurance from covering people over 65. It’s insurers who didn’t want to cover them because oldsters need so much health care that private insurers could not make money from selling them coverage. (there are also other factors: Medicare’s administrative costs are about 4%. Private health insurers “administrative” cost range from 30% to ?). Actually, try to buy health insurance coverage if you’re 55 years old — not possible unless you have a few millions in disposable income.

    I am 70, so I witnessed before Medicare old people simply dying without medical care once they used up all of their family’s resources.

    Medicare benefits the middle class because it allows people to hand down their house and perhaps a bit of savings to the next generation, so that younger people don’t have to start from scratch. But all that is changing as the modest wealth the middle class has accumulated is been vacuumed upward by our financial elite. Where do you think the money that turned millionaires into billionaires in just a couple of decades came from?

    Social Security, as other commentators are trying to get through to you, is a system where the people working now are paying forward for the people who are retired. It’s not like a retirement program and that’s lucky because just about all the people of my generation who had 401k plans got wiped out in 2007 and, unlike members of our financial elite, they haven’t recouped their loss.

    Right now I suspect you think you wont need Social Security and Medicare because you can’t imagine getting old. Actually you probably can’t imagine coming down with a major illness which your private insurer (if you have one!) might claim was pre-existing and drop you. Actually, I suspect you can’t wrap your mind around the notion of your own mortality.

    You are tempting fate by denying care for your fellow human beings — or, lets face it, you are not using your brain!

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