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CDZ We don't need political debates, we need political discussions

320 Years of History

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In the following essay, Gary Gutting offers an intriguing proposal for using pubic discussion among political candidates and thinkers so as to provide the electorate with much better insights into what kinds of people ask for their votes. I agree wholeheartedly with his suggested approach.

In his “Republic,” Plato put forward the ideal of a state ruled by intellectuals who combined comprehensive theoretical knowledge with the practical capacity for applying it to concrete problems. In reality, no one has theoretical expertise in more than a few specialized subjects, and there is no strong correlation between having such knowledge and being able to use it to resolve complex social and political problems. Even more important, our theoretical knowledge is often highly limited, so that even the best available expert advice may be of little practical value. An experienced and informed non-expert may well have a better sense of these limits than experts strongly invested in their disciplines. This analysis supports the traditional American distrust of intellectuals: they are not in general highly suited for political office.

It’s often said that what our leaders need is common sense, not fancy theories. But common-sense ideas that work in individuals’ everyday lives are often useless for dealing with complex problems of society as a whole. For example, it’s common sense that government payments to the unemployed will lead to more jobs because those receiving the payments will spend the money, thereby increasing demand, which will lead businesses to hire more workers. But it’s also common sense that if people are paid for not working, they will have less incentive to work, which will increase unemployment. The trick is to find the amount of unemployment benefits that will strike the most effective balance between stimulating demand and discouraging employment. This is where our leaders need to talk to economists.

Knowing how to talk to economists and other experts is an essential skill of good political leaders. This in turn requires a basic understanding of how experts in various fields think and what they might have to offer for resolving a given problem. Leaders need to be intelligent “consumers” of expert opinions.

Our current electoral campaigns are not very good at determining candidates’ understanding of relevant intellectual issues. “Pop quizzes” from interviewers on historical or geographical facts don’t tell us much: those who know the answers may still have little grasp of fundamental policy questions, whereas a good grasp can be consistent with a lack of quick factual recall. Nor does reading sophisticated policy speeches that others have written or reciting pre-programmed talking points in interviews or news conferences tell us much about a candidate’s knowledge. Even quick-thinking responses in debates may indicate glibness rather than understanding.

The best evidence of how capable candidates are of fruitfully interacting with intellectuals would be to see them doing just this. Concretely, I make the following suggestion for the coming presidential election: Gather small but diverse panels of eminent, politically uncommitted experts on, say, unemployment, the history of the Middle East, and climate science, and have each candidate lead an hour-long televised discussion with each panel. The candidates would not be mere moderators but would be expected to ask questions, probe disagreements, express their own ideas or concerns, and periodically summarize the state of discussion. Such engagements would provide some of the best information possible for judging candidates, while also enormously improving the quality of our political discourse.
Why do I agree with Mr. Gutting's idea? Well, because I have less need to know what a politician thinks than I do about how s/he things and how well s/he thinks. The need to know that is driven by my awareness that even if a candidate is a pro on one or two topics, they cannot be an expert on all the topics that will cross their desk. I know that because I'm no expert on everything that comes my way, yet I have to make decisions about those things all the same.

Our nation has tons of intellectual resources that a political leader can use to aid good decision making. I want to know how effective they'll be at availing themselves of those resources. Will they just "go with their gut," or will they take the advice of experts and either apply it or synthesize the input from multiple experts into a new idea that none of them originally foresaw?

I can live just fine with the reality that a policy for which I don't care may be the best one for the short and long term, for example. What I want to know is whether the policy's makers are comprehensive enough in their analysis to consider both the short and long term impacts, benefits and negatives, and not just for their friends and allies but for the rest of the folks on whose behalf they must nonetheless govern.

It is for this reason that I really detest political debates as we have them today. They do little to give me confidence regarding much of anything that I want to know about the candidates. The fact is that I want elected leaders who will make well informed choices, even if they are not the choices that their party advocates. To do that, however, one has to be willing to be well informed, and doing that requires being able to interact with the folks who are well informed.
 

Elvis Obama

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In the following essay, Gary Gutting offers an intriguing proposal for using pubic discussion among political candidates and thinkers so as to provide the electorate with much better insights into what kinds of people ask for their votes. I agree wholeheartedly with his suggested approach.

In his “Republic,” Plato put forward the ideal of a state ruled by intellectuals who combined comprehensive theoretical knowledge with the practical capacity for applying it to concrete problems. In reality, no one has theoretical expertise in more than a few specialized subjects, and there is no strong correlation between having such knowledge and being able to use it to resolve complex social and political problems. Even more important, our theoretical knowledge is often highly limited, so that even the best available expert advice may be of little practical value. An experienced and informed non-expert may well have a better sense of these limits than experts strongly invested in their disciplines. This analysis supports the traditional American distrust of intellectuals: they are not in general highly suited for political office.

It’s often said that what our leaders need is common sense, not fancy theories. But common-sense ideas that work in individuals’ everyday lives are often useless for dealing with complex problems of society as a whole. For example, it’s common sense that government payments to the unemployed will lead to more jobs because those receiving the payments will spend the money, thereby increasing demand, which will lead businesses to hire more workers. But it’s also common sense that if people are paid for not working, they will have less incentive to work, which will increase unemployment. The trick is to find the amount of unemployment benefits that will strike the most effective balance between stimulating demand and discouraging employment. This is where our leaders need to talk to economists.

Knowing how to talk to economists and other experts is an essential skill of good political leaders. This in turn requires a basic understanding of how experts in various fields think and what they might have to offer for resolving a given problem. Leaders need to be intelligent “consumers” of expert opinions.

Our current electoral campaigns are not very good at determining candidates’ understanding of relevant intellectual issues. “Pop quizzes” from interviewers on historical or geographical facts don’t tell us much: those who know the answers may still have little grasp of fundamental policy questions, whereas a good grasp can be consistent with a lack of quick factual recall. Nor does reading sophisticated policy speeches that others have written or reciting pre-programmed talking points in interviews or news conferences tell us much about a candidate’s knowledge. Even quick-thinking responses in debates may indicate glibness rather than understanding.

The best evidence of how capable candidates are of fruitfully interacting with intellectuals would be to see them doing just this. Concretely, I make the following suggestion for the coming presidential election: Gather small but diverse panels of eminent, politically uncommitted experts on, say, unemployment, the history of the Middle East, and climate science, and have each candidate lead an hour-long televised discussion with each panel. The candidates would not be mere moderators but would be expected to ask questions, probe disagreements, express their own ideas or concerns, and periodically summarize the state of discussion. Such engagements would provide some of the best information possible for judging candidates, while also enormously improving the quality of our political discourse.
Why do I agree with Mr. Gutting's idea? Well, because I have less need to know what a politician thinks than I do about how s/he things and how well s/he thinks. The need to know that is driven by my awareness that even if a candidate is a pro on one or two topics, they cannot be an expert on all the topics that will cross their desk. I know that because I'm no expert on everything that comes my way, yet I have to make decisions about those things all the same.

Our nation has tons of intellectual resources that a political leader can use to aid good decision making. I want to know how effective they'll be at availing themselves of those resources. Will they just "go with their gut," or will they take the advice of experts and either apply it or synthesize the input from multiple experts into a new idea that none of them originally foresaw?

I can live just fine with the reality that a policy for which I don't care may be the best one for the short and long term, for example. What I want to know is whether the policy's makers are comprehensive enough in their analysis to consider both the short and long term impacts, benefits and negatives, and not just for their friends and allies but for the rest of the folks on whose behalf they must nonetheless govern.

It is for this reason that I really detest political debates as we have them today. They do little to give me confidence regarding much of anything that I want to know about the candidates. The fact is that I want elected leaders who will make well informed choices, even if they are not the choices that their party advocates. To do that, however, one has to be willing to be well informed, and doing that requires being able to interact with the folks who are well informed.
This is what an informed voter needs. We do not cater to informed voters. Why should we? There are so few of them.

There is not one word of your OP I don't agree with. There is not one word that is of any practical importance. We can't worry about moving democracy forward until we stop it from going backwards. Only a culture knowledgeable about the complexity of the juncture of science and policy can benefit from this kind of information. What does the politician gain in return? They are laid bare as the complete morons they are. They have to reveal that their policies demonstrate a lack of understanding of the real nature of the issues, and are impractical nonsense. What do we need to deal with to get to the point where the American electorate will demand these tests for their representatives?

1- Anti- intellectualism.
2- Educational failure.
3- The reduction of complex issues into 30 second soundbite commercials.
4- The "negotiation" of debate rules by the candidates, which has rendered the process pointless. A ridiculous attempt to score "one-liners" at your opponents expense, while avoiding saying anything. It's like we're auditioning for "Stand-Up In Chief".
5- The stranglehold that the parties have on the political process. They are a cancer in the heart of democracy. Are they working feverishly to improve the level of knowledge of the American voter? Ha! They do everything they can to make their constituents docile sheep. They revel in a situation in which people, so angry about how dysfunctional their government is, blame the left or the right. Instead they should look at the systemic problems in the political process which has brought us to this point, where our politics are completely controlled by the low information voters.

Bottom line: We have really screwed up. We have expanded the franchise thoughtlessly. We have given no consideration to how the changes we have made, throughout our history, have affected democracy. We have allowed the meaning of the first amendment to morph from a tool for democracy to quasi-religious precepts. Freedom of the press was established because of a recognition that journalism was central to the democratic process. When do we ever evaluate how well the media is doing its job as a tool of democracy? How about the internet? Try having a rational discussion online. Freedom of speech is a means of facilitating the free exchange of ideas between individuals. What has that become? Corporations are people, and money is speech? We've got to untwist the pretzel that American government has become.
 
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It would seem to me that the root of this problem is the poor quality of our public schooling system. If we are to expect our candidates to have decent knowledge of the issues, we have to acquire that knowledge first. A society that is better educated will demand higher standards of knowledge from its candidates for elected office. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was and never will be"--Thomas Jefferson.
 
OP
320 Years of History

320 Years of History

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It would seem to me that the root of this problem is the poor quality of our public schooling system. If we are to expect our candidates to have decent knowledge of the issues, we have to acquire that knowledge first. A society that is better educated will demand higher standards of knowledge from its candidates for elected office. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was and never will be"--Thomas Jefferson.

Quite frankly, ignorance and idiocy are much like addictive behavior in that the first step to overcoming them is to recognize one suffers from them. Unfortunately, whereas we have Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Shopaholics Anonymous, and so on, there is no Dolts and Dullards Anonymous.
 
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It would seem to me that the root of this problem is the poor quality of our public schooling system. If we are to expect our candidates to have decent knowledge of the issues, we have to acquire that knowledge first. A society that is better educated will demand higher standards of knowledge from its candidates for elected office. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was and never will be"--Thomas Jefferson.

Quite frankly, ignorance and idiocy are much like addictive behavior in that the first step to overcoming them is to recognize one suffers from them. Unfortunately, whereas we have Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Shopaholics Anonymous, and so on, there is no Dolts and Dullards Anonymous.
We are all in denial about the state of education in this country. Only major changes are going to pull us out of the situation that we have gotten ourselves into. Until then, there is no way that we can possibly expect any change from our candidates. I hope that we can begin make changes, but I'm afraid that we are too proud. I'm afraid that (to extend your metaphor) we may have to "hit bottom" before that happens.
 

Rouge Rover

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The best evidence of how capable candidates are of fruitfully interacting with intellectuals would be to see them doing just this. Concretely, I make the following suggestion for the coming presidential election: Gather small but diverse panels of eminent, politically uncommitted experts on, say, unemployment, the history of the Middle East, and climate science, and have each candidate lead an hour-long televised discussion with each panel. The candidates would not be mere moderators but would be expected to ask questions, probe disagreements, express their own ideas or concerns, and periodically summarize the state of discussion. Such engagements would provide some of the best information possible for judging candidates, while also enormously improving the quality of our political discourse.​


I agree with Gutting and with your views on this but I don't think many people at all would watch these panel discussions which leaves us right where we are now with the media giving their spin on a candidates position.​
 

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