One of the reasons public discourse in this country is so infested with crap is that often as not, our real problems are so complicated.
We seemed to have reached a point where even the best and brightest among us – when they haven’t themselves had a huge hand in creating a given problem – can’t understand it. Any of it. How it happened and why it happened aren’t comprehensible, much less a solution and any preventive measures to keep it from happening again.
A persistent theme of stories about the housing crisis, for example, is how complex the problem’s causes were and how hard it is to find anyone responsible to blame.
A recent story in Rolling Stone, “Courts Helping Banks Screw Over Homeowners,” is a perfect example. The story was by Matt Taibbi, one of the best journalists working today. It detailed one hour of operation by special Florida courts that speed through legally questionable foreclosures. The courts are known informally as “rocket dockets.”
There’s a lot of substance to Taibbi’s story; he has an amazing gift for making even a highly complex story understandable. But that’s hard work that many reporters are neither willing nor able to do. At one point in the story, Taibbi writes, “Like everything else related to the modern economy, these foreclosure hearings are conducted in what is essentially a foreign language, heavy on jargon and impenetrable to the casual observer. It took days of interviews with experts before and after this hearing to make sense of this single hour of courtroom drama.”
The story goes on to detail the sham that is these foreclosure hearings. Among the biggest problems is that the plaintiffs – those seeking to foreclose on homes – have often either lost or falsified the necessary paperwork.
Now, it would seem to me that if I owed somebody money but they had no real record of the debt, they shouldn’t be able to collect. But this is far from that simple and you’d have to be naïve to the point of disability to believe that’ll happen in this case.
And it’s an open question whether the complexity involved is intentional or just the nature of the beast. It’s probably a little of both; complexity is the handmaiden of financial crime. But even the world’s most honest financier would be hard-pressed to explain to the average person what he does.
Intentional or not, the complexity is a fact of life. That’s why – and this is a point Taibbi makes – so many people fall back on blaming the borrowers for living beyond their means. Well, it ain’t that simple and Taibbi sums it up best in his closing: “And that's why most people in this country are so ready to buy that explanation. Because in America, it's far more shameful to owe money than it is to steal it.”
It’s also more understandable because there are people out there who, as my grandfather used to say, could steal your socks without even touching your shoes.
So there’s been little public discussion, beyond political bloviating, of stopping the housing crisis from happening again. But boy, has there ever been public discussion of things like the military Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.
Gay rights, just to cite one example, is not really a complex question. Either you’re for them or against them. It might take some pretty tortured philosophical justifications to deny rights based on sexual orientation – which really, at the end of the day, isn’t anybody’s business other than the actual people involved – but coming up with a position on it isn’t that hard (nor, for that matter, is not caring one way or the other). You don’t have lawyers coming up with subtle, hair-splitting justifications on either side. It’s a simple matter of one’s view of morality.
Because people can think about it without getting a massive migraine, they’ll come up with a definite position and pretty much stick to it. And because one’s position on the matter rests on some pretty basic and personal beliefs, passion can affix itself like a remora to that opinion. Folks can get all righteous and Lord knows, folks love to do that.
Plus, it’s a handy “wedge issue” that demagogues can use to “fire up the base.” It’s tailor-made for painting people as either black hats or white hats, just because it is such a simple matter. Ultimately, it’s the kind of issue that lends itself to polarized thinking, to no middle ground, to no mitigating circumstances. It’s a sound bite.
It’s also easy for the media to cover. You don’t have to be Matt Taibbi to write a compelling story on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. You also don’t have to be Matt Taibbi to write a good story on the housing crisis, but it sure helps. It takes some very hard work and reporters are like anybody else. They don’t want to work any harder than they have to.
You can say all you want about American’s inability to understand really complex issues, but there comes a point where they’re so complicated, for whatever reason, that the inability isn’t anybody’s fault. When guys with Ph.D.s in economics can’t really understand a financial crisis, what chance does a less educated person have? It’s not like better teaching in high schools can make financial derivatives understandable. Education has its limits.
So what are we left with? Blind faith that the few people who can understand the problem and do something about it will. That’s probably naïve too, but I’m not sure there’s any other alternative. We’ll just have to go back to arguing about gay rights or something else we understand, even if the complicated stuff is vastly more important.