A NEW book, Democracy and Political Ignorance from the Stanford University Press, is now a must-read for the policy/ government types in the US. Its main theme is this: Americans are mostly ignorant of politics and government. That ignorance does not give them the discernment-cum-wisdom to make the right political choices.
The book by Ilya Somin, a lawyer and university professor, has three main powerful findings. Americans do not know how the government works. They don’t know much about the people who run government. They are essentially clueless about how government programs work.
Short version: They know more about Blake Griffin’s thunderous dunks and Alex Rodriguez’s steroid woes than the congressional insertions/earmarks (pork) of the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, or former New York Sen. George Pataki. (Ten out of 10 Fil-Ams I asked were, indeed, clueless on who Pataki and Stevens are.) And, they are more tuned in to the multiple divorces of the Kardashians than what is happening with the shutdown and debt ceiling talks.
Sounds familiar? We all know the answer. Go to the anti-pork rallies, probably the most worked-up movement in contemporary history, and, instantly, you will realize this. Those well-fed and well-coiffed women shouting “Wanna Change” fall into the same category as the ignorant Americans described in Somin’s book. Right cause, faulty frame of references.
While there are passionate and well-meaning protests, still the sad fact is this: 99 percent of the protesters do not even know what they are talking about. They are rich with fury and intensity, but there is epic failure on know-what-are-you-fighting for side.
(The most learned of the pork protesters do not seem to provide enlightenment. The proposal to scrap pork through a “People’s Initiative” proposed by a former chief justice at that, was readily shot down by Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago for being unrealistic.)
The sheer ignorance and cluelessness of the protesters is all there for posterity to see. The cyber world is a cruel thing, it keeps a copy of the words spoken, e-mailed, tweeted against the pork and for its abolition. And the rants of the Internet trolls are a classic case of sound and fury signifying nothing. Beyond the rage, what? Nothing is answered about where do we go from here? How do we elevate the struggle to the next higher phase to achieve results and reforms? And how do we abolish pork without disrupting the flow of safety nets /capital expenditures to the poorest of the poor?
Ignorance and cluelessness in full bliss is all too obvious in the passionate clamor for two things and two things only. The abolition of the pork and the jailing of Napoles and her cohorts and all those involved in squandering public money. Nothing wrong with these two. They should be the first and second agenda in the fight against pork; Step 1 and Step 2.
Absent from the conversation are the marginal sectors and marginal communities that would suffer severely from the unilateral scrapping of pork. Students sent to college by pork. The dying that are kept alive by pork-funded dialysis treatments. Farmers getting subsidies from pork. Critical rural infra that count on pork.
The 5th and the 6th class towns whose capital expenditures, admittedly, is mostly provided by pork barrel, will get no capex with the scrapping of pork—if that scrapping would provide no alternative relief programs for the lower class municipalities. And the fate that would befall these communities gets zero mention in the anti-pork rallies.
The reason for the limited, anti-poor view of the pork protests: 99 percent of those involved in the protests have no understanding on how the government works. That, indeed, a good portion of the pork is good, and that social safety nets and the infrastructure build-up programs funded by the good pork should remain in a reformed system of national spending.
There is a real danger that the anti-pork movement would turn into a one-dimensional issue, and strictly a middle-class uprising, against corruption. Which should not be the case. Scrapping the pork and simply putting all money into programmed appropriation that is without guidance on what best could stimulate the struggling rural areas would also be a policy of great folly.
Spending of public money should be strategic, with rough estimates on how each and every spending would help create jobs, boost access to economic opportunities and raise the GDP. There is no such thing as spending for the sake of spending. Traditionally, it has been the senators and congressman that prescribe where the strategic spending would be to get the most bang for every peso spent.
There is also one great fear from a constitutional point of view. To scrap from Congress the power of the purse, which has been the proposal of some, would require the rewriting of the Constitution. This does not require a mere tweaking of the budgeting and spending rules. This would take a redefinition of the powers and responsibilities of the three co-equal branches of government.
And should the body politics redefine the functions of the three branches, a much-feared monster would have to take place. It is called Cha-cha, or Charter change.