Angry “taxpayers” have written in dismay to CNN, its blogs and emails. Today on CNN international the often disregarded spam became a news item, with the Presidential candidates jumping on the train of indignation. The news media has been quick to call it populist. The political coloring is an easy fix to give meaning to the debate. To me this is one media controversy that could be studied as a dispute over expertise and its place in society.
From the standpoint of respectable leadership and expertise, the “taxpayers” are myopic in single minded and suicidal self-interest. They are blind to the full consequences of a meltdown with its potential impact on their jobs and finances. Economics (and business experience) shows that all branches of the economy are interdependent and there is no class conflict between hard working “taxpayers” and Mr. Moneybags. How to explain this cognitive handicap? One, “taxpayers” should have been better instructed in the workings of the economy, either with proper high school economics or a better media. Second, “taxpayers” are hostage to electoral games and are merely parroting the Presidential campaigns, busy elbowing for political space and poised outrage. Both explanations conclude that there is too much politics out there and too little science.
I suggest another possibility. Think of Brian Wynne’s famous article on the public uptake of science. Sheep farmers in Cumbria did not refuse the assurances of the expert panels over ground radiation because they did not understand the science. They refused to trust because they had a record of interactions with those scientists, and similar others, who had seemingly lied to them. They refused to trust because the scientists had refused to accept Sheep Farmers’ own expertise on the geography of Cumbria, its weather and its relationship with the Sellafield Nuclear Plant.
I invert the terms. It is the government and the media that are taking a single minded view of the problem. They do not consider that there may be a record of past interactions and relationships of (dis)trust between the public and its government, between the consumers and the providers of financial services, even a mass culture representation of Wall Street that places it against middle America. This record may explain, better than failing cognition, why agreement and understanding is illusive.