Trust, again

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.


3 thoughts on “Trust, again

  1. The indignation of the tax payers is justified since the sub-prime crisis is due to the unwillingness or inability of the federal government to regulate the credit market and in the end it is they who are paying for the mistakes of others, but I do not see why either one of the factions may be single minded. My interpretation is that they are looking from two/three different point of view.
    The expert is looking at the short term. In the short term, either you have poured the big money into the system or the system was likely to crumble.
    The tax payer is looking at the long term. In the longer term, the government and its experts have failed to regulate the credit market and should be made liable for this (as well as the bank managers). Moreover, it is important to exert high political pressure so that it won’t happen again and therefore force the government to regulate the sytem. Here I see no contradiction between the goals of most of the experts who are clearly saying that we should regulate more and the public of tax-payers.
    The government does not want to look at the longer term because he knows it has failed miserably and does not want anyone to say it.
    So I do not see this as a conflict between experts and public but rather between certain experts who have the same economic and political interests than the government/elite and the public and other experts who are free from these (or have other interests). In this case as in most politicy issues, I do not see the expert as one voice but as fragmented voices and the fact that one voice is emerging as the main one is due to a political process rather than to a scientific one: expertise is not science.
    Also, maybe it is the USA, but in France the TV (it is even more true of the newspapers) provides a very balanced account, if not sympathetic to the taxpayers. It reinforces me with the idea that the coverage of expert’s opinion is linked to political issues, you can only hear from the expert that what is relayed by the media.

  2. “My interpretation is that they are looking from two/three different point of view.” – I thought that was my interpretation. I think your interpretation is a conflict of interests. What I see the media calling “shortsightedness of taxpayers” you call a long run interest. What I see as the “expert ” outlook you call a short run interest. Whether a frame of interests fits well or not is a matter of ethnographic study. I am more curious to see if an ethnography of identity and culture – creation of the categories of taxpayer, working class, expert, government, wall street – can explain the differences in perception. The interest story gives us comfort in that all are rational but in different approaches. My intuition is that emotion on par with reason matters.

    We agree when you say expertise is not science. Hence, economic experts need not be or need not relate closely to economics. Why you think you should lecture this to me I know not. Expertise is a particular form of social intervention of a particular class of scientists, contingent to culture, media, politics, economy, social conflict. That is why history matters. Because history gets at this record. And history of economics as practiced now, doesn’t even get close. It denies the question.

  3. It seems that there is a production possibilities frontier. Two bads recast as goods — avoiding instability and avoiding feedback distortions. Even Keynes would agree that in the long-run the economy will straighten itself out (if the feedback mechanism is allowed to work). Keynes paraphrases Walras’s lake analogy, the temporary distortions matter to the people riding a boat at sea. The role of managing instability is no-doubt compelling.
    I would add to this that we do have to worry about Cantillon effects. I am not going to go so far as to defend class critiques, but it seems that they are built on theoretical and empirical regularity. The government chooses where to inject the liquidity.
    At the end of the day governments exist to do SOMETHING. The captain of the Titanic assumed the correct posture and resigned himself to his fate as he oversaw the life-boats being lowered. A well organized and minimally invasive action in the midst of the current storm is far more preferable with respect to panic. Maybe this is why they locked the doors to the steerage compartments. This does not mean that one could not use a class critique to suggest that dooming the poor and saving the rich is repugnant.
    It does mean that some order imposed on chaos is beneficial. The standard defense of intervention is liquidity to stem contagion. What I think is intuitive is that there is a trade-off which makes intervention an economic choice. It is important to then determine the relative margin of choice to clarify the decision. The unconstrained action of government, I feel, rightly inspires taxpayer disdain. (HS: “economics puts constraints on our various utopias”)
    I would not reject your role of the experts and the public, but I only suggest another explanation for where the contempt comes from. I would hope that instead of class warfare, there is an intuitive understanding of feedback distortions. Bailing out gamblers when they loose and leaving them alone when they win distorts feedback. An optimistic view is that the “taxpayers” are sensing the decision taking place on the wrong margin. These models of class-warfare could be an implict model expresing contempt for intervention because of Cantillon effects.

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