Democracy in the Age of Ignorance

March 11, 2018

Democracy in the Age of Ignorance

democracy ignorance

Promise Keeper

President Donald Trump sells himself as a promise keeper. From 36,000 feet, one constant in his first year-plus as POTUS has been his “I’m keeping my promises” statements.

Much has been written about those promises, kept and broken. We’re passing on that here, except to note that while the record probably looks okay if we compare Mr. Trump to his predecessors, it sucks if we’re judging his presidency by his primary measure: keeping promises. (No one should measure promises quantitatively, for they’re not all equal.)

Does keeping promises matter? “Depends” should be the answer. And in the Age of Ignorance, depends should end up “no” almost always.

North Korea

Most recently—and impulsively—Mr. Trump decided to meet with Kim Jong Un aka little rocket man. Promise kept? Broken? Who knows.

Routinely, for decades, meetings between heads of state follow months and even years’ worth of background work and preparation. When the principals meet the deal has generally been struck.

Not so much in the Age of Ignorance. Mr. Trump’s confidence in himself knows no bounds. He saw a garbage dump of a country and a planet when he arrived on January 20, 2017 and believes the systems and protocols in place for decades account for the disaster he thinks he inherited.

Well. He’s certainly got the bombastic spoiled rich kid thing working for him. Confidence in his own abilities? Based on what? And post hoc ergo proper hoc: traditional diplomacy does not represent the reason for the failure to make a deal with North Korea which would have suited the United States of America. Oh, and anyone with the temerity to “write” The Art of the Deal ought to know any successful negotiation requires an environment in which the parties can walk away from the table. Here? When the principals meet, without the amount of staff work a situation like this one requires, what happens when they don’t agree?*


Mr. Trump’s imposition of tariffs—25 and 10% for all nations on steel and aluminum, respectively—reflects so much ignorance. First, there was the rollout. Evident preparation? Nope. Thought? Nothing to see here. Paperwork? So Obama!

Second, the substantive decision reflects a basic lack of appreciation for the difference between intermediate goods and final goods. Tariffs on intermediate goods raise prices for domestic manufacturers of final goods which depend on the intermediate goods.

Finally, there’s the “all nations” thing. Because Mr. Trump’s rhetoric lacks any nuance at all, there must be tariffs on all countries … until there aren’t. We’re exempting Australia, Canada, and Mexico, so far. Imagine, for just a nanosecond, what might have happened if we had brought those countries and others into the tent to go after China—the steel culprit, seemingly—together. We’d have the same tariff map, but we’d have gotten something in return for not placing tariffs on their intermediate goods.

Ignorance and Democracy

Mr. Trump’s actions make his base happy. And if your base thinks nuance is a bad word you keep it simple. But here’s the thing: maybe the base lacks adequate information.

Surveys tell us many Americans believe between 25 and 33% of federal expenditures get spent on foreign aid. Many believe foreign aid expenditures should stay the same or be cut.

In fact, foreign aid accounts for about 1% of the annual federal budget. So, do we cut the 1% because Americans—lacking facts—think we spend too much? Or do we increase aid, so that it matches what Americans think we ought to be spending?

Mr. Trump’s ignorance knows no limits, and he has steadfastly refused to hire enough people to serve us. (That may or may not be a good thing, given many of hires.) But we, collectively, lack a solid knowledge base, too. In a representative democracy, however, we pay for others to know that stuff for us, so that we can set a course and go about our daily life. Unfortunately, in the Age of Ignorance, democracy fails us.

*Nuclear mike drop?

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