‘The Wonk Gap’

‘THE WONK GAP’…. To overcome reports from the Congressional Budget Office that the health care reform law lowers the deficit, Republicans have been reduced to making stuff up. And yet, they have their defenders.

This week, National Review ran a piece sticking up for the demonstrably false GOP argument. It prompted Jon Chait to note, “One of the unusual and frustrating aspects of the health care debate is the sheer imbalance of people who understand the issue at all from a technical standpoint. Even the elite policy wonks of the right make wildly incorrect claims about the issue.”

Most people are not policy wonks. We really on trusted specialists to translate these details for us. This is true as well of elected officials and their advisors. Part of the extraordinary vitriol of the health care debate stems from the fact that, on the Republican side, even the specialists believe things that are simply patently untrue. As with climate change and supply-side economics, there isn’t even a common reality upon which to base the discussion.

Paul Krugman added that Chait’s concerns about “the wonk gap” should be expanded.

First of all, I don’t think this is unique to health care, or especially unusual. Monetary policy, fiscal policy, you name it, there’s a gap, although not quite as large as on health.

Second, I’m surprised that Chait doesn’t refer to Upton Sinclair’s principle: it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. In fact, in general right-wing think tanks prefer people who genuinely can’t understand the issues — it makes them more reliable.

Doesn’t this apply to both sides? Not equally. There was a time when conservative think tanks employed genuine policy wonks, and when asked to devise a Republican health care plan, they came up with — Obamacare! That is, what passes for leftist policy now is what was considered conservative 15 years ago; to meet the right’s standards of political correctness now, you have to pass into another dimension, a dimension whose boundaries are that of imagination, untrammeled by things like arithmetic or logic.

I realize this is well-covered ground, but the wonk gap remains a constant source of frustration. The scope of the nation’s challenges are enormous, but the debate remains stunted — any policy discussion has to progress from a shared foundation of reality, and at this point, the right isn’t even prepared to accept the basics.

There are, to be sure, conservative think tanks that ostensibly work on a variety of issues, but note that these institutions, when they’re not just rehashing tired and debunked talking points, tend to fire scholars who question the rigid party line.

The issue is not just someone on the left thinking those on the right have the wrong answers. Rather, the issue is the lack of intellectual seriousness on the right, making it impossible to get beyond the questions.