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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Americans on the Impact of a Government Default: Everyone Is an Expert

Would default of the U.S. Government be catastrophic to the world economy? In searching for an answer, the discerning inquirer knows to avoid the incredulous reports. One problem is that the American media treats even such sources as just as valid as those that are backed up by expertise. It may even be that enough Americans presumptuously dismiss or discredit expertise out of sheer jealousy and resentment that the media have become accustomed to treating public surveys as equivalent to experts on matters requiring expertise. In Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention, a fear of excess democracy can be found among some of the delegates who feared that expanding popular election in the U.S. Government beyond the U.S. House of Representatives would unbalance that government (i.e., in terms of “the one, the few, and the many” in favor of the many). The fear has been realized as the U.S. Senate turned to popular election and the Electoral College has been captured by the political parties (i.e., electors are forced or pressured to vote in line with the election results). I contend that excess democratization of presumed expertise is related to the expansion and the values (e.g., anti-elitism) behind it.
Regarding anticipations of the impact of a government default, the U.S. Treasury released a report in October 2013 with the following results: "A default would be unprecedented and has the potential to be catastrophic. . . . Credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, U.S. interest rates could skyrocket, the negative spillovers could reverberate around the world, and there might be a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse." This forecast came from experts on the topic at Treasury, whom I suspect made use of the expertise of economists. Hence, the report has high credibility.
At the same time, however, American news networks were reporting that, according to public-survey polls, a default would not be catastrophic. The media was also reporting poll results indicating that a quarter of the Americans believe that Obama was secretly working to on a third term. Doubtless the journalists give no credibility to such claims. In fact, the tone of the reporting suggests that the sheer madness of such a belief is what is really being reported. “Just where is such paranoia coming from?” one journalist asked after reporting the poll. Yet the tone used by journalists reporting that a default would not be catastrophic according to a significant percentage of Americans suggests that opinions—even those biased by political ideological agendas—can be treated as fact or at least as of equal value to the Treasury report or those of economists. The underlying assumption is deeply problematic, yet it has become a staple of the public discourse via the media.
Of the 21% who claim the U.S. dollar would no longer be a reserve currency around the world, how many people are just guessing? How is it that non-finance/economists know the market would not tank?  For my part, I don't know. I'm not an economist. Source: CFA Institute                                      
As an experiment of sorts, try paying extra attention to the claims that people make generally and you will soon come to the realization that many people go beyond their justifiable basis of knowledge or expertise in making clreaims with absolutely no caution that such would even be possible. The proclivity may be inversely related to the level of education, though the know-it-all graduate students and even professors is hardly a rarity. Even just after a few sentences from one, the arrogance-fueled over-reach is easily detected.
Try listening for the media basing findings requiring expertise as valid simply because a majority of Americans polled say so. Even though expertise renders a conclusion more credible (and accurate!), even experts can over-reach on their own territory. For example, an airline pilot who announces from the cockpit just after take-off, “We will arrive in Paris at 7:34am is overshooting. What if touch-down is at 7:35am due to a bit stronger headwind than anticipated? Would the passengers bail or storm the cockpit were the pilot to have said “around 7:30” instead?
Many Americans will leap to sue a professional (e.g. pharmacist, physician, surgeon, lawyer, CPA) who goes beyond his or her expertise such that people are harmed. So it is telling that we take at face value the economic conclusions of a political pundit whose expertise is in journalism or politics. The presumption that a majority of Americans saying X is not a problem can be taken as reason to conclude X really won’t be a problem makes it easy for the self-proclaimed “experts on the content” in the media to beguile an incredulous viewership.