Monday, March 16, 2009

Are You Bored Now?

Image credit: Screenshot of The Daily Show by Cujo359

One of the things that struck me about Jon Stewart's evisceration of Jim Cramer last week is that in a truly educated society, Cramer would have just been a loudmouthed nobody to begin with, at least based on his work for CNBC. As Stewart demonstrated, he was consistently and sometimes spectacularly wrong about companies that he featured on his show. His Twenty-Five Rules of investing, while generally sound advice, are mostly the sort of commonsense stuff that no one with a college education should need to buy a book to understand. Yet his Mad Money books sold like hotcakes. All Stewart had to do was look at Cramer's past pronouncements on specific stocks, and show the videos in which Cramer basically pooh-poohed any indications of trouble when, in fact, the things were days away from tanking.

Prior to this interview, my only impressions of Cramer came from seeing him on cable TV as I was trying to tune into something that wasn't CNBC. I wondered why anyone would pay attention to him. He struck me as an arrogant man who tended to make his point by belittling or shouting down anyone who disagreed with him. Such people seldom turn out to be thoughtful.

It's no irony that Stewart strikes me as one of those people who, when they were kids, never asked "why do I have to learn this stuff? It's boring!" Of course, it's possible that he did, and he was lucky enough to have known someone like my father at the time.

Yes, I once asked that question. In fairness, I was ten years old at the time. I barely knew what it was I was learning, let alone why. Like most kids, I didn't like learning mathematics. One night, my father collected some of his old engineering and science textbooks together, and showed them to me. As I looked at page after page of incomprehensible equations and tables, he tried to explain, as near as I can remember, that mathematics was one of the tools we need to understand the universe. To truly understand the world, you need to understand math.

You also need math skills to communicate that understanding to others, and you'll need language skills. You need to be able to construct coherent sentences and paragraphs, and string them into coherent lines of reasoning or a sensible story. That's why it's important to learn English, or whatever language you speak.

We seem to be a nation full of people who asked that question, and never got a good answer. A close relative of mine was telling me a story about the place she worked recently. Her company was having some sort of trivia contest. One of the questions was "Who delivered the Gettysburg address?" The company she works for is less than 150 miles from Gettysburg. Believe it or not, surrounded by college-educated people, she was the only one who knew.

Why do you need to learn about history, you might ask? It's just a bunch of facts and dates and stuff. I give you George Santayana:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

And, I might add, among the condemned will be those who never learned about it in the first place.

President Lincoln gave the address weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg. That battle, the largest ever fought in North America, changed the course of the Civil War. Had the Union lost it, we might have become two countries, one that tolerated slavery and one that didn't. Our history since then, with perhaps a quarter of our population and resources gone, would have been very different. We would no doubt have been rivals, assuming that we never got back together. The Monroe Doctrine might have ceased to matter. Our current politics would have been almost unrecognizable, with the remaining United States being a progressive society that would have put Europe and Canada to shame, instead of the other way round. Or, we could have been involved in ruinous wars for the next half century.

Slavery, and the racism it caused, continues to haunt our politics today. It is one of the reasons we have a Senate that is not representative of our populations, and it is one of the reasons that the filibuster, a device that often makes our current Senate ineffectual, has continued as an institution for so long.

Anyone wanting to understand our current political situation needs to understand the results and implications of the Civil War. More than any event after the Revolution, it shaped the country that we are now.

Writers could learn lessons from that speech, too. They could learn that, as one of Shakespeare's characters put it, brevity is the soul of wit. That address, so short in comparison to the other speeches given at the dedication of the cemetery that day, was easily the most memorable. It was memorable mostly because it was able to encapsulate the feeling and hopes of that moment in fewer than three hundred words.

Of course, all one needed to remember to answer that trivia question was that Gettysburg was a major battle of the Civil War, the President gave an address at the cemetery a few weeks later, and that Abraham Lincoln was the President at that time. And yet, it was a poser. Clearly, there are a great many people in this country who don't understand one of the most important events in our country's history.

When I wrote this article about the causes of the banking crisis, I used mathematics that I learned in high school. Admittedly, the experience of buying a house gave me an insight into the situation, as did some understanding of economics. Nearly every college graduate should have had the economics knowledge, though, and I think that most people who haven't attended college could figure out the basics. They should, at least. Yet this too, seems beyond most peoples' comprehension in America. I've heard and read so much obvious bullshit being thrown around on this issue that I'd have thought we were discussing quantum mechanics or brain surgery. There's a considerable amount of special knowledge required to understand a national economy, assuming that anyone actually does. Nevertheless, the facts clearly do not support the idea that this crisis was caused by "sub-prime" mortgages forced on banks by the government. All you have to do is look at the numbers. Losses from other forms of real estate loans, including so-called "prime" loans, dwarf those from the sub-prime portion, and there are more losses that have little or nothing to do with real estate.

Wonder why you need to learn civics? What's all that stuff about the branches of govenrment, and who cares what habeas corpus means, anyway? Why should you know what's in the Bill of Rights?

We've been in a slow slide toward dictatorship for the last ten years or so. The Congress, which is supposed to be an independent part of the government that makes the laws and decides on a budget, has simply ceded that authority to the President. The President, in turn, has decided that he doesn't have to be bound by any of those laws and budget things if he doesn't want to. And I'm not just talking about the last President, either. We're a few years away, at most a couple of decades away, from having no freedoms worth mentioning, and it's doubtful that most people will have noticed even then.

All those rights that TV cops are always complaining about aren't there to protect criminals. They're there to protect you from your government. Without those rights, and the rule of law, the government has nearly unlimited resources with which to destroy you or any other person it deems to be a problem. Without representative government, which in our government is Congress, the government will do whatever it feels like, whether or not it's good for the country.

That's why civics is important. If you don't know how your government is supposed to work and why, it will work however it damn well wants to, and it will run right over anyone who gets in its way.

Jim Cramer is certainly a part of the problem, as are the others like him. He justly deserved being humiliated on national TV. His employer, CNBC, must shoulder some of the blame. But in the end, we as citizens bear responsibility as well. When we have had the choice between quality news sources and news shows that are entertaining, we've chosen the latter far too often. When faced with complicated choices, we focus on irrelevance, on trivia, and on nonsense.

People who understand science and statistics wouldn't be afraid of immunization.

People who understand engineering, construction, and controlled demolitions wouldn't believe that someone demolished the WTC when it was full of people, and surrounded by people. People who have the least understanding of logic wouldn't have believed that the Clintons had Vince Foster killed, for that matter.

People who knew as much about biology, chemistry, and physics as I did when I graduated from high school wouldn't believe in creationism.

People who had some idea that people in the rest of the world have their own concerns and problems wouldn't believe that they award Nobel Prizes on the basis of what will piss off our President.

We waste so much time and energy on nonsense that shouldn't even be a consideration that it's no wonder that we don't even pay attention to the stuff that's killing us. If we ever do get around to those issues, people inevitably focus on trying to figure out who sounds the most confident, or who is better dressed, because they have no fucking idea what anyone's talking about. Either that, or the politicians concentrate on speaking in sentence fragments about feelings and "morality", lest anyone be confused.

We can't exist as a nation if the people who vote are as uninformed as this. So I have some advice for all you folks who are wondering how it came to be that guys like Jim Cramer got away with what they did for so long - get a clue. Cramer got away with it, as has the news business in general, because you, collectively at least, were too damn ignorant to figure him out, and because you wanted to be entertained more than you wanted to be informed. The modern world isn't a place for ignoramuses.

And you kids, when you wonder why you have to learn all that seemingly meaningless and difficult stuff, learn it. It's important. You'll find out why later. Plus, you'll be less ignorant and foolish than your parents and grandparents. That alone should make it worth the effort.


Dana Hunter said...

Masterful. Must highlight this tomorrow night - don't let me forget.

And may I be forgiven for feeling all smug that I knew who delivered the Gettysburg Address?

Cujo359 said...

Thank you. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, no, you may not feel smug. You should know that one.

You can feel smug if you knew who the commanding Union general was at the battle.

george.w said...

Outstanding! If my kids were still little I would be reading this to them. Instead I will send it to parents of young children.

Please forgive me if I've told you this one before. My kids tell me I repeat myself:

In a donut shop on December 7, the older patrons were discussing Pearl Harbor Day with the owner.

"Wait a minute!," asked the teeny-bopper employee; "We dropped a bomb on Japan?!"

I was there, I heard it, but I couldn't believe it.

Cujo359 said...

Hi, goerge.w,

No, I hadn't heard that one before, but I'm not surprised. It seems like much of what we know as a culture these days is barely more than the time that one generation reaches adulthood. Everything that happened more than thirty years ago - the world wars, Vietnam, Watergate - is ancient history, and really boring.

Emily S. said...

I hope this lets me comment...

Sorry I didn't get around to this way earlier. The very things you were mentioning in this post were keeping me busy.

Having come right out of the public education system, and having to put up with bullshit like the PSSAs, sometimes I'm surprised my classmates and I have any semblance of knowledge. So as much as I like to complain about General Ed classes, I am glad to have them.

And Stewart verbally beating Cramer was wonderful.

Cujo359 said...

Hi Emily S.

Comments are nearly always allowed here. After a time, they are moderated, but we haven't quite reached the limit yet.

PSSA = Pennsylvania System of School Assessment ?

These standardized tests strike me as a good idea gone wrong. There's a minimum level of proficiency that everyone should have who graduates from high school. In the olden days (before the year 2000) there really wasn't a way of compelling schools to teach the things people needed to know.

With the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), that changed. Now standardized tests are used to evaluate whether schools continue to get federal funding. Ironically, those schools that can't make the grade are the ones that receive no funding. Often, they are the ones most in need. My guess is that the tests are dumbed down as a result.

What's worse, schools now tend to teach to the level of the tests, to make sure that enough students will pass.

Taking a look at the math requirements (PDF) for Grade 11 from the PSSAs, this bit jumped out at me. It's the "Advanced" requirement for statistics and probabilities:
E. evaluates data representations in terms of validity and target audience; determines probability in complex problems; makes connections between data sets and other branches of mathematics; extrapolates data to make valid predictions.
[end quote]
While some of this might be beyond many people, it's actually a minimal level of understanding needed to evaluate many of the things that we're expected to learn about and then make informed judgments on. My reference to anti-vaccine hysteria is a case in point. People focus on scare stories of supposed side effects of vaccines, when in many cases there is no valid proof that there is a side effect. What's more, many side effects are extremely rare - much more rare than the maladies they're trying to cure - and may be related to specific conditions in patients.

Yet everything you need to know to avoid making the wrong judgment there is math I learned before I left high school, together with what I'd judge to be minimal critical thinking skills.

zerogirl said...

Am I allowed to feel smug about knowing not only who delivered the Gettysburg address, but that Lincoln thought he'd bombed? I don't know who was the commanding Union general, since the only names I can remember are Lee and McClellan, and I can only remember McClellan because he was a bit of an idiot - "Er, I can't attack, 'cuz my horses are tired" "Er, those logs look like cannons")

However, I am from Iceland, so I'm partly excused by the fact that it's not exactly required material here (sadly, because I find it pretty interesting, despite my terrible memory for names).

Cujo359 said...

Actually, you can feel smug just for knowing who delivered it. You're way ahead of most Americans, it would appear. I've read and heard various things about Lincoln's opinion of the address, including that he just wanted to keep it short, because the previous speaker was known for being long winded. I suspect the truth was the audience didn't expect it to be so concise.

Sometimes, genius can only be recognized in retrospect, and Lincoln seems more brilliant now than he was considered at the time. Here's an example of the sort of political cartoons he was featured in during his Presidency.

Maybe that's a lesson that any society could draw from Lincoln's life. It's certainly one we would do well to pay attention to here.

Thank you for commenting.

Cujo359 said...

Interesting take on McClellan, BTW zerogirl. Actually, I think he was a very smart man, but he had two flaws as a general.

The first flaw was that he was rather vain. He never took Lincoln seriously, for instance. He ran against him for President, in fact. Lincoln was comparatively plain, having come from a frontier state. As a result McClellan underestimated him.

The second flaw was that he wasn't willing to take risks with his army. In a normal profession, that would be considered a good thing. In a general, however, it's a drawback. Battles are always risks. Lee and Grant understood that, and I think it was a big reason why they were good field commanders and McClellan wasn't. He was good at training armies and dealing with their logistics, but war itself seems to have been a thing he wasn't cut out for.