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Deceit Culture

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I was at a little social gathering, speaking with a young man who’s an undergraduate student in math. He said he planned to pursue the subject at the graduate level.

That’s fine, I told him. However, you should be aware that it will not be possible to communicate with normal people any more. In any serious discussion of ideas, you will be tempted regularly to yell, “Shut up. Shut up. Just shut up! Shut up and listen to me!

The young man gave me a nervous smile and walked off, without comment, to sit quietly beside his grandmother and some other elderly ladies.

Of course, what’s special about math education is that it provides a concentrated form of training in logical reasoning. And I realize it’s not logical to yell “Shut up and listen !” at people. (They won’t comply.) But the temptation is there. Because people are just so damned illogical. It’s exasperating. They don’t make the most instinctive, totally elementary connections. And frankly my dears, they really don’t want to.

Illogic perpetuates itself. Although it’s a root cause of the biggest problems in the world, the lack of logical thinking — basic reasoning — makes people ignore root causes. Instead, do-gooders devote their energies to battling its ubiquitous effects: the urgent need to exit from a war that allows no exit, political and corporate corruption, the disappearance of old-age pensions, the overmedication of children, poor educational results, obesity, widening depravity and malaise.

I don’t think it’s even occurred to many people that there’s any connection between logic — something to do with mental stuff — and anything that happens in the concrete, physical world. Sixty years ago, the connection was dramatized when arcane hieroglyphics written on a blackboard by a nutty old guy with wild white hair produced an atomic explosion. But few such demonstrations have gotten much publicity recently. Of course, technology marches on, but that’s seen as something coming out of black-box corporate R&D departments, not the live thinking processes of individuals.

And certainly it occurs to few of us that logic has anything to do with politics, or with the way society is or should be run.

The result is: an urgent need to exit from a war that allows no exit, political and corporate corruption, the disappearance of old-age pensions, the over-medication of children, poor educational results, obesity, widening depravity and malaise.

Were there a little logic, these problems would be nonexistent in America. Everyone would be far better off materially and spiritually. There would be opportunity for all. No child would be left behind. And the nation would be respected.

The situation today, of course, is the opposite. The US is the object of near-universal contempt and loathing. More remarkably, it’s helping bring the ideal of democracy itself, which it represents, into disrepute. How impressive is this democracy thing when the elite can steer the nation whichever way it wants — to the point of initiating a war in defiance of the public interest? But the war is only the most flagrant item in an endless panorama of violations of the public interest. Meanwhile, the great non-democracy, China, continues its march to world dominance, while exploiting its intrinsic advantages in image management.

Here I am, speaking of “public interest” as if that were generally understood to be the very point of democratic government. It’s not, so addled by illogic are we. The following almost laughable piece of stupidity nicely illustrates the self-obsessed, local, gimme, gimme conception many voters have of democracy:

To the Editor:

Re ”Tax Panel Says Popular Breaks Should Be Cut” (front page, Oct. 12):

I invested a great deal of money to buy an apartment in Brooklyn last year. One of the principal reasons I was able to do so was that my mortgage interest deduction made the purchase more comparable to my previous cost for renting.

If any elected official tries to weaken the benefit of the mortgage interest deduction, he should be prepared to reap the whirlwind at the ballot box from furious voters.

Max Robins
Brooklyn

[Letter to editor published in New York Times, October 19, 2005.]

Were there so much as a scintilla of logic in the way our government was expected to work, everything would be so radically different it would be unrecognizable. Were we a logical citizenry, living in that different world, this one would make us laugh and laugh — if someone could actually conjure it up for reflection. Our New York Times would be a madcap comedian’s febrile inventions. This item, for example:

Penlac Nail Lacquer rarely cures the nail fungus it is designed to treat, yet it costs $130 a thimbleful. As a result, more than 20 state Medicaid programs and dozens of private health insurers require doctors to get advance permission to prescribe it. But not New York Medicaid, which spent $12 million on the drug last year, more than eight times as much as any other state.

New York spent $74 million last year, far more than any other state, on Nexium, the “new Purple Pill” for heartburn. The drug is virtually identical to Prilosec, available at one-sixth the cost over the counter, and so at least 20 state Medicaid programs and many private health insurance companies severely restrict its use. Only now, two years after other states began imposing limits on Nexium, has New York moved to restrict it.

And those amounts are pocket change compared with the $348 million or more that New York could have saved if it were as aggressive as a state like Michigan in setting the prices it pays pharmacies for the drugs they dispense. New York frequently pays many times more for drugs than Medicaid programs in other states.

For years, New York Medicaid, the state’s health care program for the poor, has been an open-air bazaar for drug companies and their wares. Prescriptions that are severely restricted in many states are often dispensed freely here, and at higher prices, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

As a result, the state program spends more on drugs for each Medicaid recipient than any other state but West Virginia, according to federal statistics. While other states have tried to fight soaring drug costs, New York lacks even the most basic controls that dozens of other states and private health insurers have used.

“They call it the gold card,” said William Scheer, president of the New York City Pharmacists Society and a pharmacy owner, referring to the state health care program. “You get anything you want with it.”

[Excerpted from “Drug Costs Run Free Under New York Medicaid,” New York Times, November 23, 2005.]

The article goes on to note — who would have guessed it? — the “years of industry lobbying in Albany”:

The nation’s pharmaceutical companies have spent millions persuading state lawmakers not to adopt the kinds of controls that other states began instituting more than a decade ago. And pharmacist organizations have pressured the state program to pay pharmacies more than most other states for the drugs themselves.

In a logical world, any politician involved in this theft of public money — and yes, theft in that wildly different world would be called “theft” — any politician involved would be finished — utterly terminated — in politics.

It wouldn’t matter that he’s done a lot of good otherwise; that he played a small role; that everyone was doing it. People would understand there’s a principle involved: Don’t steal from the people. It’s black and white. If you do it once — hasta la vista.

Black and white. There’s another aspect of logic to which we’re oblivious. We hear the charge, then the responding evasion, and then … Well, at that point it has become “complicated.” And we think of Brad Pitt’s next girlfriend.

Our prominent liars are brazen. They know that demeanor is everything, that logic has nothing to do with it. Folks can’t distinguish an airtight argument from rap lyrics.

Demeanor. To think that’s how we judge an argument in the modern age! To think our leaders are still selected according to magnetism, the ability to mesmerize, the gift of the gab, theatrics! Our leaders in the modern age are the very same individuals who’d be leaders in a pre-literacy society. And they’re the same individuals who would be leaders in a pre-language society of grunts and screeches.

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About urielw

  • Bliffle

    Uhhh, actually, your scorn is illogical:

    “…It’s not, so addled by illogic are we. The following almost laughable piece of stupidity nicely illustrates the self-obsessed, local, gimme, gimme conception many voters have of democracy:

    To the Editor:

    Re ”Tax Panel Says Popular Breaks Should Be Cut” (front page, Oct. 12):

    I invested a great deal of money to buy an apartment in Brooklyn last year. One of the principal reasons I was able to do so was that my mortgage interest deduction made the purchase more comparable to my previous cost for renting.

    If any elected official tries to weaken the benefit of the mortgage interest deduction, he should be prepared to reap the whirlwind at the ballot box from furious voters.

    Max Robins
    Brooklyn

    [Letter to editor published in New York Times, October 19, 2005.]”

    Your emotional illogical outburst misses the point: the guy bought the place on the presumption that he would get the tax deduction. In fact, the whole transaction was premised on the tax deduction. The price of the flat would needs be have been lower had there not been the tax deduction. The writers point is that REMOVING the deduction at this point would be a renege, indeed, a betrayal. Such reneges and betrayals make anyones economic planning pointless and lead to anarchy.

    Is it your point that such deductions are INTRINSICALLY unfair? If so, then we must look at ALL deductions permitted to all taxpayers, whereupon we discover that the greatest and most egregious deductions are permitted to our corporate businesses (to the tune of $170billion per year according to the Senate/House Joint Tax Committee) and corp tax deductions are so generous that us modern executives no longer strive for ‘profits’ (except when all other strategies fail to raise stock caps), but rather to “break even at ever higher levels” as a colleague puts it. And it’s been that way for at least 20 years (I have to chuckle at innocents who state that businesses are operated to “turn a profit”, when they are actually run to increase the caps and perks of the owners and officers).

  • http://urielw.com Uriel

    Please, no need to attack me like this to make your point. My piece is not an “emotional illogical outburst.”

    However, let me confess: I didn’t think as carefully as I might have about the letter writer’s point, and I didn’t really dwell on what you’ve pointed out: He made a big financial move based on planning which he’d premised on old tax law, and a change in that law would screw his planning — and him.

    And perhaps I should have been a bit more sympathetic.

    But if a change in law would be an act of reneging or a betrayal, then I’m not aware of it, and he certainly hasn’t pointed it out. Was a promise made to preserve the tax deduction?

    If not, why should special interests (his and others in his circumstances) trump the broad public interest?

    The letter writer’s folly, which I was laughing at, was to be utterly oblivious of the general public interest — indeed, to seem unaware that it’s even a consideration. In judging law reform, he can think only of his own personal circumstances. And he advances no argument other than his personal hardship, even when publicly opposing the reform.

    Yes, as you say, the tax code is full of other unfair provisions. And you seem well aware of how it’s distorted economic activity. A bad tax code is a drag on the economy, a cause of waste, inefficiency, and pointless impoverishment.

    Ask yourself why it’s tolerated by Americans.

    The answer: illogic.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    There is no ‘general public interest’, there is only the welfare and interests of individuals. In a free society each individual has to look out for and protect their interests and they shouldn’t have to prrotect them from government. The government certainly shouldn’t be in the business of mortgage deductions, but it shouldn’t be taking them away either. And if that individual is harmed, when he protests he’s speaking out for thousands of others in the same situation who face the same threat. Bad laws are bad laws fo everyone, either now or later.

    Dave

  • http://urielw.com Uriel

    “There is no ‘general public interest'”

    Weird point of view.

  • G. Oren

    Dave – you surprise me – I know you are coming from the libertarian philosophy – but don’t you think Uriel has a point. The illogic of our current politics is brazen, and we don’t have to talk about Iraq, and the pitch is at the level of third grade thinking. Read the correspondence of Adams and Jefferson, or read the speeches of Calhoun and Webster, read the Lincoln v Douglas debates, hell, read the Federalist Papers – which were serial newspaper articles – the level of thinking, rhetoric, and patience to hear logical argument is pathetic.

  • Baronius

    The moment I turned pessimistic: before Gore’s 2000 Convention speech, the press was talking about how Gore needed to show his independence from Clinton. At the podium, Gore said, and I quote, “I am my own man.” Afterwards, there was a man-on-the-street interview segment on my local news. When they asked one man what he thought of Gore’s speech, he said, “Al Gore really showed that he’s his own man.”

    I agree with much of this article. I do believe, however, that some of what looks like bad thinking can be different priorities. Think of the gun debate in this country. Sure, there’s some terrible illogic in it: the juries going after “big gun manufacturing”, the congressional debates about how many rounds per minute are constitutional. But there are also debates about different visions of society. Very different visions, well articulated, and more than two of them.

    One observation about the press, then I’ll shut up. I think the media try to appear neutral. (Whether they are is a different subject.) Say a congressman has a breakdown and says that aliens are inside his brain. The news story would have the original quote, one pro-alien-brain expert, one anti-alien-brain expert, and a “we’ll wait and see” closing sentence. The press is too afraid (or too lazy or too dumb) to declare that something is WRONG. And that can’t help the cause of logic in a democracy.

  • ivy

    I don’t think we should have articles by writers like Mr.Wittenberg, who harassed female students when he was teaching in China. He is questionable in his own reputation.

  • Uriel

    Ivy’s source for this allegation, in case folks are wondering, is nothing other than my own Inside China’s Diplomacy School .

  • gonzo marx

    Dave sez…
    *There is no ‘general public interest’*

    ummm…”promote the general welfare, provide for the common defense”

    that sound vaguely familiar?

    Excelsior!

  • z

    uriel has passed away

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    z said: Uriel has passed away

    I thought he was making a joke, but the homepage of the website he links to in post #8 confirms this.

    He wrote 18 articles for Blogcritics, the most recently on Feb. 2nd

    Wow. Freinds of Uriel, sorry to hear this. His was a unique voice here.