Welcome

August 24, 2012

Welcome to Beneath the Surface, a blog devoted to socioeconomic issues. I am writing this in the middle of a presidential election campaign, a time when public discourse can get pretty disconnected from social reality. Political speeches and ads keep repeating assertions that fact-checkers have already discredited. Each side plays up the social benefits of its proposals and avoids talking about the social costs. Each side presents itself as the champion of the middle class and the protector of seniors, two groups who vote a lot. The media spend much of their time dutifully reporting the charges and counter-charges of political adversaries, only occasionally evaluating the competing claims or providing essential background information.  The result is a largely confused and under-informed electorate.

The debates over the Obama administration’s two main pieces of legislation, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the 2010 Affordable Care Act, have been less than inspiring examples of public discourse in a democracy. The Recovery Act got branded as “wasteful spending” and “failed stimulus” long before the evidence was in about its actual impact on jobs. Arguments over the Affordable Care Act became focused on the relatively small number of Americans who can afford insurance but don’t want to be required to buy it, not the much larger number who want it but can’t afford it. In both cases, far more Americans could repeat what partisans were saying about the bills than could describe what was actually in the legislation.

What I find strange about this situation is that we live in the most information-rich society in history. Is it too much to ask that the media disseminate the most accurate and relevant information on social issues, and that citizens use that information to engage in informed discussions of them? Well maybe it is. Sociologists know a number of reasons why that doesn’t happen more often: The media find it more profitable to entertain than to inform; people have strong group loyalties and only care about the arguments on their own side of an issue; powerful special interests spread misinformation about their true agendas; etc. Nevertheless, some people—especially those who are aware of such dangers—would like to be better informed, and are often willing to reserve judgment on an issue until they are. This site is for us.