All Those Facts and Knowledge Just Get in the Way

By Sean Carroll | May 6, 2008 11:02 am

As you know, I’m not blogging right now — I’m taking a well-deserved vacation. But if I were blogging, I would most likely be lamenting Hillary Clinton’s decision to take up the side of ignorance in the culture war against expertise.

“There are times that a president will take a position that a broad support of quote-unquote experts agree with. And there are times they will take a position that quote-unquote experts do not agree with.”

That would be Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communication director, speaking about the McCain/Clinton gas tax holiday proposal. The one that is so bad that a gaggle of economists have fired up a blog just to oppose it. But who cares what economists might say?

STEPHANOPOULOS: But can you name an economist who thinks this makes sense?

CLINTON: Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to put my lot in with economists….

Paul Krugman gets this completely wrong. He thinks the gas tax holiday, while obviously a bad idea, is small potatoes in the big scheme of things, and all of the fuss is just an excuse to paint Hillary Clinton as evil. That’s not right. It is small potatoes, policy wise, but the fuss is being kicked up by the Clinton campaign themselves — they’re running a wide variety of ads attacking Obama for opposing the holiday, casting him as elitist and out of touch.

The gas tax holiday doesn’t help “ordinary Americans.” The supply of petroleum during the summer months is essentially fixed, and the oil companies will charge what traffic will bear. If taxes are lower, they will simply charge the same amount and pocket the difference. Clinton’s proposal includes some weird end-around in which the oil companies pay extra windfall profits taxes so that the idea is purportedly revenue-neutral; which means the whole scheme is precisely meaningless, as the same amount of tax is being paid either way.

The tragedy is that Hillary Clinton understands perfectly well that this is a stupid policy. (If you actually wanted to save people $40 over the course of the summer, you would just give them $40.) She is embracing it anyway. Her campaign is pushing it as a purely symbolic gesture, attempting to take the side of “real people” against elitist snobs with all of their “education” and “expertise” and Ivy-League degrees.

A bit later she added: “It’s really odd to me that arguing to give relief to a vast majority of Americans creates this incredible pushback…Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that don’t benefit” the vast majority of the American people.

It’s hard to be more clear than that — elite opinion is the enemy. She knows perfectly well that this is a lie. But it’s politics as usual. I don’t want to dislike Hillary Clinton — she is smart and capable, and would be an enormously better President than John McCain. But treating experts as the enemy is a craven strategy to achieve short-term gains at the cost of substantial long-term harm. It’s sad to see her go down that road, and I hope she reverses course soon.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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