What do you do with dumb debates?

Over the weekend Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell wrote a Washington Post op-ed suggesting that for the good of the country and the Democratic Party, Barack Obama should announce he won't seek re-election in 2012. My first response was that this was the dumbest op-ed I'd read in a decade, but upon further reflection... it's just the second-dumbest (I'd forgotten about this one). Even Barack Obama's harshest critics thought this was a foolhardy idea.

Slate's David Weigel doesn't go that far, merely labeling it "the worst column of the year." That said, he points out that regardless of its stupidity, a lot of people are talking about it. This suggests a serious flaw in the idea ecosystem:

A typical Post column may get a few hundred comments, a few hundred recommendations on Facebook. George Will's bitter I-told-you-so about the Chevy Volt, for example, has inspired around 700 "likes" on Facebook. Caddell and Schoen have inspired almost 5,000 "likes" and almost 2,000 comments (and counting), in what has become the paper's most-read piece of the day. Undoubtedly they've inspired some smaller number of TV producers to book "One and Done" segments, even though no one buys the Schoen/Caddell argument that Obama could achieve more by declaring himself a lame duck....

This is the paradox of the opinion industry: If it sounds stupid, it leads. If it's counterintuitive, it's surely because the columnist has found a fresh angle on a mundane problem, and this angle will produce insights. Data is unexciting, especially if it's the same data everyone else has. Discussions of fantasy scenarios that could prove your theories right? Exciting!

This is just as much of a problem in international politics as domestic politics. If there's a crisis somewhere, inevitably someone will suggest the use of force even if it's wildly inappropriate, and someone else will suggest that the United States just withdraw its influence completely and immediately, even if it's wildly impractical. If it's dumb, it goes on Page One! [Um....op-ed pages are in the back of newspapers, and everyone reads them online now anyway--ed. Hey, you get your fact-based arguments away from my imperfect rhyming scheme!]  I mean, in talking about how stupid Schoen and Caddell's argument is, I'm calling attention to Schoen and Caddell's argument. 

This was less of a problem in the bad old days, when powerful gatekeepers to the opinion industry weeded out the non-mainstream viewpoints. Of course, the best and the brightest of the mainstream had some galactically stupid ideas too. I'm not suggesting we return to that world -- it's neither possible nor desirable.

When it comes to policy debates I'm always on the side of John Stuart Mill -- the best way to deal with stupid arguments is to counter them with better arguments in the public sphere. That said, there's a serious cost to this philosophy in a world in which the stupid ideas can command the policy agenda. The opportunity cost to the inordinate amount of time that is spent swatting away these ideas is that less time is spent debating policies and ideas that have a real chance of being enacted. Furthermore, sometimes the dumbass idea just goes into hibernation among a few die-hard believers until a propitious moment arises for its zombie revival.

In the end, I think Mill still carries the day. Still, every once in a while, it sure would be nice not to have to waste the energy and the attention on stupid policy ideas.


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