Psychologists tell us that when people have an idea firmly fixed in their heads, it is very difficult for us to accept contrary information. In fact, contrary information may only cement that idea more firmly. Here is a possible example of that phenomenon in this clip of a Fox focus group (all Republicans) reacting to the South Carolina Republican presidential debate this past Thursday, attended by Tim Pawlenty, and several other lesser-known candidates. Since the media always seem to focus on the horse race aspects of campaigns, the big news was the surprisingly strong showing for businessman Herman Cain, who still has to be judged a long shot candidate.
What I found interesting, however, was watching the clip that supposedly scored the most favorable audience reaction of anything said during the entire debate. It was Herman Cain saying that government doesn't create jobs; only the private sector creates jobs. And that the problem with government is that its regulations tie the hands of business and interfere with their ability to drive economic growth. Let's first consider how insulting this remark is to public sector employees. Now I would not denigrate the work of the people flipping pizzas in Cain's stores (I love pizza!), but at the same time I wouldn't rate that job as more important than that of a teacher or fire fighter or astronaut or soldier.
But more importantly, instead of dials moving upward so enthusiastically, shouldn't there have been at least a few raised eyebrows at the suggestion that the government has been inhibiting private sector growth? One wonders where these focus group members were in 2007 and 2008, when the private sector suffered its most spectacular failure since 1929. After about 30 years of increasingly lax regulation, demonization of government, and lowered taxes, precisely the remedies these people still believe in, the private sector wasn't exactly creating jobs; it was shedding jobs as fast as could be imagined. And the precipitating cause of that market failure was the banking industry's reckless financing of unsustainable debt to purchase homes that people could not afford, especially after the bubble inevitably burst. Most economists would agree that it was a lack of regulation, and not excessive government interference with private business, that caused the 2008 crash.
That information simply does not compute with people who have so strongly absorbed the message that government is the enemy. Even after they have watched with their own eyes as the government rescued the banking industry, and the automobile industry, and much of the insurance industry, they still go on believing that government is the enemy, instead of the savior of the economy. In fact, the government's rescue of a failed private economy has probably only fed the resentment of this group of voters. The only thing that seems to fuel this group of voters' rage more than the perceived failure of the Obama administration's economic policies, is the perceived success of those policies.
If people continue to turn their meters all the way up in response to this tired, and false, argument that the private sector is always contributing positively to the economy, while government is always harming the economy, even after the experience of the last couple of years, there is probably nothing anyone can say to change these voters' minds. Change can only come slowly, with the gradual acceptance of a new paradigm that recognizes that business is not always right, and government is not always wrong.
(Humphrey Bogart in the film The Caine Mutiny)