On Media, Healthcare, Economics, Jobs, Dangers of Human Intelligence, Part I
The first half of my interview with world-renowned political activist, linguist, cognitive scientist, philosopher author, MIT Professor emeritus Noam Chomsky.
Thanks to Don Caldarazzo for help editing the transcript.
And here's the link to the audio podcast: Exclusive: Rob Kall Interviews Noam Chomsky: America in Decline, US Operating Procedures for Blocking Democracy
Rob: "Station ID (WNJC 1360 AM, the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show)" My guest tonight is one I'm very excited to have back - he's a world renowned political activist, linguist, cognitive scientist, philosopher, author; he's MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky. Welcome to the show!
Noam: Good to be with you.
Rob: Now, we met earlier this month in Princeton. You were speaking with Amy Goodman at the Coalition for Peace event, and I wanted to start out asking you about one thing you talked about. You compared objectivity versus reality. Would you go into that a bit?
Noam: Well, I was using the term "objectivity" with a touch of irony. There is a concept of objectivity that's taught in journalism schools and that editors and journalists subscribe to, and they say so. Objectivity means "reporting accurately what is going on inside the beltway, within power circles." If you report that accurately, then you are objective. If you discuss it, or critically analyze it, that is subjective. If you talk about things that aren't discussed within the beltway, that's biased and subjective. In fact, it came up pretty recently. There was a little item -- do you know the group called Fairness and Accuracy in Media, FAIR? They have a journal called Extra, which is a journal of critical media analysis. That had an interesting little clip there, where they quoted the managing editor of (I figure in) one of the main journals - either the Washington Post or the New York Times - who was criticizing a writer or reporter, because the writer had reported this famous speech of Paul Ryan's, which was full of the most outrageous fabrications. And she commented on the fabrications and corrected them, and his point was that no that's not what you're supposed to do. You're just supposed to report it "objectively." And then, they also quoted one of the main reporters for the New York Times, Ethan Brenner, who agreed and said, "Yeah, that's our job: to be 'objective.'" So: don't critically analyze what is said; that's for columnists, and don't report things that aren't discussed. And there's plenty that isn't discussed, because it's outside the accepted framework of dominant doctrines. So that's the tactic of "objectivity." It's a mode of -- I wouldn't say censorship - but of molding the world, so that it looks the way it's supposed to from the perspective of the powerful. The reality is what's actually happening out there, and objectivity and reality can be quite different.
Rob: And that really brings us to this whole challenge of the state of the media today. What's your take on where the media is now, and where it could be?
Noam: Well, there's plenty to criticize about the media, but my own view is they are probably better than they were forty or fifty years ago in this regard. The media, like the rest of the country, were influenced by the activism of the 1960s, which had quite a significant role in just civilizing the country on lots of issues. That's had a -- first of all lots of people in the media now, say reporters and others, that have lived through those experiences - but it just also just generally changed the tenor of conversations of things. Now, there's been a big regression and a reaction against it, but nevertheless it made significant and lasting changes, and that means that things are discussed now that were kind of off the spectrum years ago. So, in some respects, I think the media have actually improved, but the major issues remain. One of them is what we just were discussing: there is a strong tendency, in fact an overwhelming one (even an ideology) about keeping to the kinds of things that are discussed and debated within systems of power, and marginalizing things that are outside. That's very significant, in fact both in domestic and international politics. So take domestic affairs; if you've read this morning's newspaper, the lead story in the New York Times about how difficult it's going to cut entitlements, which has to be done to reduce the deficit, because people are just resisting it. Well, you know, there are things to be said about that, which aren't discussed within the beltway. For one thing, for quite a long time and by large margins, the general population - it's pretty much across the board, all the way over to Tea Party people - think that the biggest problem that we face is a lack of jobs, and that that's much more important than the deficit. And, in fact, I think they're right. I mean, even the Business Press agrees with that, plenty of economists do.
But the banks and financial institutions, investors, they are interested in the deficit. So, therefore, that's the focus of attention. Almost all the discussion inside the beltway, metaphorically, is about the deficit -- "we gotta do something about the deficit." Although, in fact, I think the population is right: it is a relatively minor problem. Furthermore, if you're concerned about the deficit, you can also turn to public opinion and ask what people think about it. They have opinions. For example, they've been well studied, the majority think we ought to cut military spending. We should sharply raise taxes on the rich, who are very much under-taxed. We should not touch so-called entitlements (Medicare and Social Security) in fact, but strengthen them. And those are ways to deal with the deficit. That's almost the opposite of what is being discussed and proposed. And, in fact, there's a further point which people don't discuss, probably because they don't know the facts, but the deficit, such as it is, could be overcome if we move to a rational healthcare system.
The US healthcare system is an international scandal. It's about twice the per capita cost of comparable countries, and there are relatively poor outcomes. And the reason traces mostly to the fact, not entirely, but mostly to the fact that it's largely privatized and pretty much unregulated. And that leads to huge administrative expenses on other non-health expenses, like advertising profits, and so on; it leads to cherry picking, all kinds of things. So it's a highly inefficient system, and it's been [proved] - with pretty good evidence, some good economists worked on this, especially Dean Baker - that if we move to just the kind of healthcare system that other industrial countries have, it would wipe out the deficit. Now, that's not discussed, and instead what is being discussed are ways to make the system worse! So, for example, one of the proposals about cutting down healthcare costs is to raise the eligibility age for Medicare in a couple of years. Well, what does that do? That shifts people from a fairly efficient government run program -- Medicare - to a highly inefficient private program, much more expensive, namely, private insurance. So that's a way of making the problem worse! Of course it makes it look a little better from the point of view of the power system, because it shifts the cost from government to individuals; individuals are still paying more, just themselves, but the total healthcare expenses go up.
These things just aren't discussed. You don't read about them in the media, because they're not discussed within the beltway, and they're opposed by major centers of power. I mean, for example, for a long time there has been strong popular support -- often majority support, large majority support - for some kind of national health care system. But when that's ever discussed, it was called "politically impossible" or something like that. I mean, the big financial institutions don't like it. Well, you know, that's on domestic issues, the major domestic issues. On international affairs it's the same: lots of critical things either are not discussed, or are discussed through such a distorting lens that you just can't get a realistic picture of it. This is part of almost the institutional structure of the media.
Rob: We have a media and a government and a political system that has become corporatized. It's more of a duopoly than separate different parties anymore. And there are a lot of people who see that we're almost -- humanity is facing a looming collapse. In the Atlantic interview that you did with Yarden Katz, you talked about -- was it the Atlantic interview? No, it was with Amy Goodman -- you talked about how intelligence could be lethal. And I wonder: do you see a way out? Do you see a future for our economics that goes beyond the corporatist system that we have now, in any kind of an economy, whether it is Capitalism or something else, that has light at the end of the tunnel for the Middle Class or for humanity even? You brought up the issue of intelligence being lethal in terms of Global Warming, and how all these different leaders are making things worse rather than better.
Noam: Well, I don't recall the exact discussion, but if I was talking about intelligence being a lethal property it was probably in the context of"
Rob: Ernst Mayer! Ernst Mayer was who/
Noam: - Ernst Mayer. Yeah, well I was giving a kind of slightly tongue-and-cheek rendition of a discussion of his. He's maybe the "Grand Old Man" of modern American biology, a very important biologist. I read an interesting article once in which he pointed out that, in terms of biological success -- biological success essentially means how many are there around -- in terms of biological success, he said "The successful organisms are the least intelligent." Ones that mutate rapidly like bacteria, or ones that have fixed ecological niches like beetles, they all do fine. As you move up the scale of what we call intelligence, to mammals, to bigger mammals, to primates, and so on, you find less biological success. And he concluded that, looking at it as a biologist, you could argue that intelligence is a lethal characteristic. Then I added to that, that the organisms that are considered the peak of intelligence (namely, us) is now engaged in the process of destroying itself and destroying everything else along with it, which would give the final touch to the theory. And that's what we're doing. I think I was referring specifically to environmental catastrophe. We don't have to do it, but we are doing it, and it's not because we're intelligent. It's because we've developed institutional structures which kind of drive us in that direction. So, take say, market systems: I mean we don't really have market systems, but we have partially market systems. And, a market system has a built-in doomsday machine inside it. In a market system, you don't pay attention to what are called externalities, for example, effects on others. So, Like if you sell me a car, let's say: if we're paying attention we'll make a good deal for ourselves, you and I will both come out OK. But we don't bring into the calculation the effect of that sale on other people, and there is an effect. There's another car on the road, there's more pollution, there's more congestion, there's a greater chance of accidents, and so on. And magnified over a lot of people, that can be a big effect. Well, that's inherent in the nature of market systems, unless they somehow internalize externalities, in which case they're not really market systems. That's just an individual transaction. But you think about it in terms of bigger institutions, like say banks and investment firms, say, Goldman Sachs, when they make a transaction, say, a risky loan or something like that, they take into account the effects on them; will the profits overcome the risk, and so on. But they don't take into account what's called systemic risk: that is, the chance that if the loan goes bad and they're in trouble, the whole system may crash. They don't take that into account. That's not part of the calculation. Well, that's a significant part of what lies behind the regular financial crashes, increasingly severe ever since deregulation set in. Now if you go a step higher than that, and you're, say, the CEO of some Exxon Mobile or something, your job is to maximize profit and market share. You don't take into account the fact that there's an externality: the fate of the species. You don't calculate that in, and that's true for non-energy corporations too. In trying to maximize profit, you don't take into account the impact on the fate of the species, and that's no joke now. We're reaching a point in human existence where the fate of the species is indeed in danger, and one major reason for it is, just that it's not a calculation that is made within market systems - well, again, we don't really have qualified market systems - but to the extent that they function, this is a built-in doomsday machine.
Rob: Now you're talking about economics, really. Now, in your interview with Yarden Katz in the Atlantic, you talked about how, whatever the science, you need to learn the fundamental science that's going to be applicable with whatever comes along next. You talked about that with engineering needing physics, with medicine needing biology. What do you think the state of economics is, because isn't that really the science that marketing is based upon?
Noam: Well, economics is not like physics and biology. Economics is an interesting field, and economists do a lot of interesting things. But, to a significant extent economic theory is studying abstract systems that have only a limited relationship to what goes on in the world. That's one reason why, overwhelmingly, professional economists didn't notice, or didn't think it was important, that we're entering into a huge housing bubble. Through the last ten years until it crashed, until it burst, housing prices were going way beyond any basis in economic fundamentals. But, economists were so captivated by concepts like efficient market hypotheses, and so on, that they didn't think it was important ,or didn't even notice it. Well that's a dramatic - and then the whole thing crashed, and in fact a lot of foundations of economic theory crashed. But that's a reflection of the fact that, the field is -- and I'm not denigrating the field, there is a lot of important work - but nevertheless there are respects in which they are quite far from the sciences; many respects. Which is not surprising: economic systems are a lot more complex than big molecules.
Rob: And you've talked about complexity and systems. You talk about how, if you are really going to study anything, you've got to look at how systems are highly modular, and that the different parts function differently, yet you also talk, and I'll quote you, "Unification is kind of an intuitive ideal: part of the 'Scientific Mystique,' if you like. It's that you're trying to find a Unified Theory of the world. Now, maybe there isn't one. Maybe different parts work in different ways, but your assumption is, until I'm proven wrong, definitively, I'll assume that there is a unified account of the world, and it's my task to try and find it." And it seems like what you're describing in the problems with markets, where all these levels leave out these big effects on the whole system, that it is a unifying theory that needs to be addressed!
Noam: Well, let me just make a comment. The passages you're quoting are about the hard sciences. They are about basic physics and chemistry ,and maybe biology. And it's there that the problems of unification that I was discussing arise. When you move up to social systems (market systems and others), it is so complex and there are so many variables and so little is understood, that you can barely raise these questions.
Rob: But wouldn't that be a long term vision? You know, frankly, Dr. Chomsky, I see you as a big thinker as well as somebody who knows the minutiae, so I'm asking you questions that are big questions really, because it seems to me like it applies!
Noam: Well, the kinds of questions that were being discussed in the passage you quoted about unification really had to do with things like how early 20th century chemistry related to Quantum Theory. Now that's way beyond anything we can discuss in the case of social systems in human life. We might hope that someday we'll understand enough about really complex issues to be able to raise these questions, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to raise them now. I mean take even - you quoted my saying that engineers should be studying basic physics - but remember the context to that comment. I was pointing out changes that have taken place in the twentieth century, in my lifetime. In fact, even during my professional career, I was pointing out that when - MIT is the premier engineering or science school in the world, or certainly one of them - that when I got here in the 1950s, there were very excellent physics and math departments, really good ones, but they were essentially providing services to the engineers, teaching them tricks they could use. Engineers were still at that time (the 1950s), the engineering profession was very largely based on craftsmanship, an artisan's knowledge, skill, experience; the kind of thing that makes a good carpenter. So students were learning how to build things, make them and so on, using that kind of background. Now by the 1960s, ten years later, the curriculum had significantly changed. And instead of studying, you know, how you build circuits, or build a bridge, or something like that, students in every engineering department were studying basic physics and basic chemistry. And there were several reasons for that: one reason was that there were major advances in science and technology during that period; and, in fact, one effect was that if you wanted to do serious engineering, you'd better understand basic physics, because it was now becoming directly applicable. And also, technology was beginning to change very quickly, so being trained in the technology of today may not be of much help ten years from now. So it's best to understand the basic science that lies behind it, and you'll be equipped to deal with the changes. But that's a very recent change! That's a couple of decades ago. And this is in the most advanced disciplines. Pretty much the same was true of medicine.
Rob: What level do you think economics and marketing are at, compared to"
Noam: Not even in the same ball park.
Rob Kall is executive editor, publisher and website architect of OpEdNews.com, Host of the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show (WNJC 1360 AM), and publisher of Storycon.org, President of Futurehealth, Inc, and an inventor . He is also published regularly on the Huffingtonpost.com