The Innate Value of “Dumb” Questions


Not too many years ago, I witnessed one of my old medical professors, a cardiologist, answering a young medical school student’s question.  The question, of course, smacked of ignorance, but the teacher answered the question without embarrassing the student.  In fact, he even praised him for asking “a good question.”  I asked my colleague why he had complimented his student on an obviously mediocre question and added that he had never done this in the old days when “we” were his students.  His answer, I think, holds true in virtually every endeavor dedicated to the search for knowledge: “I finally learned,” he said, “that no question is a bad one if it makes the student think about it and if I criticize their questions, the students won’t ask them anymore.”


Such is the case , I think, with political and economic issues.  As ignorant and confused as average voters are, we have many questions, but are reluctant to ask them because our leaders keep telling us that the answers to these questions are too complicated for us to understand.  Worse yet, most of us can’t seem to admit what we really do know: it is obvious that most of our leaders in both parties are just as confused as we are.  If they know how to increase jobs and improve the economy, they certainly are not revealing their secrets.  It seems that both political parties are more intent on denying the validity of the opposing party’s theories and suggestions than they are in fixing any economic problems.  Examples of this seem all too abundant.


Recently, on Meet The Press, Congressman Paul Ryan was asked why he was so adamantly against the President’s new “Jobs Bill.”  Interestingly, he never did say what the bill included that was not going to create jobs.  As former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell had pointed out the day before, that for every 25 billion dollars spent on infrastructure, 100,000 jobs are created.  So, Congressman Ryan’s claim that the suggestions in the bill hadn’t worked before, represented a deliberate misdirection of facts.  The stimulus packages by Presidents Bush and Obama were not really “Jobs Packages,” were they?  The Bush package was nothing but small tax rebates for citizens to buy a washer or dryer or pay a few bills, that is, a welcome gift, but created no new jobs.  The Obama stimulus started out with some 500 billion dollars in infrastructure spending or some 2 million or so jobs.  By the time apparently ignorant Republicans in Congress had convinced equally ignorant Democrats to convert 300 billion dollars (that is 1.2 million jobs) into far less valuable tax cuts, Ryan was correct:  the gutted stimulus package was converted into a failure.


The remainder of Mr. Ryan’s criticism of the Obama jobs bill, involved little misdirection, however.  While I am not naive enough to believe that the Congressman would have voted for any Democratic bill, his accusation that the bill would have been much more palatable with modest cuts in corporate taxes and the addressing of tax loopholes seems to be a clear indication of the relative inadequacy of the bill.  It also calls into question the competence of both the Democratic Executive as well as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.  While even a mediocre student of economics and history like myself can clearly see that lowering income taxes from Clinton levels to Bush 43 levels damaged the economy, I can also see that lowering corporate tax rates just as clearly has generally helped the economy.  My first “dumb” question to “knowledgeable” Democratic leaders is: how would lowering corporate taxes by a modest 10% and simultaneously correcting inequitable loopholes hurt the economy?  My second “dumb” question: why not take Mr. Ryan up on his challenge and develop a jobs package compromise involving infrastructure, corporate tax reform and modest corporate tax cuts?  The worst that could happen is that Democrats could call Mr. Ryan’s bluff, embarrass him, and steal independent votes.  With a little luck, some sort of beneficial compromise might somehow be reached.


Other “dumb” questions, unfortunately, are much harder to deal with.  Why didn”t President Obama wait for the Bush tax cuts to expire or at least seriously threaten to do so before squandering all of his bargaining power in his dealing with the Republicans?  Why did he give away his only bargaining chip for a treaty that would have been signed anyway, a policy that would have been changed anyway and extension of unemployment insurance subsidized by income tax (who cares if it had come from the sabotaged stimulus package, as long as it was not stolen twice from the same payroll tax funds)?  Why didn’t apparently incompetent Democratic House and Senate leaders negotiate a new debt ceiling before they donated the Bush tax cuts back to their gloating opponents?


Take a deep breath, folks.  I won’t go into the hundreds of “dumb”questions one can ask of a bumbling party with a well meaning but neophyte leader, but I cannot help but briefly explore a few provocative areas at this time.  While I am an ardent supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I must admit the similarity of its origins with that of the Tea Party.  Many of their complaints, ironically, coincide with those of the original Tea Party before it was infiltrated by born again zombies, proud pledges of ignorance, gun toting thugs and cultist lobbyists such as Grover Norquist.  Unfortunately, snobbish elitists such as Ms. Pelosi chose to completely disregard legitimate questions about rampant government bureaucratic expansion, continued blatant exploitation of entitlements by lobbyists and Congresspersons and mindless extension of a costly and useless war.  Now another grass roots movement with just as much to blame on president Obama and his inadequate treatment of Banking and Wall Street as they do on Republicans, is looking to Washington for answers.  Sooner or later they will ask two questions that cannot be called “dumb.”  On the one hand, did President Obama and his dysfunctional lackeys such as Tim Geithner and Eric Holder purposely avoid any confrontations with Wall Street and the major banks to ensure their support in the President’s efforts to raise his one billion dollars in campaign funds?  On the other hand, will a Democratic Administration finally support the efforts of these “common” citizens as they have so far largely failed to do?


Allen Finkelstein