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Does Irrationality Doom America?

How rational problem-solving has ceased to be "serious" among US elites.

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Disallowing frivolity

So why is the discussion dominated by a non-solution while a real solution can't even be discussed? It's because the "politically viable" sense of serious totally dominates over the "pragmatically effective" sense of the word, and because what is politically viable is circularly defined: extremist Republican non-solutions are politically viable because Republicans adamantly insist that they are, no matter how laughable they may be - and centrist bipartisan ideologues routinely and reliably endorse their false claims as matters of fact when they do so. The fact that they aren't even remotely serious, in the problem-solving sense, never even enters the picture.

One further point. There is a dynamic, deceptive cross-over effect, in which one meaning of serious - politically viable - masquerades as the other, providing a pragmatic real-world solution. Indeed, this is very essense of the deception involved. After all, the game could not even get started if, from the beginning, we disallowed ideas that don't solve the problem at hand. Historically, the US used to do a decent job of screening out such ideas, up until 1995, when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House. On taking power, Gingrich devoted a great deal of energy and attention to resructuring the House to disable reality checks, as independent conservative  Bruce Bartlett has explained, including downsizing or eliminating centres of staff expertise and abolishing the  Office of Technology Assessment. That's how Gingrich helped create the world in which Paul Ryan thrives.

Code talkers

There is another way to understand the confusion of meaning about "serious" policy aside from seeing it as a fallacy, and that is to see it as involving a form of "code-switching". Code-switching refers to a linguistic practice of bilingual speakers switching from one language to another. There are various different schools of thought about the what, why and how of code-switching, but nobody doubts that it's a widespread phenomenon among bilingual speakers. And linguists don't only use it to refer to switching between different languages. Code-switching is also used to describe how African-Americans may switch from an informal, "down-home" to a more formal, professionalised mode of speech.

Given this sense of code-switching, it doesn't seem to be much of stretch to consider wonkish economic policy talk, for example, as one mode of speech, and sports-metaphor-driven conflictual power-politics talk - extensively critiqued in James Fallows' 1996  Breaking The News, for example - as another. From this perspective, what I've described above as a logical fallacy appears instead as a switching point, from one mode to the other. But, of course, there's a sense in which both modes are conginually operative, just as bilingual speakers are continually able to understand one another and to respond in either language. Because both understandings remain operative throughout - at least potentially - one cannot pretend that the fallacy "goes away" somehow, it merely gets submerged. This example of code-switching has an inherently deceptive quality and purpose to it, but it can be examined in terms that allow study and comparison with other examples, other situations where this need not be the case.

For example, in one theory,  Wikipedia explains:

The Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT), developed by  Howard Giles, professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, seeks to explain the cognitive reasons for code-switching, and other changes in speech, as a person seeks either to emphasize or to minimize the social differences between him- or herself and the other person(s) in conversation. Prof. Giles posits that when speakers seek approval in a social situation they are likely to converge their speech with that of the other person speaking. This can include, but is not limited to, the language of choice, accent, dialect, and para-linguistic features used in the conversation. In contrast to convergence, speakers might also engage in divergent speech, with which an individual person emphasizes the social distance between him- or herself and other speakers by using speech with linguistic features characteristic of his or her own group.

 
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