Ignorance and Arrogance

September 24, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Visitors to the US are often dismayed by how little most Americans know about the rest of the world.  As Ambrose Bierce said, “War is God's way of teaching Americans geography.”  We don’t even know all that much about the countries we do make war on.  But why should we?

In his speech to the Republican convention,  Marco Rubio said,
These are ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world instead of making the rest of the world more like America. [NB: threaten]
In Rubio’s view, knowing nothing about other countries is fine because we can just assume that America is best at everything.  Other countries should copy us. 

The defense for our ignorance is our arrogance.   But who benefits from our ignorance of the rest of the world?

When Verizon offered me their land phone-cable-Internet “triple play,”  it seemed like a good deal.  But my basis for comparison was what I was paying before (more), and what Time Warner was offering (roughly the same).

Then I heard David Cay Johnston interviewed on “Fresh Air.” Johnston too must have gone for a package deal. 
We're way behind countries like Lithuania, Ukraine and Moldavia in the speed of our Internet. Per bit of information moved, we pay 38 times what the Japanese pay. If you buy one of these triple-play packages that are heavily advertised, where you get Internet, telephone and cable TV together, typically you'll pay what I pay, about $160 a month, including fees.

Well, the same service in France is $38 a month . . . . And instead of two-country calling, you get worldwide calling to 70 countries. You get an Internet that is 10 times faster . . . downloading and 20 times faster uploading. And you get much broader international television stations than you get here in America.
To the list of countries that are way ahead of us in average speed Johnston could have added Latvia and  the Czech Republic as well as more likely countries like Japan and South Korea. 

Oh, that threat of being like other countries. I wouldn’t mind the threat to reduce my Verizon bill to $28.  But why is my bill so high?  Must be the cost of freedom.  As Rubio explained, the US “chose more freedom instead of more government.”
The threatening ideas Rubio was referring to – those bad ideas used by other countries – are ideas about the role of government.  Much better is the idea of American capitalism: If the government doesn’t interfere, then competition among corporations will bring us more and better stuff at lower prices.  At least that’s what Rubio, the corporations, and their other defenders tell us.

Johnston looks at his triple-play bill and sees the actual government role as something different from that ideal.  The bill is higher, he says, because telecoms use their wealth and power to get legislatures to write friendly laws that force consumers pick up the tab.* Our ignorance – ignorance of those laws and how they are made, and ignorance about other countries – is a big help to the corporations.

When George W. Bush used to insist that America’s health care system was the best in the world, most Americans had no idea what other systems were like or how much they cost.  Besides, how can you define quality in health care, and in any case, it’s hard to imagine yourself going to a French or Swiss doctor. 

But we all know what an Internet connection is, and we get the bill every month.  It’s just that most of us can’t discuss that bill with anyone in Paris or Vilnius. 

Maybe we should follow Rubio’s advice and avoid making that comparison. Ignorance is bliss. It’s also beneficial to Verizon.

*Johnston has much more about this in the interview and in his new book The Fine Print.

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