Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Medium Stupid

In July 1, 2004, Paul Krugman gave a talk about the state of the American economy. After the significant 2001 recession, the economy had begun growing again, with increasing growth in America’s economic output, or GDP. But, unlike the growth in the Clinton years, the extra money being made in America wasn’t going to the average person. Instead, as the economy grew, the wages for the average person stagnated or even declined. All the extra money was going to the people at the very top.

In the press, President Bush’s supporters complained that the public wasn’t more happy about the growing economy Bush had given them. After all, he’d pulled the country out of a recession; normally that’s good for a boost in the polls. Sadly, Americans were just too dumb to notice, Bush’s supporters concluded. If only they paid more attention to the news. But what these people “are really urging,” Krugman explained in his talk, “is not that the public should be smart, but that the public should be medium stupid.”

If the public was really “stupid” (i.e. uneducated), it wouldn’t watch the news at all. Instead, it would notice it was out of work, poorly-paid, or otherwise having trouble making ends meet, and conclude that the economy wasn’t doing very well. On the other hand, if the public was really smart, it’d dig deep into the numbers to find that — surprise, surprise! — for most people, the economy wasn’t doing as well as the headline numbers about GDP growth would suggest. The only way for the public to buy the Bush administration spin is to be medium stupid.

The medium stupid idea has much wider applicability. Most specifically, it explains the general state that the mainstream media tries to inculcate in the public. The uneducated American has a general idea that invading other countries is probably a bad idea. The overeducated American can point to dozens of examples of why this is going to be a bad idea. But the “medium stupid” American, the kind that gullibly reads the New York Times and watches the CBS Evening News, is convinced that Iraq is full of weapons of mass destruction that could blow our country to bits at any minute. A little education can be a dangerous thing.

(Along these lines, at one point I was working on a documentary film about the evening news that would demonstrate this point. The title, Medium Stupid, would also be a convenient homage to Medium Cool.)

The same is true in school. As Christopher Hayes points out in his genius article, Is A Little Economics A Dangerous Thing?, the uneducated American thinks raising the minimum wage is a pretty good idea — after all, people deserve to be paid more than $5 an hour. And the overeducated American feels the same way; like the dozens of Economics Prize winners who signed a petition to raise the minimum wage, they’ve seen the studies showing that raising the minimum wage has only a negligible effect on employment. But those who have only had Economics 101 buy the propaganda that government interference in the market will only make things worse. And, as Hayes shows, this leads to bad decisions in many areas — the minimum wage being only one prominent example.

The medium stupid idea has applicability in other areas of life. The uncultured person who knows nothing about fashion doesn’t mind wandering around in jeans and a t-shirt. And the overcultured person knows exactly what to wear to be hip. But medium stupid ol’ me looks bad and feels bad about it.

To work, propaganda, be it from the Bush administration or the fashion industry, requires you to be medium stupid. Know too little and you never hear the falsehoods. Know too much and you can spot it for a fraud. Which side of the line do you want to be on?

You should follow me on twitter here.

December 19, 2006


That’s an interesting observation, but I’m not convinced that it makes a useful generalization. For this to be true, you’d have to assume that people are rational by default. That is simply not the case and there are indeed many more cases where having a little education is preferable to having none.

The strong argument for laissez-faire economics (if there ever was one) is not that of the invisible hand, but that of moral objection to any unnecessary form of coercion.

posted by Tom Berger on December 19, 2006 #

So, I’m still undecided about what position to take on minimum wage, but it does strike me that the whole issue is sort of moot.

If you want to help low-wage workers, why not support a negative income tax instead of a minimum wage? That way, you run absolutely no risk of suppressing demand for low-wage work, and you can help people who already earn more than the minimum wage, and you can exclude people who don’t need the help, like well-off suburban teenagers working for the summer.

(Aside: I know plenty of over-educated smart people who think that the minimum wage is harmful. You can claim that they are all stupid religious zealots, but claiming it doesn’t make it so.)

posted by Mark on December 19, 2006 #

Consider two people, both work the same low-wage job, both hear on the news that GDP is increasing, the economy is improving. One thinks “Oh, I guess my low-wage job is the exception, so I should try harder to take advantage of the booming economy.” The other thinks “GDP isn’t increasing my wages, so the economy still sucks for me.” Both have the same information. Both, under your labels, are medium stupid.

But only one is actually stupid, while the other is smart. I’d say the difference isn’t how much they know; it’s how they think about what they know. You can know a lot and be stupid. You can know very little and be smart. I don’t see anythink here to suggest that a little education is any more dangerous than complete ignorance or full knowledge. I think the real danger is the concept of /enough/ education - the idea that once we’ve been told the answers, we should stop asking questions.

posted by Scott Reynen on December 19, 2006 #

I’ve never really thought that raising the minimum wage was that big of a deal, mostly because the final, politically derived, wage level is so much lower than most low-income people actually get.

When I worked at McDonald’s in the early 90s, the minimum wage was raised(in WA state, or federal, I don’t remember). It didn’t effect wages much, because after a few months, everyone typically got raises that pushed them over what the new mimimum wage was set to. So it effectively raised the wages of employees who are in their first six months of employment. (4.75 an hour to 5.25 an hour) It didn’t matter to people who worked their longer, because a person who worked there for 2 years was already at 6.50-7 an hour.

Over time i’ve come to realize that the polticially viable level of minimum wage, is far below the level of minimum wage that would be economically damaging. It also only tends to effect minimum wage job hoppers, who never stay at any one job long enough to achieve significant raises. (Agriculture would be an exception, but that farm labor market is distorted by illegal or undocumented labor).

The minimum wage doesn’t hurt, but it certainly doesn’t help.

posted by William Crim on December 19, 2006 #

Medium stupid = smart, but not smart enough to agree with Aaron

posted by David Karn on December 19, 2006 #

And for some reason I thought the real reason for increasing the minimum wage wasn’t to help those employees, but to allow Congress to increase the poverty threshold. This is since the minimum wage is a factor in how to calculate the poverty line.


I guess that makes me a “medium stupid” individual.

posted by Micheal on December 19, 2006 #

I’m really surprised at the tone of this post.

I think you would have been better off stating that it is dangerous when people are only very narrowly exposed to certain ideas.

No exposure, and they don’t really think about it. Too little exposure, and they aren’t considering enough of what’s involved. Enough exposure, and they arrive at a more complete understanding of what something means.

To call people “stupid” is a dangerous thing. Surprising considering your previous post about encouraging people to not be afraid to be wrong or make mistakes.

posted by Michael on December 19, 2006 #

Medium stupid: smart enough to understand what you’re told.

posted by Andrew Yates on December 19, 2006 #

I don’t understand this argument against minimum wage. If minimum wage versus employment was a simple inverse function, then why not lower minimum wage and solve unemployment! Oh wait…

Anyone who believes in “trickle-down” economics yet is against raising minimum wage is a hypocrite.

posted by Andrew Yates on December 19, 2006 #

“As Christopher Hayes points out in his genius article, Is A Little Economics A Dangerous Thing?,the uneducated American thinks raising the minimum wage is a pretty good idea — after all, people deserve to be paid more than $5 an hour. “

I’m a bit confused. Where exactly does Christopher Hayes say that the uneducated American thinks raising the minimum wage is a good idea or that Economic Prize winners support raising the minimum wage?

Also the title of the article is “What We Learn When We Learn Economics”. “Is a little economics a dangerous thing?” is just the subtitle.

posted by Crimson on December 20, 2006 #

“Where exactly… say… Economic Prize winners support raising the minimum wage?”

Crimson, is in the second page of the article. Look for “in fact, in October, 650 economists, including five Nobel Laureates, signed a letter advocating an increase in the U.S. minimum wage to $8 an hour”

You can read the letter here: http://www.epi.org/content.cfm/minwagestmt2006

The article never mention that the uneducated American thinks raising the minimum wage is a pretty good idea.

posted by Sergio G. on December 22, 2006 #

For one picture of why an economist would sign that letter, there’s this: http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2006/12/can-600-economists-all-be-wrong.html And there’s really only “a” dozen top-talent economists on that letter, not dozens, and most of them are not “prize winners,” assuming you mean Nobel prize winners, as the letter’s footnotes indicate. I’m sure dozens have won some $500 prize from their grad school departments or whatever, but no one would actually care about those.

I’d really like to see you engage economic policy discussions on the issues more, instead of your “if I change the words it sounds like religion!” and “everyone who thinks this is medium stupid” theories. For example, as Mankiw points out, the main issues that an economist would weigh in this discussion are whether or not a modest increase in the minimum wage will actually decrease employment, and whether there is a large enough group of people unable to make more than minimum wage who will be helped by it. Wikipedia has a (very incomplete) entry on the various empirical studies that have tackled these questions and it’s still unclear. You could weigh the methodology and results of these studies and come to either conclusion. But arguing that the people who disagree with you must be intellectually deficient is not the way problems are solved and arguments are settled among the intelligent and civilized.

posted by on December 25, 2006 #

“But the ‘medium stupid’ American, the kind that gullibly watches the CBS Evening News, is convinced that Iraq is full of weapons of mass destruction that could blow our country to bits at any minute.” … was a true sentence in 2003 … today that same sentence would read: “But the “medium stupid” American, the kind that gullibly watches the CBS Evening News, is convinced that victory in Iraq is a well defined achievable goal”. In the interest of truthiness i took out your mention of the New York Times because then you need a new catagory: ‘medium stupid Plus’.

Looking forward to your documentary !

posted by Seth Russell on December 27, 2006 #

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