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Howard Gardner
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Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Feeding the ignorance

In response to the On Leadership question: Can Americans handle the painful truth about government budget deficits -- that getting them under control will require both tax increases and cuts in government services -- or will they reject any leader who dares to deliver it? What's a leader to do?

While this query appears to be about Obama in 2010, it is really about any leader who wants to challenge the conventional wisdom. Over the last few decades, Americans have been fed a bill of goods that you can have continual tax cuts without there being any cost in services. Most Americans now believe this canard -- in fact, most Americans cannot even conceptualize the premise of the question: that one may need to have both higher taxes AND fewer services.

In a democracy, there is no quick way in which to change deeply held beliefs. In addition to their own powerful example, leaders have to find supporters who are willing to preach hard truths, and who themselves embody those truths in the way that they themselves live. Moreover, leaders have to marshal the strongest and most convincing arguments in favor of the new dispensation, and they can't simply provide these argument in the abstract-- they need vivid examples, which all can understand. I think of FDR's brilliant imagery for "lend lease"-- if your neighbor's house is on fire, you will lend him a garden hose to put out the fire.

Here is the biggest problem: It takes years to bring about changes of the magnitude being spoken about here. Yet, just as corporations are obsessed with quarterly profits, politicians are obsessed with the next election. Unless parties and leaders are prepared to tell it the way it is, and even to lose elections in order eventually to bring about a needed change in consciousness, the truth will not be confronted and the country will suffer awful long-term consequences.

By Howard Gardner

 |  February 2, 2010; 5:50 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"Over the last few decades, Americans have been fed a bill of goods that you can have continual tax cuts without there being any cost in services."

This is correct, but incomplete. The reason for this seeming dichotomy being so popular is that it is coupled with another enduring myth: That cutting taxes will result in an increase in tax revenues.

The theory is exquisite in its simplicity. It's generally accepted that when taxes reach a certain high point, business owners will cut back on payroll or investments in order to preserve income. So, tax conservatives assume that the opposite must be true: If taxes are continuously lowered, business owners will increase hiring and investing. The resulting increases in personal income will then result in more tax revenue, even at reduced rates.

Our experience of the last decade is proof that this low taxes = jobs/investment myth is false (barely 3 Million jobs were created and the economy tanked), but it's become Republican orthodoxy and is still a main thrust of Republican economic theory. Hence the continuation of the "we can have it all for free" mythology.

Posted by: jp1954 | February 2, 2010 4:29 PM
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I failed to credit the historian Edward Gibbon; the quotation is from his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Posted by: sailmaker1943 | February 2, 2010 4:09 PM
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There is an abject lesson to be learned from history. It'a shame that our leaders in congress are abysmally ignorant of the following: "The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious: and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that it subsisted for so long." The key phrase for the observant is "simple and obvious." Is anybody in Washington listening? Are we betrayed by the myth of our own rectitude and invincibility? If we don't change the way Washington does business -- and nobody thinks politicans can change any more than tigers can lose their stripes -- we will go the way of other empires like us: a memory and a myth, a lost hope of remarkable greatness that was drowned in the pettiness of political bickering and backbiting and the eternal jockeying for money and power. Look hard at the public buildings in Washington. It's not hard to discern the outlines of the large letters SPQR emblazoned on all the public buildings. We must accept the inevitability of significant change in our lives, or we will follow Rome into the dustbin of history.

Posted by: sailmaker1943 | February 2, 2010 4:06 PM
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Of course we can reduce the deficit without raising taxes or reducing services! We can also lose weight without dieting or exercise, get rich without spending all that time working, get more power and better mileage from our existing car by simply installing a cheap little gadget, and speed up Windows by buying the right software! It's because we're Americans, and we can do anything! God loves us, and will suspend the laws of physics if we ask him to!

Posted by: gzuckier | February 2, 2010 3:50 PM
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In the 60's taxes were much higher than they are now. During the Clinton years if a new program was added to the budget something had to be cut. Bush stopped that.
His war was off the books and did not count when he presented his budgets. The Republicans were happy to increase spending under their watch. But now they don't want to pay for their mistakes.

Posted by: Gary15 | February 2, 2010 3:26 PM
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Everyone blaming the evil GOP for not wanting higher taxes being the root of the problem. What about when JFK cut taxes, you liberals didn't scream bloody murder then! The truth is tax cuts stimulate the private sector.
This country is being destroyed by the growth of the Welfare/nanny state. Drive through any city and look at how it is now compared to 30-40 years ago, the bad sections of town are now much larger than they were before... keep having those Welfare babies, we need more ignorant poor people to keep voting in the crooked politicians!
I fear the country has reached the tipping point, we are becoming a third World country at an alarming rate!

Posted by: np2j | February 2, 2010 3:13 PM
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The Republicans, who got us into this mess with their tax cuts and crazy wars, yell that we need more tax cuts to fix the economy. We had larger deficits under Regan
and both Bushes. Clinton had a surplus. And he created 20 million new jobs. W Bush had 2 tax cuts and we lost jobs. Anyone who thinks we can fix our problems without a tax increase is NUTS. And I hate paying taxes as much as anyone, but I live in the real world.

Posted by: Gary15 | February 2, 2010 3:12 PM
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"The trouble with this debate is that it starts always with tax increases."

Actually, the debate always starts with tax cuts first. The GOP promises to cut taxes and then, someday, they'll get around to finding cuts. They never do. The GOP got rid of paygo budgeting rules that required either cutting old programs or raising new money to pay for new programs. We're going to live with the results of that dishonesty for decades. If they know what to cut, cut programs first, balance the budget first, paydown the debt first. Only later cut taxes.

Posted by: steveh46 | February 2, 2010 2:30 PM
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"Services" has come to mean all things to all people. We have so overextended the Constitutional intent of our federal government that our republic would no doubt appear quite foreign to the original framers. Our bureaucracy has reached Kafkaesque complexity and systemic inefficiency. It is driven by bureaucratic desires defend fiefdoms and political motivations to promise the moon and in the end deliver disappointment. We have deviated far from the constraints in which we once well understood our federal government to properly function and have finally reached the cliff surrounding the outer edges of good sense. Some may have faith in the parachute we are told will save us. Unfortunately it has been designed by bureaucrats and packed by politicians. Personally I hope we reconsider, step back and return to a state of constraint and all too presently uncommon good sense.

Posted by: hnickel | February 2, 2010 1:52 PM
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The offer of costing less (taxes) and getting the same or more (services) is very appealing. It isn't true, but it sells very well. Political capital will have to be invested in making people realize that you can't have a free lunch.

Ronald Reagan said he was going to shrink gov't. Instead it grew greatly, which is why it is fitting that the worlds largest government office building is named after him. He said he was going to balance the budget. Instead he raised the debt. George H W did no better.

Then Clinton did what the Republicans couldn't. While at first the deficit went up, later it went to zero. It was so successful they had the "problem" of not having T-notes to sell because the gov't didn't need the money. Debt from the Reagan/Bush(41) era was being retired and we were on track to zero out the nation debt. We could have started a nation trust fund. Had we put away enough money the Gov't could have lived off the interest.

But gosh, it was back to cutting taxes and raising spending under George W. And the deficit started again and by the time he left office the deficit was larger than ever. And Bush wanted to let you "invest" your social security money with the likes of Enron & Bernie Madoff. Wise move.

Posted by: cyberfool | February 2, 2010 12:59 PM
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The trouble with this debate is that it starts always with tax increases. How about eliminating unneeded federal programs instead. Why do we need a Department of Education, for example? We are still lavishing wealthy farmers with agricultural subsidies. We have federal farm extension agents operating in areas where there are no farms (the District of Columbia being a prime example). We are pouring money into medical research, but are no closer to President Nixon's promise of curing cancer than we are to finding Osama bin Laden. It's past time to thin out the federal payroll. Do we really need CIA agents who can't find al Quaeda leadership?

Posted by: edwardallen54 | February 2, 2010 12:57 PM
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If a Republican wins in 2012, get ready to see more soldiers dying in the desert, for people that don't want them there. Romney or Palin would probably wait about 3 days before launching a Holy War on Iran, and soon after that on Pakistan.

The jingoistic religious zealotry on display by the GOP is terrifying.

Posted by: Please_Fix_VAs_Roads | February 2, 2010 12:13 PM
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While we can easily find savings of a trillion dollars over ten years - we are down 12 to 13 trillion and the bill is due now.
The problem is that the rich won't be willing to accept the kind of taxes that it would take to restore the situation to stability.
And the rich can always scare a smaller and smaller middle class until that class disappears and we become a pure democracy and a third world country with a huge nuclear arsenal.
So our lives will get interesting - and by the way thanks GOP for making it all happen so soon!

Posted by: agapn9 | February 2, 2010 11:58 AM
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This is all based on Government reliance. Instead of being a safety net like it was designed to be - it is becoming more and more of an all-encompassing net. You get elected by promising MORE not LESS. Hopefully we will learn that sometimes LESS is MORE when it comes to giving the gov. money. The LESS you give the MORE you get.

Posted by: Holla26 | February 2, 2010 11:32 AM
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"Cuts in government services" are not synonymous with "cuts in government costs." Especially in the Defense Department, it is possible to make major cuts in costs without any impact on services. Similar cuts are also possible in NASA and many other departments.

Posted by: mziegler766 | February 2, 2010 11:21 AM
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Pres. Obama brought this point up at his meeting with the GOP Friday. When Democrats proposed a modest cut in the subsidies paid to private insurers for Medicare Advantage (saves $500 billion)the GOP suddenly became the defenders of entitlements they say are bankrupting America. The GOP attacked the plan as rationing of services and the government getting in between you and your doctor.

I believe the President is ready to make some hard decisions for the long term and he demonstrated this by cutting a tax credit for the poor that he cared about but was inefficient. He called for a bipartisan budget commission that was supported by Republicans but defeated in the Senate because they don't want to give Obama a win or a solution. The President wants to spend out of the Recession (which I agree with) and focus on the long term deficit problem.

As long as the GOP and Democrats put off hard decisions to win votes our country's future is in jeopardy.


Posted by: sherminta | February 2, 2010 11:09 AM
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Lets cut military spending. Eveyone seems to believe that miliary cuts will hurt the war effort. NOT. Military bands?($150 million) Canteens in DC serving the brass with 5-star cuisine?(more than Bands) Start assessing military contractors the penalties which are on the books for non-performance.(Billions) Use trains to transport troops in US, not military convoys.($$ saved, eco-friendly, job creation as the Brass will experience first hand how much the rail service needs improvement) Have another round of base closings.

All no-brainers. None impact the war effort, or that Republican canard 'morale'. Just do it.

Posted by: swarl | February 2, 2010 10:58 AM
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“In a democracy, there is no quick way in which to change deeply held beliefs.”
Not necessarily so, one example - if the Senate in late 2008 had not insisted on rescuing Wall Street ASAP with taxpayer money – the GLOBAL financial house of cards would have imploded. It would have been painfully obvious to the most fanatical supporter of capitalism that “trickle down” WAS BALONEY, that dismantling or not funding financial regulations was not in the best interests of the American people, and that our bought-off and spineless Congress, which deliberately allowed all this misery in exchange for cash, should be immediately recalled, if not strung up on lampposts.

Instead – Wall Street was bailed out, and while a number of vocal, self-deluded, self-centered greedy apologists are STILL insisting that “business as usual” will cure our ailments, the evidence is against them. I include the Senate Health Insurance Bill in business as usual.

Posted by: shadowmagician | February 2, 2010 10:39 AM
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The deficit will get worse as long as Republicans keep repeating the destructive mantra of no new taxes. It is a mindset that prevents them from addressing any national problem seriously. Non-discretionary spending is so small a fraction of the budget that you would need to end it altogether to make an impact.
Reducing the military budget will help but that also means reducing commitments abroad that may lead to additional global instability. And it also means ending the US dominance as a superpower, maybe a good thing but not obvious.
Reducing Social Security payments assumes that the people receiving it somehow will find a replacement elsewhere. It most likely will send many elderly into poverty unless it is done in such a way that only those who don't need it don't get it. Fat chance, Republicans will scream socialism, income redistribution and other assorted nonsense. Reducing Medicare expenses cannot be done without revamping the health care system in this country. The fate of the health care bill shows how likely that is. There are truly bitter choices ahead but no leaders that can convince the public to swallow the medicine.

Posted by: serban1 | February 2, 2010 10:35 AM
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See also Abigail Trafford's column in today's Wash Post(Science)for more on American's cognitive dissonance and the leadership needed. The following is a portion of that column:


Polls then and now show that the overwhelming majority of Americans support the idea of health reform -- more than 80 percent, according to a recent analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine. But they don't like the specifics of any plan.

This ambivalence can be explained by the theory of cognitive dissonance, the anxiety and anger that comes from holding two contradictory ideas at once. On one side, we believe in rugged individualism and want Big Brother to stay out of our lives. On the other side, we expect government to rescue us if we get in trouble.

"Americans are like motorcyclists about to take a spill," says Uwe E. Reinhardt, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University. Born free, they don't want the government to tell them to wear a helmet. Then when they get injured, they expect the government to take care of them -- thanks to a 1986 bill (signed by rugged individualist Ronald Reagan) that ambulances and hospitals provide emergency services regardless of a patient's ability to pay. "The motorcyclist is a rugged individualist until he needs to go to the hospital."

This double-think is so pervasive in health care that constituents keep telling Congress: Don't let the government mess with my Medicare!

Unresolved, this cognitive dissonance "drives people nuts," says Reinhardt. Psychologists know that people trapped in double-think can become defensive and angry as they try to justify one side or the other to dispel their uneasy ambivalence.

Over the past year, there has been no grand communicator to help people reconcile these contradictory beliefs into a coherent philosophy of life that embraces personal freedom protected by a social safety net.

The president has remained aloof. As he said in the State of the Union address: "I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people." --

Posted by: peaceloveandicecream | February 2, 2010 10:34 AM
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Anyone been paying attention to what's happening in Colorado Springs?

Posted by: dkp01 | February 2, 2010 10:20 AM
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Here's a productive idea. For every real $ in efficiency any government saves, then we can add a dollar in taxes. I don't mind paying for something. I have no objection to paying taxes. I object to the difficulty the government (any government) has using the money efficiently.

I realize even this will be difficult because of the creative mathematics many use, but it's a start.

Posted by: mikehenrysr | February 2, 2010 10:10 AM
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why every county needs to have their own administrative services is beyond me.

When they start sharing basic services like payables, payroll, IT infrastructure - all practices adopted long ago by large commercial organizations - then I will believe there can't be savings.

Every school system in Maryland has a top of the line ERP computer system. There is no reason there cant be a single system that is partitioned among counties, and the State Dept of ED should mandate it - the money saved can go straight to the classrooms. Or maybe reduce property taxes! Collecting property taxes can be another statewide function. Explain why each county should have their own system. Income taxes are collected by the state and apportioned out, make them all that way. The only reason we do it this way is because we choose to. We can lower taxes and improve efficiency but we choose the easy way, a false choice between burning lifeboats or raising taxes.

Posted by: mikey999 | February 2, 2010 9:47 AM
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This little essay is cogent and astute. I've got a feeling a fair percentage of the voters in this country, if they were to read it, would go "what"?

What Gardner is saying in effect is that it's collective consciousness, which is typically quite unenlightened, easily swayed, selfish and in denial regarding most any unpleasant truth, that really rules a country. It's the root of Plato's objection to democracy 2400 years ago. Nothing really changes as many have said over the millennia.

Posted by: NYCman | February 2, 2010 9:47 AM
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It's not that it can't be done, it just can't be done under our current form of capitalism, which thrives on the working poor, pushes profits at all costs, and at the expense of human diginity. Ours ystem thrives from screwing people. That's why there are always kinks and blocks in the system to keep it going. We are at a point where the cost of living has superceeded salaries. We are at a point where it is ok for half the country to be homeless or hungry. But what's worse is that it is done with the government's blessing, since it couldn't be done unless it allowed it, unlike in other westernized countries. Half of some peoples incomes already go toward taxes, but there is so much waste in the system and certainly no cap on profits or their distributions with corporations. So why shouldn't you be able to maintain services without big spikes in taxes. Government should serve an inherant function, so that the population as a whole does not suffer. But since congress aparently has a bipolar conflict of interest, we're going to have to raise taxes considerably, but not to the well off.

Although we all theoretically have the same potential, everyone isn't a business owner or a leader or "gifted" or even needs that big house on the hill, but it doesn't make it right for 80% of the population to be in survival mode and only 3% of the population controlling all of the wealth. And now we are bargaining over health care, clean living, clean food. You pay more just to be healthy than if you wanted to poison yourself with our current chemical laden short cut of a lifestyle. The country was founded on the greed principles of John Adams and his "trickle down" theory, which has never worked. But the powers that be still fight to maintain the status quo and the gap between the haves and have nots continues to grow. All I can say is that we've fashioned ourselves after Rome and look what happened to it.

Posted by: lidiworks1 | February 2, 2010 8:42 AM
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According to Barrack Obama's economic advisor, Christina Romer, it was investment from Europe (due to the upheaval there) that pulled the U.S. out of the depression.

We need to encourage, however possible, investment in this country.

Let's put aside pettiness and do what we KNOW works. Once there are more people working and companies are profitable, we will collect more tax receipts.

To correct the situation, we must focus like a laser. Vote for pro business candidates.

Posted by: primegrop | February 2, 2010 8:28 AM
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More for less is the premise upon which WalMart is built. But, most of their stuff is worthless is costs more in the long run.

The premise trickles down to the local level. Our small HOA has dues 10-20% less than similar neighborhoods in the area. And, we have equal or better services. Yet, the constant complaining that more services are needed and we should also cut dues.

I have yet to hear a productive suggestion.

We need a little more reality at all levels of how much we utilize and how much that costs. How about a little personal and community responsibility?

Posted by: mellwood1 | February 2, 2010 8:24 AM
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the green jobs idea is a killer of jobs. we need to get the government off our backs. i know two senators that are done and they are in west virginia. bet you don't see a wack-job democrat come out of there again.

Posted by: 12thgenamerican | February 2, 2010 7:46 AM
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We want our oompah loompah now, daddy! If we don't get it, we'll SCREAM!

Posted by: steveboyington | February 2, 2010 6:39 AM
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If Bush had not invaded Iraq, that would have saved us at least $1 trillion. Afghanistan is also highly questionable in terms of our continued presence. We can easily find hundreds of billions that could be saved.

Posted by: magnifco1000 | February 2, 2010 6:31 AM
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