Unknown knowns?

Posted: 20 January 2014 in Uncategorized
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The other day over lunch, we discussed the issue of growing inequality and economic instability and whether or not the elite is aware of what is going on right now.* Do the members of the political and economic elite know about how dire conditions are for a large part of the population, and then choose not to do anything about it? Or, alternatively, are they so sheltered in their gated communities they are simply ignorant of the forces that are tearing this society apart?

This is the problem, then, of the “unknown knowns,” which Slavoj Žižek defines as “the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values.”

Jonathan Gray [ht: ja] thinks the “acute fragility of our economic system” is one such unknown known, “one of many facts we all know but have decided not to think about.” And he considers this “resolute avoidance of unsettling facts” to be “a deep-seated human trait.”

I’m not convinced. While I don’t pretend to know what the members of the elite think (I’m not a member and I don’t spend time with them), their spokespeople may reveal something about what they’re thinking (or at least what they want to hear). David Brooks is one such example. When he explains away inequality by the “superstar effect” and blames poverty on the bad decisions and character problems of the poor, he is both acknowledging that inequality and poverty are problems to be reckoned with and attempting to defuse them so as to avoid a “primitive zero-sum mentality” that holds “growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor.” Basically, what that means is that policy should focus on providing better opportunities for those at the bottom and, if they don’t take advantage of them—if they remain poor—it’s their own damn fault. There’s not much more that society—including and perhaps especially those at the top—can do for them. I prefer to call that deliberately unknowning a known.**

As for the general (non-elite) public, they seem to have a pretty good idea of what is going on, at least as revealed in recent surveys (e.g., by Gallup and Pew). They know there’s a growing gap between the rich and poor and that’s a bad thing for the society in which we live.


And they know the nation’s economy is in bad shape, long after the official recovery was declared.


I don’t see much evidence of unknown knowns there. By and large, people seem to be pretty aware of what is going on, in terms of both inequality and the acute fragility of our economic system.

More important, I don’t see any evidence of a deep-seated, shared human trait to avoid unsettling facts. What I see, instead, is a determined campaign to attempt to unknow what we full well know in order to forestall any kind of fundamental questioning of our current economic institutions.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to stop pretending and acknowledge what we do, in fact, know.


*I’ve been having lunch with a colleague and friend once a week, while school is in session, for more than 20 years.

**On the other hand, one way of interpreting the recent stridency about the problems of inequality and economic fragility on the part of some mainstream economists, such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, is that the members of the ruling class don’t appear to be willing to know what is known.

  1. […] up was David Brooks. Now we have Robert […]

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