Thursday, September 1, 2011

How About a PAT — Presidential Aptitude Test

Earlier this week, there was apparently a discussion on Faux News as to whether President Obama was smart. Between hearing about that discussion and some of the statements being uttered by Republican Presidential candidates in recent weeks and months, I started thinking. We parade the candidates up for debate after debate where they spout off their talking points about this issue or another (only rarely answering the questions that were actually asked). And they tell us about their backgrounds and their families and their education.

But what we don’t seem to get to know is how well they really understand the history of our country, how our country works, basic concepts of economics and science, and so forth. Before a student is admitted to college, the student must fill out an application with all of the student’s particulars. And for many colleges the student must also write an essay or three (or have the parents write an essay or three…) about who that student really is (as if many 18 years old can answer that question, but I digress). But for many college applicants, the key question is how they did on their SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test).

So maybe it’s time for a PAT — a Presidential Aptitude Test. Let’s get a group of historians together to write a test about American history, a group of economists to write a test about basic economic theories, a group of scientists to write a test about basic scientific concepts, a group of constitutional scholars to write a test about the basic framework of the United States, and perhaps a group of international relations expert to write a test about the rest of the world. We might even throw in a test about modern current American culture (for questions like the cost of a gallon of gas or other similar questions the answers to which would be known by most every American unless totally out of touch with “the real world”). We can stipulate ahead of time that the questions are not to focus on controversial issues and we can agree that the panels writing the tests would be nonpartisan.

Think of it this way: Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if a particular presidential candidate knew how to amend the Constitution? Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if a particular presidential candidate could recite the First Amendment or the Second Amendment? Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if a particular candidate could describe the difference between supply-side economics and demand-side economics (if that’s the right term)? Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if a particular candidate could identify who was eligible for Medicaid or how the Social Security Trust Fund worked? Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how well a candidate understands the grievances offered by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence or could articulate the competing schools of thought at the Constitutional Convention that led to the compromises embodied in the Constitution? Wouldn’t it be valuable to know if a candidate understood that South Africa was a country or that Latin is not the predominant language in Latin America? And wouldn’t it be cool to read a candidate’s thoughts on a complex issue expressed fairly extemporaneously instead of in a two-minute debate sound bite or a position statement carefully crafted by professional writers? Just imagine if, as a part of the test, each candidate were given half an hour to write an essay on a pressing or pending issue. Wouldn’t the result of that essay be far more telling and interesting than the position statement or debate response? I’d be fascinated to read this sort of long-form, extemporaneous discussion of a candidate’s views on abortion or same-sex marriage or the flat tax, both with regard to the way that the candidate is able to express himself (or herself) in a longer answer and with regard to the way in which the candidate frames his or her arguments and what support is (or is not) offered.

And then we, as a country, could consider not only what the candidate claims to want to do if elected, but also how well we think that candidate would be able to do if elected.

When you get on an airplane, you want to know that the pilot is knowledgeable about how the plane works and how to fly it. When you’re having neurosurgery, you want to be sure that the surgeon not only knows what he’s doing but that he (or she) is really, really good at it. When you hire a football coach, you want to be sure that the coach knows everything there is to know about football (and physiology and group psychology and so on…). Lots of employers give aptitude tests to prospective employees. So why shouldn’t we provide an aptitude test for our political candidates?

Look, if voters want to elect an ignoramus who doesn’t understand the basic functions of the government or is ignorant as to history, that is the choice of the voters. We can ignore whatever failings we want to ignore. But it seems to me that a better understanding of a candidate’s actual knowledge base (and ability to call upon and utilize that knowledge) should be critical in our collective task of selecting our leaders.

Yes, I know that this is a pipe dream. But what the hell…

Oh, and on a related note, how’s this for an idea: Right now, our legislators can bring people before them to testify under oath on various issues. And those who testify (Roger Clemens, anyone?) can be prosecuted for perjury. But why don’t we demand the right to question our legislators under oath. I don’t mean that they should be susceptible to prosecution for perjury for saying that they think abortion is morally wrong or that same-sex marriage should be legalized. But wouldn’t it be nice if a legislator who made a verifiably, factually inaccurate claim (think Rep. Dan Burton’s claims about President Obama’s loan to Petrobras, for example) could be questioned about those claims under oath? I think that most voters probably pay very little attention to what their legislators say on a day-to-day basis and if told that their legislator lied, would most likely shrug it off as “just politics”. But would they feel the same if there was evidence that their politician lied under oath or refused, when under oath, to back up a previous claim? I suspect that sort of behavior would be noticed (especially if the press were to get off its collective ass and actually start reporting on the crap that comes out of the mouths of many legislators).

If people can be punished for lying to the legislature, why can’t legislators be punished for lying to the people? Hmm. You’d think that’s an idea even the Tea Party could get behind.

Update: Literally minutes after I posted this essay, PolitiFact.org weighed in on the Petrobras loan claim referenced above. They rated Gov. Rick Perry’s echoing of the claim “pants on fire”.

Update Dec. 9, 2011: Fixed some glaring typos. Oops.

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