Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | May 10, 2011

Facts first, then debate

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” ~ Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

As an opinion writer, the subject of how people arrive at conclusions holds special interest to me. I’m fascinated by how two people can look at the same situation and come to completely different conclusions about the best way to proceed. I’ve often determined that this happens because the two people in question have different priorities. But my “differing priorities” conclusion assumes that both people agree on a common set of facts.

Unfortunately, as the local, national, and international news has demonstrated recently, we very often cannot even agree on the facts.

Take, for example, the shameful controversy about President Barack Obama’s birthplace. Despite his campaign’s release of his birth certificate in 2008, despite the existence of notices of his birth placed in two Hawaii newspapers in August 1961 by the Honolulu hospital where he was born, and despite considerable other evidence, stubborn conspiracy theorists insisted that President Obama had to release his long-form birth certificate to put the matter to rest. He did recently, and predictably, many people who cannot accept that a brown-skinned man with an unusual-in-America name is truly American were not swayed.

A few days later, the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy Seal Team 6 inspired a new horde of conspiracy theories. Positive DNA test results, identification of the corpse by bin Laden’s wife and others, eyewitness accounts; none of it is enough for these folks who cannot accept that a Democratic commander-in-chief could accomplish what a unjustifiably swagger-filled Republican administration that was too quick claim ‘mission accomplished’ failed to do for seven years.

The federal government is facing a record budget deficit that the GOP wants everyone to believe is “not a revenue problem.” That might be an appealing talking point, but it’s not a factual claim. Conservative historian and economist (and member of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations) Bruce Bartlett called this claim one of several GOP economic “falsehoods.” The Guardian’s Michael Tomasky recently reported that in 1954, federal government receipts were 18.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP); in 1981, they were 19.6 percent of GDP (during the Reagan administration); and in 2011, they are estimated to be 14.5 percent of GDP. That’s the very picture of a revenue problem.

A large part of our current deficit can be directly attributed to the Bush tax cuts, and, thus, much of it can be addressed by increasing taxes on income above $250,000 per year. When that solution is suggested, Republicans fall back on the completely discredited trickle-down economics theory. This baseless theory claims that cutting taxes on the rich will eventually have positive economic effects on everyone. Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank wrote that this claim is “supported neither by economic theory nor by empirical evidence.”

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about K-12 public school funding. I noted that California has cut education funding year after year after year; given that Republicans in Sacramento have blocked a measure that would allow California voters the chance to extend soon-to-expire tax increases to prevent those cuts, we’re going to have to cut even more. I suggested that South County’s K-12 school districts consider asking voters to approve local tax measures in place of the GOP-blocked statewide tax extensions. In response, I’ve heard claims like these:

  • Local school districts have fat to cut. People who claim this offer no evidence to support it, and they ignore the years of cuts our schools have already endured.
  • Taxes are already too high. This “gut feeling” claim ignores the fact that taxes are at their lowest levels since 1958, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
  • California pays too much for public schools. This is another “feels true” claim that ignores the fact that California’s per-student spending has been on a steep decline and is now, depending on whether you adjust for regional cost differences or not, at 45th or 46th in the nation.

I’m happy to debate issues, but debate is a waste of time until all the participants are basing their arguments on facts, rather than ideology, fear or truthiness.

Until we get back to facts and reason, I worry that our communities, our state, and our nation will make little progress on the many serious problems we face.

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” ~ Founding Father John Adams

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