Thursday, May 19, 2005

Facts, Not Policy, What We Argue About

Some time last year I sent an e-mail to Bill Hobbs making this point. The Dave Winer comments about how we can all agree that the economy sucks reminded me to mention it here.

We have a tendency to focus on policy when we think of the differences which divide liberals and conservatives. I am struck by the extent to which so much of what divides us today is a very stark difference in our "understanding" of the facts. Ultimately, the blame for this falls directly on the news media, but that probably deserves a separate post. Right now, I simply want to make the point that liberals and conservatives "KNOW" very different things to be true. Pick just about any hot button topic and this is the case.

Have you ever noticed that most political arguments seem to involve people talking past each other? I first noticed this 20 years ago reading the typical Yes/No pieces which papers sometimes run in their Sunday political section. An advocate from each side of an issue (perhaps some initiative) prepares a column. Unfortunately, each completely ignores the strongest facts and arguments presented by the other. Often, a reader is left with far more questions after reading both pieces. It has only gotten worse.

Dave Winer "knows" that the economy sucks. I wouldn't be surprised if he "knows" that Iraq is a quagmire and that Bush "lied" about WMDs. Now I know that some readers want to interject that these are opinions. And that is true. However, opinions are based on some factual predicate. And responsible opinions must reflect some understanding of history. One might opine that 5% unemployment is bad or that 4% growth is inadequate, but history tells a different story and such opinions would be hard to take seriously.

Examples of the "facts" that are central to liberal political debate have included: that the homeless numbered over 3 million, that women are paid substantially less than men for the same job, that blacks suffer extensive job discrimination, that the air and water are getting dirtier (especially since Bush became president), that the poor and middle class haven't improved their standard of living, that the Bush tax cuts favored the rich, that the economy last year was the worst since the depression, that outsourcing jobs increases unemployment and many others of a similar vein.

Of course, each of those "facts" above can be shown empirically to be false. No matter. They are central to the "debate" and, in fact, matter more than the policy choices being debated.


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