Free + clear: The great debate

 In Free + Clear

Has it become impossible to engage in robust, respectful and productive debate about political issues? Quite a few North Carolinians would say yes. Some believe politics has devolved into pointless name-calling. Others say the objective of political discourse — persuasion — is no longer achievable. They see most minds as already made up and most issues likely to be determined only by who shows up at the polls.

I agree that too many political debates today are coarse, unproductive and little more than preaching to the choir. But I don’t accept that status quo is our only alternative. And I certainly don’t accept the proposition that persuasion is impossible. In fact, while underlying values are often formed early in one’s life and not easily altered, there is a good amount of social-science research suggesting that many people do indeed change their positions over time on particular issues in response to a combination of new information, new circumstances and the use of effective rhetorical techniques.

I’m currently working with other North Carolinians across the political spectrum on several projects to elevate the political debate. One program, the North Carolina Leadership Forum, has assembled nearly three dozen leaders to engage in constructive dialogue about how to help more residents earn enough to support their families. Another program, the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership, is retooling and expanding its decades-long effort to prepare candidates of all parties to run substantive, ethical campaigns.

A more informal project of mine is to encourage officials, activists, journalists and others who debate political issues to make better arguments for the positions they hold. Over the years, I’ve probably been as guilty of jumping to conclusions and constructing faulty arguments as anyone else. I plan to do better. If I succeed, perhaps my example will encourage others to up their game as well.

As part of this task, I’ve been keeping a list of common fallacies about public policy. Here are four big ones to ponder. The first is commonly advanced by liberals, the second by conservatives. The other two are propagated by both groups.

 

Corporations have no rights. Many liberals passionately believe that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and other cases have improperly extended constitutional protections to corporations. Only people have rights, they explain. Well, yes. Inanimate objects or bundles of contracts by definition have no rights, responsibilities or bodily existence. But when we say the group “Citizens United” had a right to produce and distribute a disparaging film about Hillary Clinton, it’s really just shorthand for saying that the people who formed that association — the staffers, board members, donors and volunteers — enjoy the freedoms of speech and press.

Do liberals really believe that The New York Times enjoys no freedom of the press, the NAACP enjoys no freedom of assembly and the Catholic Church enjoys no freedom of religion? I doubt it.

 

Tax cuts pay for themselves. While the first fallacy persists because of a lack of consistency, this fallacy arises from exaggeration. There are clearly some situations in which reducing a tax rate can produce revenues above the original baseline forecast. Cutting a high tax rate on capital gains, for example, can induce so many transactions that the government collects more revenue at the lower rate. And over the very long run, lower taxes on work, savings and investment can expand an economy’s productive capacity so much that the net result for the government’s treasury is positive.

But these cases do not prove that cutting a local property tax or state income tax by, say, 20% can “pay for itself” through stronger economic growth within a few months or years. The math just doesn’t work.

 

There’s been no real progress in education. All sides in the education-reform debate tend to romanticize the past, in part to argue that a recent policy they dislike has produced no benefits. As evidence, they often point to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It shows that average scores for high-school reading and math are about the same today as they were in the early 1970s.

But that’s not the end of the story. During the same period, NAEP scores rose for each racial and ethnic group — a little bit for whites, a large amount for Hispanics and an even larger amount for blacks. So why did the average score not rise? Because the relative proportions of these groups changed. We still have a long way to go, obviously, but these trends don’t mean past school reforms haven’t been beneficial.

 

The war on poverty didn’t make much difference. Official poverty measurements don’t show a significant decline since the mid-1960s. Liberals say this proves we should spend more tax money fighting poverty. Conservatives say this proves government programs don’t reduce poverty.

Neither conclusion is valid. What we really have here is a flawed statistic. When scholars measure actual consumption (not reported income), include the value of in-kind government benefits and use an inflation adjustment that doesn’t exaggerate price increases, they find that America’s true poverty rate fell from 31% in 1962 to 5% by 2010, according to studies by the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute.

That still leaves plenty of room for debate, of course. I’m all for it — about poverty and many other issues. But let’s make that debate more informed, responsible and engaging.

John Hood is  president of the John William Pope Foundation. You can reach him at john.hood@jwpf.org.

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