Thursday, March 15, 2012

truth in elections and balance

I was discussing with a friend the other day our views on politics. Not where we stand politically, but how we think the electorate, and the majority of Americans understand and think about politics. It's been an interesting few months for me, being married to Peter (who is rather apolitical and who unless forced to confront an issue simply doesn't notice it) and living with my mom (who likes politics and is rather opinionated, but who due to her lack of navigational skills on the Internet tends to get most of her information from facebook and/or cable TV news channels).

I was asking my friend what he thought a study  might reveal that took measurable metrics about America (such as "are tax rates higher now?") and compared them to the general view of what tax rates are now in comparison to before. It was my contention that there would be a disconnect--that voters would tend to believe whatever they were told the reality was, even though there may exist data and facts that would refute those opinions.

Luckily enough for me, something similar exists--and it appears, sadly, that I was right.

Here are two charts re-posted on Andrew Sullivan. The first shows tax rates since Obama took office compared to what people think the tax rate is. The second shows growth in government spending as a percentage of government spending under each of the last presidents since Reagan.

The first is, I think, more telling. The public believes, provably incorrectly, that taxes have not only gone up, but that they've increased dramatically. In fact, they have gone down.

The second I think is less useful only because one could argue that since government spending is higher under Obama than it was under (say) Reagan, that a smaller percentage increase in spending is a higher total increase in spending. I personally disagree that such an assertion disqualifies the main point of the argument, but I also don't think all government spending is inherently bad whereas most people who would agree that the counter-argument is useful do believe that most government spending is inherently bad.

So, what's the take-away? The take-away is that a democracy is only as successful and functional as the electorate is educated. Our current system of educating the populace, which depends upon a free and open media, is failing us because in the interest of "balance" we have (as a whole) decided to "balance" facts with non-facts simply to show "both sides".  Facts, unfortunately, don't have "sides" but we have decided that they should. 

As a side point, another interesting thing about "balance" is the take I've heard from Fox News fans--that Fox is "balanced" because it is "balancing" the combined slightly leftward skew of all other news outlets in general. If one were to watch ALL news outlets (including Fox) they argue, one would come out with a general net-value of zero on a liberal to conservative scale, and thus, without Fox, "the news" would skew leftward. Unfortunately, most people don't watch all news outlets and, especially for those who watch only Fox, they get only one side--the "balancing" of the leftward skew which is heavily conservative. It is the intellectual equivalent of a healthy person taking enough insulin to balance out the diabetes of his family members.