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A plea for fact-based policymaking in an era of political myths

Comedian George Carlin quipped that “business ethics” was an oxymoron. The same can now be said about reasonable politics. Politics and the making of policy seems less to rest upon reasoned debate, social-science evidence, and facts than upon hope and belief. Rep. Michele Bachmann panders to ignorance when decrying vaccines as causing retardation. She, along with Herman Cain, Gov. Rick Perry, and most of the other Republican presidential hopefuls deny global warning, evolution, and a host of other well-established facts, preferring to base their candidacies and appeals on propositions lacking rational or empirical support.

Ronald Reagan famously misspoke: “Facts are stupid things.” He seems to have gotten it right when it comes to political debate, pointing to how truth takes a backseat to myth or worse — lies. Two of Reagan’s myths — welfare queens exploding the federal budget deficit, and supply side economics as trickling down to benefit us all – both failed truth tests. But that did not matter then or now; people bought them as simple answers to complex problems.

Today, untested or worse, crackpot or refuted ideas dominate political debate. Nationally, we hear rants about how illegal aliens are a drain on the economy and that they take jobs from Americans, when in fact the evidence suggests otherwise and that they are net contributors to our country. Taxes are assailed as job killers when evidence suggests that they are a marginal factor behind workforce quality, access to supplies and consumers, and transportation costs as more important factors affecting business location and expansion decisions. Conversely, little evidence supports the idea that tax holidays to repatriate corporate savings back to the United States will yield job production. Herman Cain more or less admits that his “9-9-9” was conceived as a bold political idea that was not based on any real evidence of its impact.

A bevy of other stupid public policies and political myths dominate the American political landscape. Wrongly we believe that welfare migration is a major problem in the country. Some contend that teaching sex education to teenagers encourages promiscuity, that we can pray away homosexuality, or that same-sex marriage hurts traditional matrimony. Never mind what the best research and facts state.

Both parties indulge
Myth-based politics does not seem confined to one party. Gov. Mark Dayton is determined to secure funding for a new Vikings stadium even though the economic evidence is overwhelming that public subsidies for this purpose are one of the worst uses of tax dollars there is as a tool for economic development. Conversely, the Minnesota Majority continues to beat the drum of voter fraud as stealing elections when the absolute best research suggests that in-person election fraud is negligible, that there is no evidence that it has affected the outcome of any recent election, and that voter-identification laws will not prevent this fraud and instead will disenfranchise many individuals.

As a professor who has taught public policy for nearly 25 years and a former government administrator and planner who worked in the world of facts, evidence and research, I find all this frustrating, especially when called upon to testify before the Legislature. Seldom have I seen facts — and not ideology or prejudice — move elected officials.

My students are not given the liberty simply to assert opinions unless they can support them with evidence. We should ask no less of our politicians and government officials. Reporters do not press candidates to substantiate their claims, and the public often gives them a free pass, letting emotion, anger or frustration guide decision-making. What results are bad laws and foolish policies that do not work, waste taxpayer money, and often make the problems worse than before.

Evidence dismissed
Recently I gave a talk to a local Rotary Club about the 2012 elections. When I finished, a minister came up to me and asked where I stood on voter-ID laws. I told him that I had researched and written on the subject extensively and that the evidence of fraud was negligible. He dismissed my statement, declaring: “I am from Milwaukee, I know about voter fraud. They bring busloads of those folks up from Chicago all the time to vote in our elections.”  

I shook my head in disbelief. “Those people?”  He might as well as said blacks, because that is what he meant. I am not sure what disappointed me more — the racism, the dismissal of the facts  or that he was a minister. Why he asked my opinion I do not know — except to confirm his prejudices. It was clear his mind was made up and no amount of facts would change it. He embodied all that is wrong with contemporary politics — one not of evidence-based policy making but one dominated by blind ideology, ignorance or willful disregard of the facts.

David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships. He is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). Schultz blogs at Schultz’s Take.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 10/28/2011 - 07:08 am.

    But…but…but…Professor Schultz! I read about [fill in the blank here] on the Internet! Here is a list of 541 links. It *has* to be true!

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/28/2011 - 08:26 am.

    I’m sure the Discovery Institute, the Cato Institute or one of the other right wing “think tanks” can provide an appropriate “study” supporting the widespread abuse of voter fraud. Or any other crank notion du jour.

  3. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 10/28/2011 - 08:54 am.

    So Professor Schultz, how is the FACT that President Obama’s stimulus package will improve the economy working out?

    I would like to write more but I have to go for my flu shot and get a blood test for prostate cancer. I know for a FACT those steps will keep me healthy and I will be able to continue to vote for liberal candidates who are guided only by FACTS.

  4. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/28/2011 - 09:31 am.

    I guess the latest fiction du jour is the resurrection of the “birther” claim.

    To me, a major part of all this nonesense and false data is the offshoot of the internet. It is so easy now to make false claims…get wide dissemination on them…click a mouse…and pass them off as “legitimate”, that fiction in politics is more rampant now than ever before. Indeed, the internet is a virtual cesspool of flawed information (and I get crap every single day that is false and faulty)

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/28/2011 - 09:51 am.

    I think we need a new version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” showing us, not what the world would be like if George Bailey had never been born, but showing us what the US would be like if not for the government stimulus package.

    Such a movie would look far too much like a zombie apocalypse, with unemployed, starving people wandering the streets of our cities, farmers having to guard their fields and their livestock barns to protect them from those who are desperately, hungry, and people out in the woods fighting with each other as they search for edible plants and dig for edible roots enough to survive.

    Well, perhaps that would be a bit over the top, but we do have “facts” available, and a handy comparison: Great Britain, under Cameron, initiated no such stimulus package and their economy is lagging far behind even the sluggish growth rate here in the US.

    Perhaps a new “Titanic” would be helpful too. The facts are, that the bank bailout and “stimulus package” plugged the biggest leaks that threatened to have the US economy going down to Davy Jones’ locker, but we’re standing still in the water because the engines of our economy need to be repaired from the damage inflicted on them by the last thirty years of less and less care and maintenance.

    But the wealthy “conservative” business folks have holed themselves up in the engine room, with their hired political, media, think tank, and punditry thugs guarding the door.

    They’ve got supplies enough in there to party hardy until just about forever, and have NO intention of repairing and restarting the engines when they can keep the party going by just demanding that everyone else on the ship keep handing them everything they possess just so that they’ll keep one engine limping along enough to keep SOME of the lights and SOME of the heat and AC on.

    Sadly, they remain stubbornly ignorant to how temporary the current patches on the economy are and of the fact that, if we don’t get the engines running and get back to a safe port for major repairs of the type which will bring the ship back to the shape it was in when it really worked (back to the 1970s or so),…

    those temporary patches are going to let lose and we’ll still be heading to the bottom of the deep blue sea (economically speaking).

    You folks in the engine room? Do you feel that occasional shuddering vibration beneath your feat? Do you hear that deep creaking and groaning, and occasional snapping and crackling. Do you hear the OWS people yelling at you from outside the door of your nice, cozy, dead engine room where you play your games with each other but provide precious little benefit for anyone else?

    All those things are trying to tell you that the ship of state is in danger of breaking apart, in which case, you’re going to the bottom with the rest of us. Will you pay attention and use some of your massive resources to restart the engines, or will you and your resources go down with the ship?

    Of course it’s possible that eventually a group will storm the engine room, or come in by some secret backdoor that you didn’t know was there and take your control and your resources away from you (physically or virtually), in which case there will be “collateral damage.”

    Right now, you have all the power and all the money, so it’s up to you. If you don’t start helping everyone else, either YOU’RE going down or we’re all going down. Make your choice before that choice is taken away from you by the next economic crisis or the next, far-more-violence-prone group to protest the inequalities which have rendered them hopeless and with nothing left to lose; inequalities you have worked very diligently to create.

    Perhaps, in the style of “Oda Mae Brown” from the movie “Ghost” they’ll just clean out your offshore bank accounts, (which you won’t be able to complain about because if you do, you’ll be liable for taxes on the money you had hidden there) but it may be far worse. The choice is yours.

  6. Submitted by Ross Williams on 10/28/2011 - 10:14 am.

    We have a basic misunderstanding of democratic government. It is not about arriving at the “best” outcome because there is no objective, fact based, way of determining that. Democratic government is about balancing the competing interests of various Americans.

    Democratic government recognizes that the best outcome for manual laborers may be very different than the best outcome for college professors. That is true even if the college professors are smarter and more articulate. Facts are chosen to support the desired outcomes, but the real division isn’t over facts its over what outcome is desired.

    As for facts, most of us lack both access to good information and the ability to evaluate it. I believe in global warming, but I have not ability to evaluate the science. My belief is an act of faith.

    Our primary source of “facts” is the media, whose only real interest is telling interesting stories that attract an audience. Whatever information the audience gets from the telling is a side-effect.

    Complex narratives, with lots of contradictions and ambivalent conclusions, are not very entertaining. They are difficult to follow, confusing and require hours of study. As any good writer will tell you, its often the stuff that’s left out that keeps a story compelling.

    As an example. The demand for voter ID is fact-based. The fact is that a significant number of people who voted in the last election lack ID that would allow them to vote if the law is passed. The number is somewhere between 10-20%. And those voters without ID come disproportionately from demographic groups that vote for Democrats. If Voter ID prevents those folks from voting, it will make it more likely that Republicans will win elections.

    Of course those facts are important and interesting only to political partisans. The media needs a narrative with broader appeal. Both sides of the debate are more than willing to come up with one and the largely irrelevant facts to support it. So the “facts” we get are all about election fraud.

    Another example is the debate over Obama’s “middle class tax cuts”. The Republican’s competing position was “tax cuts for everyone”. The reality was that Obama’s plan provided larger tax cuts proportional to income to someone making $500,000 ($8,000 tax cut) than someone making the median income of $50,000 ($600 tax cut). The Republican position, eventually adopted, provided that person making $500,000 with a $17,000 tax cut. But that “fact” would have created a narrative about “how big” the tax cut the rich should get. That narrative was of little interest to either side in the debate and far too confusing to be an interesting media story.

    In short, the idea that we can or should have “fact based” decisions is a delusion of college professors, think tanks and bureaucrats. Do immigrants take jobs from current residents? The obvious answer is yes, just look at the meat packing industry that has been transformed from a unionized high-wage labor force to largely a low wage non-union immigrant labor force. And its not just low wage jobs, American technology companies continue to bring people from all over the world, despite high unemployment among technology workers. Of course, immigrants aren’t taking huge numbers of college professors jobs and they help keep the hotel rooms and food professors need relatively cheap. So the facts that are important to the college professor are those that highlight the benefits, rather than the burdens, that immigration brings.

    To be clear, I agree with the Professor. Illegal immigrants aren’t the problem. They come here to build a better life for themselves and their families. They come for opportunity.

    The problem is illegal employers who provide those opportunities and profit from the lower wages they can pay to someone who lacks a visa. Of course, if we threw those employers in jail the opportunities would disappear and so would most of the immigrant workers who do those jobs. So would made hotel beds, cheap food and a lot of other services those folks provide.

    Its not whether decisions are fact-based, its which facts we choose. And generally, we choose the facts that fit our self-interest and ignore the ones that don’t. The public debate on “global warming” has nothing to do with global warming science. Its whether and how we should reduce carbon emissions with the attendant costs. Its whether we should invest in alternative energy. The science is just an interesting media sideshow.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/28/2011 - 10:40 am.

    If people would just concede the well established FACT that public schools are underfunded, and if people would just increase their investment, all of our kids would be getting a quality education:

    How many times does the FACT that government spending is a vital part of any healthy economy need to be presented before flat-earthers listen?

    There are still some uninformed people disputing the FACT that cuts to LGA are to blame for the ridiculiously high property tax rates in Minneapolis and Saint Paul!

    And of course, how can *anyone* dispute the rock solid, indisputable FACT that humans are causing global warming?

    And while Rep. Bachmann is at it, why hasn’t she made a fool of herself disputing the FACT that everyone should be getting immunized against the flu?

    So many foolish people, eh David?

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/28/2011 - 10:41 am.

    @4: Yup, attack points not made and facts not asserted by the writer. You illustrate Mr. Schultz’s point quite well, as I’m sure you intended.

  9. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/28/2011 - 10:51 am.

    Jeff @#4: A statement using the future tense “will be” is not a statement of fact. If you ask the question “has President Obama’s stimulus package improved the economy?”, I’m guessing your opinion about that is “No.” I think Professor Schultz’s point is that public policy should be based upon facts. The fact is that when he took office in 2009, President Obama faced an economy in a deepening recession. He proposed a stimulus plan which he believed would at least avoid a worse recession or depression and would also bring the economy to full employment. Now the facts are that jobs and the economy have not rebounded as planned. Unemployment remains high and other economic indicators do now show the country has moved out of the recession.

    Now you can disagree that President Obama’s policies have accomplished anything. But then you also have to consider what other choices he has. Cutting taxes and deregulating the financial sector which has been tried from 1980 to 2008 (and still is the policy) hasn’t worked and only brought the country to the recession we are in.

    Public policy should based on those facts not bumper sticker slogans and ignorant prejudice. Our public discourse is based on these things, which is another reason why the country is in the tank these days.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/28/2011 - 11:35 am.

    I want to thank Professor Schultz for being so open and honest with his ideology.

    It’s not every day that parents of college-bound children get to taste and spit out the Kool-aid before buying it.

  11. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/28/2011 - 12:30 pm.

    “Democratic government recognizes that the best outcome for manual laborers may be very different than the best outcome for college professors.”

    “That is true even if the college professors are smarter and more articulate.”

    He shoots, he scoooooores!

  12. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/28/2011 - 12:36 pm.

    I couldn’t agree with Mr. Schultz’ view more.

  13. Submitted by Barbara Skoglund on 10/28/2011 - 01:21 pm.

    “Those People” I’ll never forget listening to a simple, concerned, good christian, stay-at-home mom on the radio. She was speaking with Allen Quist about the horrors the State of Minnesota was “imposing,” high school graduation standards, on “her children.” One lie followed another as she misstated what the new state requirements were going to be. When she began attacking social studies in the public schools she repeatedly said that she didn’t want her children to “learn about THOSE people!” I too took “those people” to = blacks or basically anybody who didn’t look like her. Oh yeah – another big lie – NONE of her children spent one day in a public school. Back then I just thought of her as that crazy lady from Stillwater. You may know her as presidential candidate Michelle Bachman.

  14. Submitted by David Schultz on 10/28/2011 - 01:22 pm.

    Among the worst trends in contemporary politics and education is to confuse insults with argument and learning only with hearing or reading about those matters than conform with one’s preconceived biases. If one cannot have an intelligent discussion then simply dismiss the opposition as idiots or Un-American. Similarly, we fail to educate our children or ourselves when we refuse to consider other ideas or diverse opinions that challenge our own. John Stuart Mill once stated that individuals who only know their side of the argument know little and such beliefs run the risk of turning into dogma. The belief that politics and the democratic process are divorced from knowledge and education is a core problem in American history and contemporary politics. Historian Richard Hofstadter recounts this anti-intellectualism that began with the Salem witch hunts and it continues today. Politics and political debate need to appeal to reason less it is all about emotion, anger, and prejudice. John Dewey, one of the great writers on politics and education in America, saw these connections, as did Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Popular governments rest upon an educated citizenry, and upon a politics that appeals to more than simply hasty opinion.
    Many dismiss contrary opinions by simply asserting that this is not the world they see. Remember, for eons the belief was that the Earth was at the center of the universe and the Sun revolved around our planet because our senses told us so. Copernicus settled that issue.

  15. Submitted by Dave Francis on 10/28/2011 - 04:20 pm.

    Being a legal immigrant, we welcome you. We do not discriminate against anybodies skin color. The millions of Tea Party members are consist of Blacks, Hispanics, Whites and people of any nationality. We welcome you to join the branch independent of the GOP hard right wing career politicians.

    There will always be a necessity for the highest skilled occupations with valid credentials, but not for corporate human resources sneaking into the country moderate experienced labor in any field, with low skilled abilities and harvested to be employed with low wages and no benefits. Thousands of Americans are willing to do this work, if paid a living wage and conditions; that goes for farming and agriculture? What we must not be deceived by, is the importation of poverty, which becomes a public liability.

    The Tea Party is not just about ridding our country of economic illegal aliens? Donald Trump explained it quite admirably about being ripped off by China; currency engineered, so we cannot even compete. Our industrial base is fading away because of unfair trade treaties. Hell! We don’t even manufacture a TV anymore. Our jobs are exported to cheap labor countries. But we all acknowledge we import intense poverty daily across our borders. We have a gargantuan matrix called the US government, which must be whittled down, to the 1960’s era. We are overtaxed to support Washington, different entitlements for people who have no ambition and don’t want to work. We have many career politicians in both parties—only in Congress to feather their nest.


    The TEA PARTY is adamant on closing down the (EPA) Environmental Protection Agency whose regulation are killing jobs and causing more problems. We must reign in the EPA so energy corporations can drill for oil, anywhere in this nation, so we are not ransomed to OPEC or other governments that don’t like us. In addition we must stop subsidizing other countries with our tax dollars; have we gone berserk by sending our limited dollars to China, when we owe them Billions? That giant agency along with the Department of Education must be returned to state jurisdiction. Under former President Clinton our country was thriving. The Liberal, Democratic and GOP establishment is draining America of its wealth and resources to survive. JOIN ONE OF THOUSANDS OF Chapters of the TEA PARTY in revolt.

  16. Submitted by Dave Francis on 10/28/2011 - 04:21 pm.



    Build the real 2006 Secure Fence; two 20 ft fences parallel to each other, attired with concertina razor wire with fast patrolling roads in between. Implement the E-Verify, Secure Communities and 287G policing laws, and like Arizona, the prison population will keep falling. With these enforcement tools installed, it will not necessitate more detention centers?

    Take your concerns to the doors of the Congress, as regards to illegal aliens stealing jobs, by way of collusion of dishonest business owners. Don’t moan about the policies of Sanctuary Cities, Dream Acts or the 6 small amnesties since covertly passed since 1986, unless you are ready to speak up. Then again, if you are incensed about the 20 million foreigners settled in America unlawfully, and the continuous stream—you can do something now. These migrants and immigrants are depleting the US federal and state treasuries and taxpayers pockets and then make your voice known.

    Activists are gaining some momentum as the ramification of illegal immigration is sinking into people’s minds. This is chiefly the outrageous costs that cannot be justified anymore. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.); Reps. Duncan Hunter(R-Calif; Tim Griffin (R-Ark.); Rep. McKinley are just a few of the new sponsors to “The Legal Workforce” Act, but nevertheless we must keep on the harassment to the halls of power.

    The Courts and President Obama’s Department of In-Justice, Governors, Mayors and federal and state officials have all the power against the average man or women. But if we unite, as one people we can derail all their plans, as the federal judges have deemed mandatory E-Verify constitutional.

    If you are determined to reduce illegal immigration to a trickle, and stop the 20 million or more settled here begin self-deportation. If you are against Sanctuary Cities, Dream Acts or any forthcoming amnesty, bombard your Senators with your voices. The united TEA PARTY is for all legal Americans and you can contact your Federal & State politician office, by calling the Washington Switchboard 202-224-3121 and insist on them voting for the “Legal Workforce Act.” (H.R. 2885) You can also send free faxes by going to NumbersUSA website.

    Hard core Leftists and democrats are out to derail our country progress, by any mean Possible. Their lies and rhetoric is rampant on the internet, with their supporters in the press. They have the backing of the communist inspired entities as the ACLU, Southern Poverty League and will even remain indifferent to the current trend of illegal aliens registering to vote. The TEA PARTY will be out in force to contain fraudulent voting in the 2012 elections.

  17. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/28/2011 - 05:54 pm.

    “I too took “those people” to = blacks”

    That’s a pretty common reaction among leftists, and since skin color tops the list of superficial characteristics by which leftists judge people by, it’s hardly a surprise….it’s just how those people roll.

  18. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/28/2011 - 10:07 pm.

    “Just remember, Jerry, it’s not a lie if you believe it”

    — George Costanza

  19. Submitted by Ross Williams on 10/29/2011 - 09:39 am.

    How can someone “steal” a job? They can’t. The idea that people seeking an opportunity are somehow at fault because employers choose to hire them is ridiculous. The problem isn’t the immigrants, its the folks who recruit them to come here.

    When are we going to put barb wire across the border lakes to keep those “illegal fisherman” from Canada from “stealing” our fish?

  20. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/01/2011 - 12:42 am.

    Tom Swift, bigots these days are smart enough to know that they can’t use certain words in polite society. Instead they say things like “those people” or “I feel ‘uncomfortable’ when I go to (insert name of place frequented by non-whites)” or “I don’t want to ride the bus with all the diversity” or “You have to drive through the jungle to get there.”

    Whom was the minister talking about when he said that “those people” were being bussed up from Chicago for alleged “fraudulent voting?” Owners of original Frank Lloyd Wright houses? University of Chicago professors? The White Sox? The singers of the Lyric Opera? The staff of the Museum of Science and Industry? Toll collectors on the Illinois tollway? Air traffic controllers from O’Hare?

    You know very well who meant.

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