Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Column 146 - Bloviation

According to Matier and Ross in Sunday's SF
Chronicle, California State Senator Abel Maldonado got a lot of press when he criticized CA Controller John Chiang for spending nearly $1 million on new office furniture while the state was going through a budget crisis. As a result of Maldonado's attacks the money was not spent. It turns out, however, that the new furniture was to go into new, cheaper offices the Controller had leased; now Chiang can't cancel the lease and can't move in without furniture, so the Controller's office is stuck in their current, more expensive office and the state may be on the hook for $4.8 million in higher rent and other expenses over the next six years. Also, according to M&R, the 20-year-old furniture in the controller's office doesn't meet requirements under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, a situation which will require correction – presumably the purchase of new furniture anyhow.


If this were an isolated incident, it would be a one more stupid political move, but so what? Unfortunately it's not isolated at all. It has become common for politicians to make political points by isolating one piece of a larger picture and ignoring the impact beyond their own political fortunes, and for interest groups to dwell on the impact of cutting or not increasing funding to their area while ignoring the impact of what they are advocating on the budget as a whole.


This phenomenon crosses party and ideological lines and it's not confined to legislative politics. Industries do it, advocacy groups do it, it seems like everyone is doing it.


When you combine this with the tendency of a lot of well-meaning folks to confuse what they're sure about with the facts, it gets deadly. For example, Rush Limbaugh, when the stimulus package was being debated, announced to a nationwide audience that the Administration had purposely put it into PDF format because in that format it could not be searched, so to find out anything specific about the thousand-page proposal would be next to impossible in the time before it was to be voted on. Just one problem – PDF format is easily searchable. In other words his bloviation, while I guess he must have been sure about it, was flat-out wrong!


Perennial candidate Alan Keyes, (who was defeated by President Obama in the 2004 US Senate race in Illinois) declared publicly that the President is a "radical Communist" and that his US citizenship is in doubt , asserting that the Obama campaign never produced one shred of evidence that the President was not born in Kenya as Keyes claimed. This claim was repeated by a sitting Senator, Richard Shelby (R-Ala) as well. If Keyes and Shelby are not simply the biggest liars since Baron Munchausen, then we have another case of using a national platform to state strongly held view as if they were facts. (Fact: The President has never said or done anything remotely radical or communistic. Fact: the Obama campaign posted online a verified Hawai'i birth certificate in June, which was then also attested to by a right-wing website, World Net Daily)


So we have two converging trends: the tendency to advance one's own agenda without regard to the effects of doing so on the common good and the tendency to do this by stating what we can charitably call opinions as if they were facts. Put these together and those who, wherever they are on the political spectrum, are trying to do some good have their work made more difficult for them by orders of magnitude.


So what can we do? I urge a twofold effort: First, when you are advocating any political, economic, social, or military move, as much as possible consider the big picture. Don't advocate saving $1 million if it's going to cost $4.8 million annually with no remedy in sight. Second, it's fine to have opinions, but as Bernard Baruch said, Every man has a right to his opinions, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts. As was famously said, you're either part of the solution or part of the problem – hopefully these two moves will increase the chances of being part of the solution.

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