For People Who Think

April 19, 2010

The Truth is…Most Don’t Want to Hear It! by Dan Lynch

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 3:47 pm

The day has gone by when you can fool people into believing that the nation, or a state or a country or a city is going to the dogs just because one political party happens to be in power in it. People are sick of the kind of editorial writing which sees only good in every measure and every man sponsored by one party and only bad on the other side….That is one reason why the bitterly partisan press is losing its influence in this country.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Much has changed since FDR wrote those words 80-some years ago for a newspaper in the Hudson Valley. Tom Coburn is well aware of that, and he doesn’t seem at all pleased.

Coburn is a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma. He’s a conservative Republican, a physician and, incidentally, a two-time cancer survivor. He also was one of the most vociferous opponents of the Obama administration’s health care reform bill, which ended up as the single most bitter, protracted domestic political fight I’ve seen in my adult life. Republican/conservative anger over that bill’s passage remains ferociously intense.

A few weeks ago, Coburn stood up at a town hall meeting in Oklahoma and begged his constituents to develop a more reasonable and balanced view of politics. Coburn told his neighbors, “What we have to have is make sure we have a debate in this country so that you can see what’s going on and make a determination yourself. So don’t catch yourself being biased by Fox News that somebody is no good. The people in Washington are good. They just don’t know what they don’t know.”

In particular, Coburn took Fox to task for perpetuating the notion that Americans will be imprisoned for failing to purchase health insurance under the new law, which isn’t true and never was. Coburn’s press aide, John Hart, said later that his boss wants people to gather information from multiple sources rather than relying on just one news outlet. Hart said, “He makes those comments privately frequently about media networks. I think his point was to encourage citizens to be skeptical consumers. He was not trying to pick on Fox.”

Fox is worth picking on, though, as is MSNBC, which essentially has turned into Fox in drag. Fox shills shamefully for conservatives/Republicans, routinely distorting facts and sometimes ignoring them altogether. MSNBC does the same for liberals/Democrats. As the influence of the more objective, balanced and more complete print news media fades and the influence of cable, partisan talk radio and the Internet increases, we seem to have now entered a time when rational, fact-based discussion of important public issues in this democracy is increasingly more difficult to achieve. I know this because I do talk radio for three hours every afternoon on Albany’s WGDJ Talk 1300-AM. I deal every weekday from 3 to 6 PM with many people who are all opinion and no fact. They come from both sides of the political divide, and they’re not all ashamed of having no information whatever on which to base their beliefs. They heard it on Fox or MSNBC, dammit, and if it was on TV then it must be the truth. And, by the way, they’re mad as hell about it, and anybody who fails to agree is a vile, evil person.

To a greater extent than I can ever recall in a long, misspent life in journalism, political discourse in this country is now so vicious, so personal and so resistant to concrete, verifiable facts that national politicians are now receiving death threats on a more or less regular basis.

Much of this is because of a widespread and well-documented human behavior trait known to scientists as confirmation bias, or confirmative bias. That’s a purely human tendency for people to prefer information that conforms to their preconceptions regardless of the accuracy, or lack thereof, of that information. People tend to reinforce their existing points to view by selectively collecting new evidence, by interpreting evidence in a biased way or by selectively recalling information from memory.

Confirmation biases represent disturbingly common flaws in the way many human beings process and receive information. The result is overconfidence in personal beliefs and, often, unfettered rage when those beliefs are confronted with objective facts that challenge those beliefs. In many real-world situations, especially in political matters, evidence is complex and mixed, so any virtually quest for evidence to support a particular belief can be successful if conflicting evidence is ignored or rejected as untrue simply on the basis of gut reaction.

A few examples of what scientists found:

In 1982, scientists Lee Ross and Craig Anderson conducted experiments on confirmative bias that led them to this conclusion, “Beliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges. They can survive and even be bolstered by evidence that most uncommitted observers would agree logically demands some weakening of such beliefs. They can even survive the total destruction of their original evidential bases.” This scientific conclusion is based on tests and surveys that have been replicated countless times.

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist and a health policy researcher at the University of Michigan. His own research and his review of other research into confirmative bias has led him to conclude that, “People tend to seek out information that is consistent with their views; think of liberal fans of MSNBC and conservative devotees of Fox News. Liberals and conservatives also tend to process the information that they receive with a bias toward their pre-existing opinions, accepting claims that are consistent with their point of view and rejecting those that are not. As a result, information that contradicts their prior attitudes or beliefs is often disregarded, especially if those beliefs are strongly held …

Nyhan wrote in The New York Times, “Our results indicate that … journalistic fact-checking often fails to reduce misperceptions among ideological or partisan voters. In some cases, we found that corrections can even make misperceptions worse. For example, in one experiment we found that the proportion of conservatives who believed that President George W. Bush’s tax cuts actually increased federal revenue grew from 36 percent to 67 percent when they were provided with evidence against this claim. People seem to argue so vehemently against the corrective information that they end up strengthening the misperception in their own minds.

Roosevelt thought that the days of confirmative bias were coming to an end in 1930. In actuality, thanks to Fox, MSNBC and the Internet, blindly biased ideas and nutty perceptions are more than ever a part of our political life as Americans. In the movie “A Few Good Men” Jack Nicholson played a Marine commander grilled on the witness stand by boyish Navy lawyer Tom Cruise. When pressed by the lawyer for the truth, the Nicholson character bellowed out, “The truth? You couldn’t handle the truth!”

Unfortunately, that seems to be truer than ever these days for far too many of our fellow citizens in this marvelous democracy of ours.

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April 9, 2010

The “Ugly Truth”…We All Die and Almost Everyone Pays Taxes

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 2:54 pm

Here it comes, as it does every year – April 15th, tax day. Already, I’m hearing the complaints on my talk radio program on Albany’s WGDJ Talk 1300. One guy called the other day to complain that half the people in this country pay no federal taxes, but he has to pay them, and he’s furious about it.

Not quite true, I explained to him. Nearly 37 percent of U.S. tax revenue comes from personal income taxes. That’s about 10 percentage points more, on average, than in other industrialized countries. And it’s most assuredly true that roughly 45 percent of American households will pay no federal income tax in 2010, according to estimates by the Tax Policy Center. That’s a nonpartisan, non-political Washington think tank that focuses on tax issues.

How do these people get away with paying no federal income tax? Well, half these people are dirt poor. They bring in too little income to be liable for income taxes. The other half is composed of people who earn a bit more, but they qualify for various other tax credits — the earned income credit, the child and child-care credits, the American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning credits, which help pay for college, and the saver’s credit, which subsidizes retirement saving.

But, I explained to my caller, these people still pay the other federal taxes that make up two-thirds of the government’s revenue stream. They pay Social Security and Medicare taxes when they work. When they buy gas they pay the same state and federal taxes the rest of us pay. If they smoke or have a drink now and again they pay excise taxes. On the local and state level, they pay sales taxes when they buy stuff. If they own real property they pay property taxes. According to the Tax Policy Center, more than 75 percent of us will pay at least some form of federal tax in 2010. And the remaining people – those who pay no federal taxes? For the most part, they’re low income old people or grindingly poor people with kids. Even people with annual incomes under 10 grand pay some federal tax, generally in the form of payroll taxes on wages.

And if you’re one of those people who believes that rich people pay no taxes, then take a whiff of this cup of coffee: While it’s true that a very few rich people do avoid federal income tax through the help of shrewd lawyers and accountants, the Tax Policy Center’s research shows that 99.7 percent of people with annual incomes above $1 million will pay federal taxes this year. On average, on April 15th they’ll give the federal government 27 percent of what they bring in. The tax bill for the American taxpayer? About 18 percent.

Well, yeah, the caller said to me, but Americans are overtaxed. Taxes deprive us of our liberty and freedom. Taxes kill the economy. They kill initiative. Nobody pays taxes like Americans pay taxes. Okay, I said; that’s a point of view. Here are a few facts, though:

The Tax Policy Center tells us that in 2007, the last year for which final figures are available, federal, state and local taxes totaled about $3.8 trillion. That’s about 27 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. That breaks down this way: Every American paid just under $13,000 in taxes. About two-thirds of that went to the federal government. As onerous as that sounds, though, it’s a lower percentage of income than the citizens of any other rich country pay.

According to the Tax Policy Center, taxes in 30 of the world’s richest countries average 36 percent of GDP. Only Mexico, Turkey, South Korea and Japan have tax rates lower than ours. And taxes in many European countries exceeded 40 percent of GDP because these nations offer vastly more extensive government services than the United States does. Moreover, they do that without maintaining a big defense establishment, as we do. They crowd in, shoulder to shoulder, under our military umbrella, and we Americans pay for their protection from the world’s really bad guys.

It is true that we Americans do pay far more in individual income taxes than residents of other wealthy nations. But we pay much less in sales taxes. About 17 percent of U.S. tax receipts come from taxes on goods and services. That’s about half the 32 percent average for rich countries. The reality is that the American tax load is considerably lower than what’s paid by people in other wealthy countries.

As for high taxes killing the economy? The 27 nations in the European Union are home to about 500 million people who produce 25 per cent of the world’s total economy. We, with a population of about 310 million, produce another 25 per cent. Per capita, we do a bit better than they do, and our economic growth has been a bit higher, but we’re also younger than they are, and our population has grown more quickly.

I had another caller who was horribly worried about the growing federal deficit and the growing national debt. These are worthy concerns, by the way. The Tea Party people are really on to something here. But this caller, as have other callers to my program, predicted that this country will cease to exist within five years if we don’t fix this right now. “We won’t have a country any more,” he predicted.

I explained that there’s a difference between legitimate concern about the country’s debt and utter hysteria over it. The Congressional Budget Office says that without spending cuts, higher taxes or some combination of the two that national debt will, in 10 years, hit 90 per cent of our GDP. That’s a scary number, but the Japanese have a national debt of 140 per cent of that country’s GDP, and the Japanese still have a country. Not only that, they also have the world’s second-largest national economy, although that economy is wheezing along under the staggering burden of that debt.

The liberals like to think that we can fix the debt problem by taxing rich people more heavily. The conservatives like to think that we can just cut spending. They’re both living in Fantasyland.

First, here’s why the liberals are wrong: A study conducted by the Tax Policy Center found that Washington would have to raise taxes by almost 40 percent to reduce — not eliminate, just reduce — the deficit to 3 percent of our GDP. That’s the 2015 goal the Obama administration set in its 2011 budget. That tax boost would mean the lowest income tax rate would jump from 10 to nearly 14 percent, and the top rate from 35 to 48 percent. If we raised taxes only on families with couples making more than $250,000 a year and on individuals making more than $200,000, then the top two income tax rates would have to more than double. The top rate would have to hit almost 77 percent to get the deficit down to 3 percent of GDP. Are the citizens of this country about to stand for that? Not a chance. And, if by some miracle increases like that could get through Congress, they still wouldn’t come close to eliminating the deficit.

As far as just cutting spending? At the moment, federal tax receipts are sufficient only to cover the costs of Social Security and Medicare, the costs of which will begin to rise dramatically next year as 10,000 baby boomers a day begin to hit the system for the next 18 years. The federal government borrows to cover everything else. Trying to fix the debt problem just by cutting spending would mean no federal food inspection, no defense department — no anything but Social Security and Medicare. Since the U.S. Constitution requires the government to provide for the national defense just cutting spending wouldn’t even be constitutional.

Bottom line: Taxes and death are equally unavoidable. Everybody resents paying taxes, but too few people really understand either what’s going on around them or why it’s going on in the first place. The solution: Turn off the daily pep rallies for one political faction or the other that you find on most of talk radio, on Fox and on MSNBC. Instead, treat yourself to a helping of the best available version of the truth.

Which, these days, is all too often the ugly truth.

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