The Fluid “Truths” Of Statistics

Over the past half century we have, as I have pointed out before, increasingly turned over the management of our nation to credentialed experts. These experts direct virtually every aspect of our lives based on jargon-filled studies and massive data sets, which purport to show that all their recommendations and actions are in our best interests. To question their judgments is to question logic and reason itself—and will earn you a whomp on the head with the latest edition of The Journal of Unquestionable Truths.

However, as statisticians have known for a very long time, the problem with data is that it can be readily manipulated—and deceptively compiled, selectively presented, or entirely ignored—to “prove” whatever you might wish. This numerical black magic is a boon to politicians who need to either direct attention away from their own job performances or whoop up anger to win votes.

One well-worn way to conceal the truth is to use methods of measurement that define the problem away. The official U.S. unemployment rate is a fine example of this chicanery. In order to be considered unemployed, you must have actively sought employment—that is, applied for a job—during the previous four weeks, which does a wonderful job eliminating discouraged workers and those for whom no suitable job openings are presently available. Moreover, you are no longer considered unemployed if you work a single hour—yes, one hour!—during an entire week. Very few people can purchase food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare with just one hour of pay, so this seems like the cruelest gaming of the numbers imaginable.

It has been variously estimated that the actual unemployment rate would double—or even triple—if a more honest accounting of those driven out of the job market or unable to secure full-time work were used, but I would not hold my breath waiting for this day to come. Comforting half-truths boost the reelections of many incumbents and must be maintained.

Another handy trick for misleading the public is to present data without context in order to support a narrative that would be contradicted were the full story actually to be told. Given the national attention now being paid to the issue of fatal police shootings of African-Americans—which is a matter that should always be of the keenest possible concern—one would hope politicians would focus upon sober facts in order to avoid inflaming public opinion and causing unnecessary fear of the police, but this is unfortunately not always the case.

Most would probably be amazed that during 2017, the last full year for which statistics are available, less than 1000 people were killed by the police in the United States. Roughly a quarter of these cases involved civilians who were mentally ill, in only 7% of these cases was the person who was shot unarmed, almost a third were fleeing the police—and roughly twice as many whites as blacks were killed by the police that year. It must also must be noted, were one interested in facts, that 135 police officers died from duty-related causes during this same year.

Although the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the small subset of unarmed African-Americans killed by the police must be carefully reviewed for signs of incompetence, bias, or malfeasance—and the officers involved punished if this is the case—we should not be routinely and loudly characterizing police officers as wanton murderers and racists. The facts do not support these assertions. As is often the case, the truth is much more complex and frustrating, and simplistic and dubious mischaracterizations interfere with the core mission of law enforcement, which is to apprehend the accused and protect the public from criminals.

A final way to fudge statistics is both simple and startling: ignore them altogether. We see this method most visibly used when it comes to reporting on the academic outcomes of our nation’s K-12 public schools and the students who attend them. Even though voluminous data on academic progress and college/career readiness is readily available across the nation—and helpfully broken down by individual schools and school districts—think carefully about the coverage you see on a daily basis about the public schools in your area. Most of the stories focus upon charming human interest topics such as high school athletes triumphing over adversity, trips to petting zoos and museums, sweet middle school students raising money for charity, teachers attending conferences, principals engaging in goofy stunts to raise school spirit, or retirees reminiscing about their careers.

One would be hard-pressed to ascertain from the occasional dribble of actual data provided by the media that American public education performs very poorly overall—and at far greater expense—compared to other nations, American college students continue to flunk out at astonishing rates due to weak K-12 academic preparation, and public school teachers are abandoning the profession in droves due to problems with disrespect, threats, and violence from both students and their parents. Education reporting seems to have, in many cases, abandoned actual investigation and inquiry in favor of rewriting glowing press releases because criticizing public schools risks offending powerful constituencies that include local businesses, construction companies, real estate agents, and neighborhood organizations—all of whom have a stake in the illusion of successful local schools for reasons both personal and financial.

Numbers do matter, and we ignore troubling trends and ongoing problems at our own peril. The peculiar lack of national coverage concerning our mounting and terrifying public sector budget deficits and debts is a fine example of a looming and significant problem that is largely absent from our 24/7 news cycles. As much as we enjoy our daily diets of scandal, silliness, and celebrity gossip, perhaps—just as the regular consumption of sugary sweets eventually rots the teeth—the consumption of “news” that provides no complete or reliable data to support its dishonest assertions and wild accusations is contributing mightily to our horrifying and destructive civic rot.

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How To Shrink Government—For Real

When I first started working in the advertising business in New York City many years ago, one of my senior colleagues told me the following joke—both to make me laugh and provide me with a little insight into reality….

 Starting his first day at a new job, a man ran into his predecessor cleaning out his desk, who gestured to the top right hand drawer.

 “I hear you’re taking over from me.  This is a pretty demanding position, so there’s a little tradition we keep up here.  I’ve put three sealed and numbered envelopes in this drawer.  When you hit your first crisis with our boss, open envelope number one.  When the second crisis strikes, open number two.  When you and our boss have your third falling out, open the third envelope.”  

 Smiling at the seeming absurdity of the three envelopes, the man said goodbye to his predecessor and started his new job.

 However, one terrible morning several months later, after his boss had chewed him out for not meeting his performance goals, the man went back to his desk and—his hands shaking—opened the first envelope and read the note: “Blame your predecessor.”  After lunch he went in and explained to his boss what a mess his department was in when he took over the position. It worked.  Mollified by the explanation, his boss sent him back to his desk without further comment.

 A couple of months later his boss was on the rampage again, demanding to know when improved results were forthcoming.  After anxiously reaching into his desk, the man pulled out the second envelope and read the advice: “Announce a reorganization.”  Racing into his boss’s office, the man explained that he was changing around the responsibilities of the people in his department in order to increase productivity.  A bit disbelieving but still satisfied by this plan, his boss sent the man on his way.

 Unfortunately, as yet more months passed, no improvements were apparent.  Frothing with rage, the boss told his underling to be in his office the next morning with a new strategy to finally turn around his department.  Remembering how the first two envelopes had saved him, the man raced back his desk and frantically tore open the third envelope.  

 Inside he found a note that read as follows: “Prepare three envelopes….”

 A good deal of private sector work tracks right along with the three envelopes.  Managers and supervisors have, from time immemorial, followed exactly this arc to keep those above them happy—at least for a while.  Government bureaucracies—and the bureaucrats and elected officials that run them—are likewise prone to either blame their predecessors or announce a reorganization when problems become too obvious to ignore.

 However, those who survive in government jobs become experts at one particular “skill” above all others: keeping their heads down and asking no questions.  Consequently, we employ millions of men and women who will—from the day they start work until the day they retire—plod placidly along while paying little heed to either the utility of their work or its societal outcomes.  The consequence is an ever growing chasm between the costs of government and the actual benefits that are provided to our nation.  

 If you’ve ever wondered why we spend our lives paying taxes for schools that don’t educate, roads filled with potholes, and various departments and agencies that seem to have no discernible or logical function, you are asking the right questions—but you are wrong in believing improvements are possible.  Absent the private sector accountability provided by the need to both produce measurable results and turn a profit, it will always be the predisposition of government to cost more and provide less over time.  Although there are many who believe—believe with all their hearts and souls in many cases—that those who want to reduce the size of government are heartless haters who are putting our lives and the future of our nation at risk, the catastrophic rise of both daily government expense and government indebtedness compels those with the least smidgen of sanity to question our current direction—and seek change.

 Obviously, we need government, and there are basic responsibilities that government is best suited to fulfill.  National defense, local law enforcement, health and safety regulations, and maintenance of the infrastructure and the regulatory framework necessary for interstate and international commerce are clearly the purview of government managed by elected officials.  Protection of our environment is also necessary to help ensure the health and welfare of our citizens.  A free, taxpayer-supported system of primary and secondary education—whether provided by public or charter schools—must certainly be in place to put each generation in a position for future success.

 However, the accountability necessary for well-managed government programs is impeded by the sheer immortality of government agencies and departments—that which is once funded never goes away.  Much like that famous fictional Count from Transylvania, government agencies and departments live forever, sucking the life blood of the citizenry and striking fear into the hearts of all who dare defy them.  Elected and appointed officials, although nominally in control, rarely have the staying power to do much to rein in their inexorable growth.

 Government is, at least in theory, the servant of the people, so the solution might be to let the people decide—directly.  

 Therefore, we should consider allowing the appropriations for every government agency and department—except for a very select few deemed absolutely vital to our nation—to “sunset” every ten years.  In order to continue operations, they would need to be voted back into existence by our citizens—not a handful of legislators who have been purchased through campaign contributions.  During the ten year cycle, appropriations and oversight would be left to elected officials and appointees, but thereafter a plebiscite of the citizenry—local, state, or national, depending on the department or agency or question—would decide whether to allow it to continue to function.  There would, of course, be a brief winding down period if programs were closed so that the enforcement responsibility for regulations promulgated could be smoothly transferred, but this would be manageable—and of limited duration and cost compared to the eternal life and expense prior.

 There will, quite naturally, be those who for a variety of reasons would vociferously oppose such an idea.  The status quo always has its fans—particularly when there is (as is always the case with government) jobs and money involved.  Nonetheless, unless we want to continue to spin on as we are until every last penny is gone from our pockets—and the pockets of our children and grandchildren—we must take affirmative and direct control over the mechanisms of our government.

 If not, we will soon be preparing our own “third envelope” for our nation and its future.  This is an outcome we dare not allow to occur.

Who Gets To Vote?

The history of American democracy is also a history of our sloppy, exclusionary, and infuriating system of voting. As much as we might want to paint our elections as some sacred system designed to produce that most perfect of all unions, the plain fact of the matter is that winning candidacies boil down to a very simple and cold-hearted equation: Make certain that my supporters vote and those of my opponent don’t. All the rest is political science theory.

Not surprisingly, the methods of winning elections by controlling who votes have run the gamut from the rascally to the outright despicable. Here in my own state of Illinois, the dead have a long and storied history of rising from the grave to cast their ballots. For much of our history women were denied the vote. Long after the passage of the 15th Amendment, African-Americans had to sometimes risk their lives to enter a polling place. Gerrymandered districts have long been used by both major political parties to neutralize the votes of some while amplifying the impact of the votes of others. The limitations of our continued reliance on balky voting machines and volunteer electoral judges perhaps reached an apogee—or nadir—in 2000, when we all had a chance to learn what a “hanging chad” was, and the U.S. Supreme Court abruptly—perhaps too abruptly—ended a Presidential recount in Florida and declared a winner.

Therefore, to blithely celebrate our “free and fair” electoral system requires a least a little willful blindness at times. We cannot discuss improvements if we deny our historic failures.

However, recent discussions about expanding the franchise by permitting felons, sixteen year olds, or even illegal immigrants to vote in some elections veer into territory that goes far beyond simply improving the systems we now have. We are now asked to decide whether felony convictions should be sufficient grounds for revoking a basic right of citizenship, when sufficient maturity to vote responsibly has been attained, or whether unlawful residency should provide voting rights that have historically been restricted to citizens. These are all huge questions that have profound implications for the future of our nation.

The question of whether states should continue to restrict the rights of convicted felons to vote hinges on a very basic question: Do we believe voting to be an irrevocable right or an earned privilege? At least to this point in time we have generally restricted the rights of felons to vote while in prison. The question today is whether voting rights should be automatically restored to felons upon release or there should be additional restrictions until other conditions set by individual state legislatures are satisfied by that ex-convict.

We might also reasonably ask whether the same restrictions should apply to both violent and non-violent offenders, but this often crashes into the question of whether we are giving preferential treatment to white-collar criminals. As regards the right to vote, should we distinguish between the accountant who facilitated a real estate fraud and the purse snatcher who knocked down a little old lady during the commission of the crime? Is the integrity of our voting system more at risk from someone running a marijuana grow house or someone who was stealing cars and stripping them for parts?

Having taught high school, I know my viewpoint regarding allowing sixteen year olds to vote has been affected by my professional experience. Some liberals are, of course, thrilled with this idea in the wake of student protests in favor of more—and more confiscatory—gun control laws because younger people generally skew hard left politically, and this tendency could affect the outcome of many elections. However, although the exuberant idealism of the young can be useful counterpoint to the weary cynicism of older voters beaten down by the eternal gulf between the promises and performances of politicians, bright-eyed ideology unleavened by messy life experience can be problematic.

Anyone who remembers their youthful belief in their own infallibility—which, of course, stood in stark contrast to the blind stupidity of the oblivious adult world—has at least at once grimaced at the utter cluelessness of their younger selves. The French have a lovely aphorism, quoted and re-quoted in various permutations, that ably captures this dichotomy: “If you are not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at forty, you have no head.” A world run by 16 year olds might by long on energy and short on practicality—or it might resemble The Lord of The Flies. Perhaps there is something to be said for the sagacity that comes with age. In addition, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 years of age in only 1971, so it is likely worth another bit of a wait before we fiddle with the voting age yet again.

The issue of granting some voting rights to undocumented immigrants is a topic of intense discussion in states such as California, Illinois, and New York. Their laws designed to protect the many who reside in those states illegally readily morph into granting this population more and more public aid and benefits of all types—so voting rights seem to some the next natural step. This is also viewed as a way to battle the entrenched “racism” of those who support stricter enforcement by helping to boost the electoral fortunes of those candidates who are friendly to the notion of a world without borders.

However, one would be hard-pressed to find a developed nation where policies that reward lawbreakers are commonplace, and it is reasonable to ask whether open borders and a modern welfare state are a potentially ruinous combination. Although it is certainly true that we are a nation of immigrants, those immigrants almost always arrived under supervision and with documentation—and rules and limitations have been crafted throughout our history to maintain a manageable flow of people into our great nation.

Of course, although our legal immigration policies have historically been quite generous, there is no doubt they have often reflected the prejudices and preconceptions of the people who crafted them. This is sad, and at times it has resulted in injustices that have affected individuals and their families, but we cannot undo the past and now must muddle along from here. Additional domestic and international issues, which are far beyond our ability to predict, will affect our immigration legislation and procedures going forward in ways we cannot imagine, so all we can do is continue to be as welcoming as our economic conditions and security considerations allow. Beyond this, the question of granting some voting rights to those who have entered the U.S. illegally will be a priority for some immigration partisans—but I strongly doubt the vast majority of Americans will endorse this idea because it fails to account for basic common sense.

There was once a time in American history when our polling places were in taverns and saloons—and a vote could be had for the price of a couple of beers. Our election procedures have obviously improved a great deal since, but much improvement is still possible—particularly as regards expanded voting opportunities and convenience.

Moreover, we can continue to improve the security and accuracy of the ballot in a variety of ways, and the increased infiltration of dazzling and powerful technology into every facet of our daily lives may someday mean that we will be saying “Siri, it’s time for me to vote for President.” on a Tuesday in early November. That would certainly increase voter participation—and reduce the opportunities for the chicanery and silliness that have marred too many of our elections in the past. In addition, it would be way, way cool.

Code of Silence

It was not a surprise to hear this, but a comment one of my students recently made in class seemed to neatly sum up our anxious and antagonistic national mood: “I really don’t like to express my opinion about anything because people just attack you for what you think.”

Yep. That pretty much nails it.

I am not one of those who believe that our major news outlets are part of some liberal cabal out to subvert America. Watching the sense of shock suffuse the faces of the pollsters and pundits on Election Night in 2016, it was obvious that the results had them completely gobsmacked. Having spent the previous couple of years in animated discussion with one another, they were convinced that anyone with a lick of intelligence thought just the way they did, and all of the national polls served to provide ironclad proof that we would be toasting President-elect Clinton’s landslide victory when the dawn broke.

One of the reasons more and more “experts” are so confused by the current state of our nation is likely that fewer and fewer Americans have any interest in serious discussions that extend beyond a small circle of close friends or immediate family. My student is absolutely correct that talk too often leads to trouble in our hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive environment. I sometimes feel the same way when I receive flaming ripostes regarding my blog commentaries. Principled disagreement based on values, judgment, knowledge, and experience has been relegated to the scrap heap of representative democracy. Now the focus is on “shutting down” those whose views are different from your own. Given the very high probability that your opinions will be misrepresented, misinterpreted, or mischaracterized, many now consider it a mistake to ever express what they think on a topic or issue of the day.

This problem harms our nation in three distinct—and important—ways.

First and foremost, open and fearless debate regarding the issues facing our nation is the very lifeblood of democracy. The moment that citizens start to shut up in order to avoid being “shut down” by angry partisans on either side, the possibilities for discussion leading to consensus are diminished. We may not always like what those who believe differently have to say, but we cheat ourselves and our nation if we do not listen to the doubters and dissenters who may see a problem or flaw that has been overlooked—or simply ignored—by those who are absolutely, positively certain there can be no legitimate viewpoint other than their own.

Moreover, there can be little doubt—particularly after the 2016 election—that silence produces suspicion. All those Trump voters flying beneath the radar resulted in the never ending—and never proven—narrative of Russian collusion that has poisoned our political discussions ever since. Although it is certainly true that the mainstream media chose to ignore the many signals that Hillary Clinton’s coronation was far from assured, it has also been well-documented that many Trump voters kept quiet in order to avoid the ire of family, friends, and co-workers—as well as the scorn of total strangers. In retrospect, more frank and open dialogue would have benefited everyone by perhaps diminishing the shock of Donald Trump’s victory and avoiding the creation of a thriving industry of conspiracy theorists who cling to a self-comforting and self-defeating saga of election fraud rather than doing the hard work of converting more voters to their causes.

Worst of all, any nation in which a few loud and angry voices are allowed to dominate is fertile ground for extremists of all stripes. The eye-rolling, smirks, and sneers that accompany so many of our debates today empower those who present the angriest denunciations of people whose only crime is to hold to a different belief or set of values. Moderation and accommodation is impossible when your opponents are considered twisted, evil, or deluded. Those who vilify others tend to attract a crowd, but that crowd—who are primed for the attack—readily becomes an angry mob intent on driving diversity of opinion down into the dust.

The fragmentation and fulmination of our political sphere today is frightening. Our innate human differences have now become deep and immutable divides that reduce us all to either friend or foe, which leads to yet more insularity and ignorance that will further erode our already damaged and dysfunctional civic culture. We must do better: More listening and less insulting would be a good place to start.

Sex and The Not-So-Single President

Another in a long line of Presidential sex scandals is upon us. The unsurprising news that many women are willing to sleep with rich and powerful men—and rich and powerful men are willing to let them do so even if one or both parties are married—still somehow manages to shock journalists, who apparently are all themselves paragons of rectitude. Of course, what truly turbocharges today’s Trump scandals is that they both provide a cudgel for the mass media outlets that loathe him and crash headlong into a moment in our cultural history when issues of sexual consent are paramount in the minds of many. The distance from Harvey Weinstein masturbating into a potted plant in front of an actress to President Kennedy giving the actress Angie Dickinson what she later described as “the best 20 seconds of my life” is perhaps not so vast as we would like to believe.

There are two facets to the accusations of impropriety now swirling around President Trump. The first is that he seems to have broken his marriage vows—more than once. The second is that he had his lovers sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for large cash payments that were arranged through third parties, which sets all sorts of alarm bells ringing when the #MeToo movement is now highlighting the many women who have been compelled to remain silent in the past about sexual abuse and assault.

All of this, of course, is taking place against a background of President Trump’s documented boorishness regarding women. The infamous “grab them by the pussy” comments on the Access Hollywood recording and accusations of unwelcome advances elsewhere have been widely reported, but it seems all the extramarital sexual encounters that have so far come to light are entirely consensual.

We do not know—nor do I believe it is our business to know—the details of Donald and Melania Trump’s marriage. Whether they have a private understanding that permits liaisons outside of their marriage or Mr. Trump is simply making the same mistake that so many men make—believing that marriage and dating are entirely compatible—I do not know. Although I understand it is all but impossible for public figures to keep any aspect of their lives private in our tell-all and scandal-driven media landscape, I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the privacy of married life should be respected.

However, now that the much-hyped expectations for actual evidence of Russian collusion during the 2016 election seem increasingly elusive, we can expect that President Trump’s personal and political enemies will be wielding women who claim to have slept with him like an enchanted sword they hope to use to slay the Donald Dragon. Adultery is not an impeachable offense, but it is embarrassing and uncomfortable. Democrats obviously hope keeping it continually and loudly in the news will erode the support that put Mr. Trump into the White House and further stoke the hatreds of his detractors—thus driving them to the ballot box come November. Reality will, of course, take a backseat to hyperbolic and salacious speculation from those with an axe to grind, and the media will be only too glad to spread the seediest and silliest theories far and wide with terrier-like tenacity and great glee.

How much of a teachable moment this will turn out to be remains to be seen. Unlike Thomas Jefferson having sex with a slave whom he owned or Bill Clinton using his charisma and power to hit on a baby-faced intern, President Trump seems to have confined his pre-Presidential affections to adult women who were experienced enough to know just what to expect from a philandering billionaire in search of some recreational nookie. As much as the media would like to paint these women as fair flowers defiled by a cad, porn stars and Playboy Bunnies seem the least likely of candidates for the fainting couch if approached by a man with lust in his heart.

None of this, sadly, is of any consequence to those political opponents who want to drive a duly-elected President from office because he is intent on shrinking the role of government, deporting illegal immigrants, reducing regulations, and cutting taxes—all of which are existential threats to their own policy ambitions. One should never shun a debate concerning the merits and cost-effectiveness of differing approaches to our nation’s problems, but the relentless spew of raw anger flung at those who want to change the direction of our country is unseemly and unhelpful. Government by insult, for which President Trump is equally guilty, makes it extraordinarily difficult to create the coalitions necessary to govern effectively, and relying on partisan judges and lawyers rather than elected legislators to form and implement policies will quickly erode the legitimacy of government as a whole.

If the end game here is to run the same playbook used to disable the Clinton presidency, endless innuendo capped by an obstruction of justice charge born of an understandable presidential reluctance to be forthcoming about every nasty detail of an extramarital affair, the true intent of Special Counsel Mueller and his supporters will be blindingly obvious. If this does turn out to be the case, we can expect our already insane partisan divisions to glow white hot, and Washington and the mass media that counts upon it for sustenance will spend many months (or perhaps years) screeching like monkeys and ignoring the needs of everyone outside of the Beltway Bubble while they jockey for political advantage—and the money sure to follow.

There is so much that we need to do and so many conversations we need to have. It makes no sense at all to waste our energies on this, but I have a sick, sinking feeling that improving our nation will take a backseat to breathless gossip for quite some time to come. It’s really too bad.