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

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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.