The other day there was an op-ed piece in The New York Times that had a nifty chart proving a point I liked. I sent it around to a few people who I think see the world the way I do; I wasn’t trying to change any minds (not that time, at least), just kind of gloating. Two of my sons replied that the assumptions underlying the nifty chart were something short of unassailable. “Idiotically simplistic,” the older one (who still enjoys poking at the old man), called them.
Here’s what the chart showed: since Truman, U.S. employment has increased twice as much in years when a Democrat was president as when a Republican was hosting state dinners. See, I knew it, we’re the party of prosperity, not those money grubbing plutocrats.
Here’s what my sons said: Maybe the lag time between proposing, legislating and implementing fiscal policies and their effect on the economy is the length of a presidential term, so that the chart has cause and effect exactly backward. Or maybe the go-go excesses of one president have to be paid for by the next, as in economic booms that lead to busts. There’s too little data to support the conclusion, they said.
I have to say, they’re right. That doesn’t surprise me. They’re both smart and thoughtful. What does surprise me, though, is how easily I fell for the sketchy logic that led to a conclusion I wanted to be true.
When I was in law school, and for a few years after, I went through a period of not being able to have opinions on current events. At a cocktail party someone would ask what I thought about some issue and I would say I didn’t have enough facts to have an opinion. That’s what reading law taught me: to drill down to the relevant facts and only then to reach a conclusion.
In politics though, either as a politician or as a voter, that isn’t always possible. You can’t stand on the sidelines. You have to have opinions, even when you can’t get all the facts. Ultimately you have to vote. You get as much information as you can (or as you can stand), and you make a call. Inevitably, to give what you learn a context, you form a worldview. And just as inevitably that worldview affects the way you view new facts and opinions. You begin to fit the world to your view of it, instead of the other way around.
It’s an intellectual sin that gets talked about a lot these days as increasingly we band together with others who share our views and tell each other what we want to hear. It’s one I suppose I have to admit being guilty of myself. Good thing I raised my children to look hard at the facts before reaching a conclusion, even if I don’t always.