TCS Daily


The Death of Common Sense

By Stephen W. Stanton - February 17, 2003 12:00 AM

People like me write these columns for a reason. We believe we can make a difference. We identify gaps between public opinion and common sense, and we try to reconcile these differences. Maybe a particular change in the tax code might help the economy. Maybe an alleged expert is not what he seems. Maybe McDonald's did not force anybody to super-size.

Sometimes, the public simply lacks sufficient information on a subject to make an informed decision. In such cases, the Fox News mantra applies, "We report, you decide." For example, Glenn Reynolds gave Tech Central readers an overview of nuclear spaceship technology and its potential.

More often, a columnist faces the more difficult task of changing minds. On many issues, readers already have strong opinions and facts to support them. With almost a month to ponder the dividend tax cut, readers have been bombarded with arguments from every angle, each citing endless pages of facts, figures, and theories to support their viewpoints. Each argument hinges on a few key questions: Is it fair to have such a large gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans? Is it fair to force 3 percent of the public to pay the majority of income taxes? Is dividend tax relief an overdue reform of our capital markets, or is it an unbearable stress on our government finances? Will the tax cut unleash strong economic growth, or will it trigger a deficit-induced torpor?

Common sense can guide our assessment of various public policy options. With a background in relevant disciplines, thoughtful analysis cuts through the noise and reveals the obvious truth. For example, dividend tax relief has many extremely likely outcomes, including higher dividend payouts, lower corporate debt ratios, reduced stock market volatility, and a higher sustainable rate of real GDP growth. Since rich folks own more stock than poor folks, income inequality should increase in the short term. So is it a good idea?

The job of a columnist is to make the strongest possible case for a particular viewpoint. The columnist's primary tool is logic. Every writer seeks to make his arguments unassailable while pointing out fatal flaws in the other side. Equipped with this new knowledge, the reader can form sensible opinions. Of course, this assumes the reader is rational.

However, logic alone rarely wins an argument. Intelligent people do not always reach the same conclusions. Even if everybody can agree on the facts, we rarely reach an agreement on the underlying assumptions. For example, what is more important, safety or liberty? When formulating motorcycle helmet laws, most lawmakers decided that public safety concerns trump our freedom to risk our own lives needlessly.

A recent Business Week cover revealed one of the editors' key assumptions. The magazine predicted that as dividend tax cuts are enacted, "income inequality gets worse". Of course, for income inequality to get "worse", they must believe it is already bad. That judgment is quite subjective, and has a profound impact on economic policy. We must often choose between growing the pie and dividing it more evenly

On the other hand, many economists believe that income inequality is a positive sign. If everyone were paid the same, there would be no incentive to pursue a difficult or demanding career as a surgeon or nuclear physicist. In fact, society is probably better off because wealth-seeking entrepreneurs founded FedEx, Dell, and Microsoft. Based on this assumption, maximizing the size of the pie is usually the main priority.

Differing assumptions account for much of the debate over policy issues facing America today. However, considerable disagreement is completely illogical and entirely emotional. Protesters spout hateful insults, assert impossible conspiracy theories, and resort to outright bigotry, including anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. For example, elements of the lunatic fringe have asserted that God sent us a message by destroying the Space Shuttle over Palestine, an otherwise unremarkable Texas town. Logic schmogic, such claims prey upon the worst elements of human emotion.

Another emotional reaction is unabashed partisanship, much like a New Yorker's blind devotion to the Yankees and disdain for the Red Sox. Republicans have been compared to the Nazis. Democrats, for their part, have been called treasonous. A cacophony of protesters accuse Bush of trading blood for oil, which makes no sense at all. This partisan mudslinging has nothing to do with issues, just elections. It is a shame that such rhetoric often drowns out the voices of reason.

Most Americans simply do not have enough time to become experts on every issue. It would take months to pour through budget documents, congressional testimony and comprehensive reports associated with the Bush tax plan. How many Americans have even seen the President's actual budget proposal? Not an executive summary, not an expert opinion, but the actual 23.3 MB document. (Hint: Not many.)

Accordingly, many Americans rely on columnists to present the cases for all of the available options. Pundits focus on the strongest arguments and the most convincing evidence to support our views. Readers then use columns as executive summaries, a good starting point from which to conduct further research and develop informed opinions.

Unfortunately, too many columnists eschew logic in favor of fallacious arguments, questionable assumptions, and emotional manipulation. Readers are left misinformed and agitated. Is the war on terror just a way to make a fortune for Cheney's Halliburton buddies? Some activists think so. Such baseless claims only foment anger. In Star Wars terms, these columnists serve the dark side of the force, invoking class warfare, partisanship, intolerance, jealousy, and worse.

Fortunately, there are columnists that wield common sense with the precision of a light saber to combat the reckless aggression of their profession's dark side. Andrew Sullivan, for example, has exposed the obvious shortcomings of several New York Times columns as the paper shifted its mission from journalism to partisan activism. Andrew expects, as I do, that the public will usually make the right judgments when equipped with all the facts.

Common sense does occasionally lose out to emotional arguments. The biggest failures of civilization have been the products of unchecked emotion: Bigotry facilitating the American slave trade, religious fanaticism fueling terror, envy and ambition sparking world wars... By invoking our most primal urges, an outspoken few were able to convince entire societies to ignore their common sense with disastrous results.

Yet emotion will always be an integral part of humanity. We must never diminish our capacity to feel love, joy, excitement, and even the fear and sadness that makes us appreciate our better days. Our most rewarding experiences are not products of cold logic, but intense emotion, whether loving a spouse, raising a child, or just making the world a better place to live.

Yet even when a particular course of action just "feels right", sometimes feelings don't matter. We must seek truth in our courts. We must pursue pragmatism in our economic policy. We must accept calculated risks in our space program. We must preserve logic in our legislative process. Our government should be effective and efficient. In short, we need common sense in our public institutions.

The alternative consists of government policies that sound good, but don't work. Too many people have died needlessly from economic stagnation caused by communist idealism. Millions have been killed in religious wars since long before the Crusades. Even today, activists are threatening to remove patent protection afforded to pharmaceutical companies, potentially eliminating their sole incentive to produce the next generation of lifesaving drugs.

Alas, we columnists rarely change minds. In our pop culture, Mr. Spock's flawless logic is no match for Captain Kirk's recklessness. Kirk always saves the day and gets the girl. Back on earth, it does not work that way. We could use a bit more common sense in out public policy. Columnists like me try to make it happen. Often, our words go unheeded. Years later, when bad laws hit the fan, we write page after page of "I told you so" columns. While it always feels good to be right, my peers and I would rather have good laws passed in the first place.

Unless we get to be on TV. We're only human.
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