Welcome to the post-factual political landscape.
When the US Senate last month failed to end a filibuster on a measure to extend emergency unemployment insurance — a bill that would have helped 6,000 New Mexicans — Sen. Tom Udall pointed out, "The job market is still soft in New Mexico; unemployment is still at 6.6% — and it's over 12% in Mora County. Nationwide, there are still three people applying for every one job opening. Unemployment insurance is vital if you're looking for a job. It puts food on the table, helps pay the rent, the phone bill and to make car payments. Especially in a small town, that modest extra help to get by can make a big difference for an entire community."
Poor Sen. Udall seems to be laboring under the delusion that facts still matter in politics and governance. (Or perhaps he was just being polite, as when he called for "the Senate to start working together on solutions" — when only four Senate Republicans crossed party lines to break the filibuster.)
The "facts" cited in opposition to extending unemployment benefits, most prominently by Kentucky senator and presidential hopeful Rand Paul, are notions that such assistance reduces the incentive to look for work. While that might be true for a few folks in flush times, as Udall noted, there are currently three job seekers for every opening. How are the long-term unemployed supposed to find jobs when they've been "incentivized" by cutting off their financial lifeline?
As prizewinning economist Paul Krugman explained in the New York Times, "Employment in today's American economy is limited by demand, not supply. Businesses aren't failing to hire because they can't find willing workers; they're failing to hire because they can't find enough customers. And slashing unemployment benefits — which would have the side effect of reducing incomes and hence consumer spending — would just make the situation worse."
In blocking another measure important to New Mexico, immigration reform, House Speaker John Boehner blamed President Obama, saying the president couldn't be "trusted" to carry out US laws, such as those intended to secure the border. That must have come as a surprise to immigrant-rights groups who have relentlessly criticized the president for deporting a record number of people here illegally. This spring, the Obama administration will surpass 2 million deportations — more than the George W. Bush administration removed from the country in eight years.
According to the nonpartisan Politifact website, Obama has the most border patrols and border security deployed at the border of any previous president. It's also true that this buildup began under Bush, but to say Obama can't be "trusted" on border security simply ignores the facts. Whether these measures truly make the border more "secure" is another matter, but one that has nothing to do with enforcing what's on the books.
Regular readers will recall that we have a weakness for facts. As John Adams said in his defense of the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
What Adams did not anticipate was a political climate that operates in blithe disregard of the facts. When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently seized on a Congressional Budget Office report to claim that because of the Affordable Care Act, "millions of hardworking Americans will lose their jobs and those who keep them will see their hours and wages reduced," surely he or his staff knew that wasn't what the report said at all. The report stated explicitly that its predicted fall in hours worked will come "almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor." Obamacare gives workers more flexibility and more choice to spend time with their families. Because the labor supply will shrink, wages will increase, not be reduced. And the report forecast that Obamacare will cause unemployment to decline in coming years.
But who cares about the facts if there's a chance to score political points?
One can't help wondering how our political institutions can continue to function (if they do now) in such a through-the-looking-glass world. If our leaders can't even agree on basic facts, how can they come to consensus on the issues that divide them? Whether you're a liberal or a conservative — and I'm sure conservatives can come up with examples of the president or his backers ignoring facts — this should be cause for concern.
If you are a conservative, though, you might take some comfort in a recent Esquire piece describing "Barack Obama's conservative utopia." It's relevant here for its reliance on facts to rebut Sen. Paul (again) and his talk-radio claim that the president is trying to "transform America into a socialist nightmare." The piece makes the point that "as President Obama enters the final half of his last term, he has left us with an America that conservatives should love."
Say what? In support of this startling claim, the article trots out a collection of facts that "reveal an America that is running away from a 'socialist' anything." Among them:
- The top marginal tax rate is 39.5% on earned income over $450,000 — higher than under George W. Bush but less than the Clinton years, when the top bracket began at an inflation-adjusted $60,000. So really high earners are at least $23,700 better off, tax-wise, than in the go-go 1990s.
- Corporate profits have nearly quadrupled during the Obama years.
- The FY2014 deficit is projected to be $514 billion, sharply down from its peak of $1.4 trillion in FY2009, the last Bush budget year.
- The abortion rate per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 is down 13% since 2008, albeit largely due to the increased availability of contraception.
- Pentagon spending is $552 billion a year, slightly higher than 2005 — when the US was embroiled in two wars overseas.
The article also mentions increased domestic energy production and those nearly 2 million deportations that Speaker Boehner keeps forgetting about. We can debate how much credit (or blame) the president deserves for any of these numbers, but the facts about what has happened on his watch are straightforward. To maintain that we are on the road to a "socialist nightmare" simply flies in the face of those "stubborn things."
But in this Internet age where bloggers and tweeters and posters can make up their own reality and zip it across the globe in an eyeblink, maybe that no longer matters.
Not long ago, I received one of those emails proclaiming in all-caps, "THIS NEEDS TO GO AROUND THE USA MANY TIMES SO KEEP IT GOING!" It showed a photo of US Marines with their heads bowed, and claimed that this was "a recent ceremony honoring the birthday of the corps." Apparently the Marines' praying got the ACLU "up in arms." Lucius Traveler, a spokesman for the ACLU, was quoted saying that for Marines to pray "on federal property and on federal time… is clearly an establishment of religion, and we must nip this in the bud immediately." The outraged emailer closed by suggesting, "Lets [sic] put the ALCU in combat for a few weeks and then see what their beliefs would be."
It took me all of three minutes to find three different sources exposing this as a hoax and urban legend. Rather than depicting a "recent ceremony," this hoax has been circulating since at least 2003. An actual ACLU spokesperson says, "We have no knowledge of this event nor have we ever had a spokesperson by the name of Lucius Traveler." The Marine Corps spokesperson also quoted in the email ("Screw the ACLU!") is equally fictitious. As one urban-legends site concluded, there is zero evidence "that the ACLU has ever taken a position against US military personnel — or, indeed, federal employees in any branch of government — engaging in prayer. This 'incident' is a complete fabrication and was evidently written with satirical intent."
I passed along the fruits of my research to the stranger who had forwarded the hoax email to me, expecting a red-faced followup soon after that would enlighten other recipients. None was forthcoming, and presumably others who saw this email remain outraged and are furiously forwarding it themselves.
Don't confuse me with the facts. Perhaps that should replace "E Pluribus Unum" on the national seal.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.
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Silver City, NM 88062