Blurring fact and opinion

Posted May 09, 2010, at 6:58 p.m.

Recent political speech has become partisan, extreme and ugly, some of it bordering on hate speech or overt racism. This extreme rhetoric makes the civil discussions and thoughtful compromises needed for a functioning democracy impossible. Contributing to this divisiveness and lack of respect for opposing viewpoints has been a lack of honesty in differentiating between opinions and facts.

The late Sen. Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This is a critically important distinction. People have legitimately different goals for public policy and different opinions about how those goals should be accomplished. However, if the opposing sides on an issue distort provable facts, the discussion is reduced to chaos.

Many of the claims repeated on talk radio and in blogs — President Barack Obama is a foreign-born Muslim Marxist, the recently signed health care bill sets up death panels, and Saddam Hussein planned 9-11 — although still believed by many, are “facts” that most thoughtful Americans know are false and aren’t worth discussing.

However, the following “facts” have wider creditability because our leaders in Congress repeat them. These deserve a critical look.

“The U.S. has the best health care system in the world.” We heard this repeatedly in congressional speeches during the recent health care debate. However, by any set of measures such as life span, infant mortality, death in childbirth or health in old age, this is flatly untrue. Reputable studies rank our system between 10th and 37th in spite of being by far the most expensive in the world. Last year, the Bangor Daily News reported on a study which found that white, middle-age Americans of all income levels have higher rates of heart disease, strokes, lung disease and cancer than their counterparts in England’s much reviled socialized health care system which costs about half as much per person.

Everyone has the right to the opinion that the insurance companies are doing a great job. No one has the right to claim falsely that our system is the best.

“The economic stimulus bill didn’t produce one additional job.” John Boehner, the minority leader of the House, as well as several other Republican leaders, has recited this “fact” many times on national TV. However, recipients have reported more than 600,000 jobs directly funded and reputable economists agree that, directly and indirectly, between 1 million and 2 million jobs have been created or saved by the bill.

Everyone is entitled to the opinion that this is a bad bill. No one is entitled to claim falsely that it didn’t generate jobs.

“Federal taxes have increased and President Obama has raised them further inhibiting investors from creating jobs.” Income tax rates in all brackets actually have gone down, not up. The highest rate was 90 percent throughout the Eisenhower administration (a period of vigorous economic growth) and between 50 percent and 70 percent during the Reagan years. It is now 35 percent. The claim that Obama has raised taxes is also untrue. His most notable tax change has been to lower income taxes for 95 percent of taxpayers by $170 billion this past year. These cuts were in the stimulus bill opposed by all but three Republicans.

It is fair to believe that taxes are too high. It is false to claim they have gone up.

“Taxes and other federal policies are redistributing wealth from the industrious rich to the less deserving poor.” There indeed has been a massive redistribution of wealth as a result of tax and other policies, but the redistribution clearly has been from the poor and middle class to the rich.

The often-quoted statistic of CEO pay going from 40 to 400 times the pay of their workers is only one indicator. When corrected for inflation, the after-tax income for the richest 10 percent of the population has skyrocketed while the income of the lower 90 percent has been nearly stagnant for 30 years. The number of people in poverty has risen to 37 million. The gap between the middle class and the wealthy now is greater than at any time since the 1890s — and it is increasing. The class war, feared as an evil liberal plot, has been won by conservatives and their rich contributors.

Everyone has the right to believe that it is just and proper for the richest 1 percent to own a bigger share of America’s total wealth than the poorest 90 percent (which they do). No one has the right to claim that government policies have redistributed wealth from the rich to the poor and middle class — because they haven’t.

As Sen. Moynihan understood, it is our right as Americans to have whatever political opinion we like and to argue for whatever ideology we choose. However, to be ethical we have a responsibility to resist making up “facts” to support our arguments. Shirking that responsibility makes intelligent discussion and good government impossible.

John Alexander of Old Town is a retired civil engineering professor from the University of Maine.

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