Creating doubt in public institutions

By David Farmer,
Posted Oct. 19, 2011, at 4:53 p.m.

There is a strain of American political thought that fights to undermine public institutions in this country.

The attacks manifest themselves in a lot of ways, from the straight-out bashing of important programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps, to more nuanced efforts to undermine Social Security and Medicare.

These efforts play upon the very real concerns that people have about government and the other public institutions that we all rely upon.

As you might expect, research shows that as the economy suffers, the trust that people have in government declines. When unemployment is high and the economy is leaving too many people behind, people look for ways to lash out and regain control.

You can see clear examples in the birth of the tea party and Occupy Wall Street movements.

Attacking government, “politicians” and other public institutions also can be a shortcut to power. It avoids tough public policy decisions and instead relies on a “throw the bums out” approach to problem solving.

Dressed up as holding government accountable or improving transparency, reports and data are often released without proper explanation or context. And no organization in Maine is better at sowing distrust with flawed information than the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative political organization based in Portland.

Last week, the organization released data about salary information within the University of Maine System. Presented as it was, with little explanation, the information was seized upon to show that higher education in Maine is out of control and out of touch.

Just the messages that are necessary to undermine faith in a public institution.

The University of Maine System isn’t perfect, but if your concern is to improve the system, reduce costs or make higher education more affordable, you have to understand what’s really happening.

Whether the data is used to purposefully mislead or there’s a general lack of concern for detail matters little. As it’s presented, people come away with a flawed understanding of the University of Maine System.

For example, one of the most shocking details in the data suggests that in the past seven years, the number of employees in the university system making more than $100,000 has increased from 399 to more than 1,018.

It’s outrageous. It’s supposed to be.

Who wouldn’t be angry at the idea given the struggles most families and businesses are facing? And that’s the whole point. Instead of transparency, it’s about pushing a consistent message that government — in this case the university system — is out of control.

But the details, which don’t easily boil down into outrage, are important.

The $100,000 figure includes an estimation of benefit costs. A person with a salary of roughly $66,000 would show up on the data list with a total compensation of $100,000.

According to the university system, the average annual increase during the period covered by the data was 2.1 percent for employees and 1.7 percent for management. For 2010-11, the increase is zero.

People could genuinely disagree about whether those increases were appropriate, but it’s a different picture than the raw data show.

And of benefit costs, the two biggest drivers are health insurance and the costs for retirees from the system. The university system has worked to keep the cost of health insurance limited to single digit increases, but even so, it still adds up.

The purpose of this transparency report doesn’t appear to be about helping people to understand what’s going on with the university. Instead, it plays upon our tendency toward gossip and outrage. It publishes people’s salaries and makes the suggestion that they are overpaid and out-of-touch.

The university system is receiving about the same level of state support as it received in 2006 and since 2007 it has cut almost 400 positions.

While it pays to be skeptical of government, including the university system, we should also be skeptical of its critics. They, too, can be motivated by their own bias.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. He is currently working on the Yes on 1 campaign, which is opposed by MHPC. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/10/19/opinion/creating-doubt-in-public-institutions/ printed on September 20, 2014