Insider Incentive to Tilt the Common Ground of Facts

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s response to a seemingly factual statement from National Education Association of Rhode Island Director Bob Walsh points to one of the major hurdles good-government groups face when trying to affect the public debate:

In his statement last week to the Providence Journal, Walsh claimed that RI teachers averaged $66,758 in salaries, compared to $80,357 in Massachusetts – a gap of $14,000.

However the salary figure reported in the official Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island (ERSRI) report show an average 2018 RI teacher salary of $77,581 – about $11,000 more than Walsh claimed. Further, the similar report in MA shows their average teacher salary (including Boston) was just $74,156 – about $6,000 less than he claimed.

Now, I think numbers debates are very important, and if we’re to have any hope of making democracy work, we must share the principle that objective facts should be the common ground from which we debate our positions.  But consider what Walsh has done, here.  The Center put out a report highlighting the excessive total compensation of unionized government employees versus the private sector, and the head of one of the biggest government unions in the state responded by comparing salaries (not counting benefits) between two groups of unionized government employees.

Part of making facts our common ground is sticking to those that are relevant.  Here, Walsh has pushed the debate off into a side room, so to speak.

Of course, his numbers are also questionable, but that isn’t really the point.  The general public has limited time to sort through the specifics of these debates, so all they’ll see is two people with apparently opposing political interests saying contrary things about the same supposedly objective set of facts.  The common ground becomes irrelevant.

Thus, it is always in the interest of the side benefiting from an inequity to obscure facts, so as to give people permission not to pay attention and to go with whatever side they want to support for some other reason.  Naturally, one particularly strong reason is the negative one of painful attention for disagreeing with the special interest.

That’s why the other half of the unions’ response to the Center’s report was to make entirely irrelevant claims about our funding.  They want people to evaluate a political question not on the facts, but on a cultivated (and false) insinuation that one side is motivated by dark, secret intentions.  “Look,” they ask, “we’ve all got our facts, and it would take forever for you to sort through them all, but do you want to side with the dedicated teachers, brave firefighters, and nice government clerks or with those people who won’t put their donors out there for our inspection?”  (“Inspection,” of course, comes with a hint of intimidation.)

The solution, here, is difficult to see.  Speaking in broad strokes, the news media has justly lost much of its credibility as a source for quickly sorting through the facts.  It comes down to an informed electorate practiced in teasing apart its emotions from facts.  And it comes down to enough people willing to step forward and make themselves targets throughout our communities to stand up for what is right.

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