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Skepticism Is Our Only Salvation

03/30/2015 11:01 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015

Why bother with facts? That question threads its way through political discourse, through educational philosophy and through observations on the media. Rarely is it confronted squarely. For the lines between actual reality and virtual reality have been so blurred that the distinction itself no longer is generally recognized. The axiom that since I say it with good (personal) reason, it's as good as true has become the implicit article of faith. However, the immediate benefits of playing fast and loose with the facts have huge costs for society as a whole that our self-absorbed fellow citizens blithely overlook.

This cavalier attitude ignores the great advantages of thinking with a fact filled mind - rather than a sparsely populated one that reaches for the smart phone on those increasingly rare occasions when a bit of information is sought in lieu of just making it up. To demonstrate that proposition, here are five more facts that can help navigating the turbid waters in which we routinely find ourselves.

1. University Tuition. American higher education is consumed by anxious discussion of the rising price of a college education. Steadily increasing tuition is putting it beyond the reach of many from poor or modest income families. Burdening oneself with heavy debt or working while studying are their only options. Graduation rates are falling correspondently. Most of the debate concentrates on ameliorative measures. Most prominent is the movement in the direction of distance learning using variations of Mass Online Open Courses or MOOCs. Many blame University authorities themselves for not cutting costs so as to contain rises in tuition. President Obama is one of those blaming the victims. Many others blame partying students. The simple truth lies in the fact that public policy toward high education has changed drastically over the past 40 or so years. There has been a reactionary movement away from support for public universities. In the 1960s, tuition for in-state students was negligible. In California, it was free. Monies appropriated by legislatures covered up to 90% of the costs. Today, that has dropped on average to 13%.

There it is - without the ideological and political dressing that distracts us from a harsh truth.

Lessons: practice thinking historically and by analogy. To do so requires only elementary logic and elementary arithmetic when applied to a reasonable stock of knowledge

2. Educational Performance. Nearly everyone agrees that American public education is failing - from K - 12. The evidence: the relatively poor performance of American students on standardized tests that measure abilities in math and science around the globe. The East Asians are at the top, the Scandinavians follow a step below. The United States is well down the table at something like 23 or 27.

The sky is falling! These figures, which are accurate, are being used to justify a wholesale attack on public education while providing fuel for the Charter school movement that amounts to a de facto privatization of American education.

Yet, a closer look at what actually is going on reveals a quite different reality - one that points in the direction of quite different educational policies. There is one factor in the equation that explains a very large fraction of the differential test scores by nationality which the above mentioned studies register. Simply put, the United States has a far larger underclass whose children are far less prepared for today's rigorous education. We have a vastly greater percentage of families that live below the poverty line, and/or are immigrants from countries where English is not spoken and/or are raised in broken families and/or in neighborhoods riven by drugs and crime. If one factors out these elements, then American students score pretty much at the same level as do their European counterparts,

Of course, underachievement among children of the underclass is a serious problem. But it is not reason to condemn public education generally and teachers in particular - as do Secretary of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama. Nor are Charter schools an answer to educational failings among the underclass. While there are a few successes among heavily financed and well publicized private schools aimed at those children, on a nation-wide basis Charter schools perform marginally worse than do public schools - despite the liberty they have to exclude "problem" children.

Lesson: avoid fads, fashions and panaceas in public policy. Those promoting them usually have an ulterior motive - financial or political

3. Social Security. The most baleful effects of studied ignorance register in the case of Social Security. Current discussions are predicated on a supposed vulnerability of the Social Security Trust Fund that simply does not exist. This is a case of bipartisan misrepresentation that borders on the Big Lie. The Fund is not running out of money any time over the next 25 years - even without the minor adjustments that would keep it solvent for at least another generation beyond that. But there is a powerful interest in propagating the myth that it is on the point of bankruptcy.

To understand how and why this pernicious game is being played, we must bear in mind two cardinal facts. One is that the government has been draining monies out of Social Security for the past 45 years to cover expenditures in the conventional budget. The revenue sources for each are separate and legally distinct. The former come from our Social Security withholdings that all salaried workers and employers pay. The latter come from general tax revenues. By combining the two, the overall budget deficit looks smaller than it actually is since Social Security has been running surpluses for this entire period - and because shifting money from one to the other continues. The withdrawn funds are replaced by special IOUs issued by the Treasury exclusively for this purpose.

In theory, Social Security should be able to cash them in when needed. But that would have the effect of adding to the general budget deficit rather than lowering the number as has been happening routinely up until now. So the date that both Congress and the President are fixed on is the day when Social Security begins paying out more than it is taking in via new contributions and accrued interest on the bonds. That date, estimated to be 2021, will come decades before the Fund is actually exhausted - if no adjustments are made.

Shining the light of truth on the issue of Social Security funding needs would have a revolutionary effect. For one thing, it would expose the fact that beneficiaries - now and in the future - have been subsidizing all those programs that are government funded. This is a gross example of regressive taxation since the Social Security withholding scale falls more heavily on those at the lower end of the income ladder. The other implication is that the elderly and infirmed are having their benefits cut so that the rest of the country (especially the rich) don't have to pay higher federal taxes.

Lesson: The entire discourse on Social Security has been twisted out of shape by a bipartisan project to shortchange all those that rely on it

4. Energy Imports

There is a current of excitement running through the foreign affairs community sparked by the prospect that the United States will cease being a net energy importer within 25 years. The International Energy Agency's annual WORLD ENERGY OUTLOOK 2013 projects that by 2035 or so, the country will produce enough oil and natural gas to dispense with most foreign supplies. New extraction techniques rather than discovery of new sources are the deus ex machine that is slated to work this startling turnabout. Were this seeming potential to be realized, some imagine the United States gaining freedom of action in dealing with the oil rich states of the Middle East as well as troublesome commercial partners elsewhere like Venezuela. We might choose to ignore them altogether. Moreover, as a net exporter itself, the United States could gain leverage on other parties. That is the happy vision that is tantalizing to global strategists.

However, the reality is that there is no readily definable magic threshold beyond which the balance of dependency between supplier states and consumer states, and thereby reciprocal influence, shifts drastically. That is to say, the energy trade, like most international commerce is symbiotic; it has its own logic. Moreover, the motivations of governments are not solely economic. There are realpolitik and nationalist sentiments at play as well.

In addition, economic conditions in one country are heavily dependent on economic performance in other major national economies. If the European Union, Japan, or China experiences a severe downturn, it quickly will have serious repercussions on the United States. The precise degree of sensitivity to external developments cannot be calculated. Some countries, e.g. Germany, have a larger share of their economic activity directly associated with imports and exports than some others, e.g. the United States. For the former it is 44%, for the latter it is 16%. But even the United States is unable to insulate itself from macro-economic developments among the largest national economies. The global financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated vividly the fragility of current globalized economic system.

Fourth, in a world of economic interdependence, it makes no sense to speak of the United States economy as if it were autarkic. So long as other major economies remain energy dependent, their vulnerability to supply disruption is our problem as well. Economic security in today's world cannot be achieved within one's sovereign boundaries, by dint of one's own efforts alone. There is no such thing as economic security in one country - whatever its energy situation. And energy is still the most crucial element needed to sustain the global economy. So, by implication, energy security for the United States encompasses the energy security of the developed world generally - if the measuring rod is performance and stability of the global macro economy.

Lesson: Be skeptical about claims that 'a silver bullet' has been found to deal with any of America's deep and chronic problems

4. "Opportunity" vs Economic Justice

"Inequality" is in the political winds. It promises to be the catchword of the 2016 elections. Even rock-ribbed Republicans now follow the fashion of sprinkling it into their speeches - despite their have promoted policies and philosophies throughout their careers that have caused the drastic shift in national wealth from the poor and those of modest incomes to the rich and, especially, the top 1%. Hillary Clinton, the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic nominee, is reported by The New York Times as struggling with how to present herself on the issue. Having long abandoned the Democrats' natural working class constituency and cozy with Wall Street, she is squirming.

Hillary is tempted to take the course of least resistance - the same path blazed by President Obama last year. It features a calculated substitution of the phrase "equal opportunity" for a more equitable distribution of wealth. Simply put, create the impression that the goal is for everyone to have a crack at becoming a billionaire while ignoring the generation long decline in standards of living for the majority of Americans.

Last January, Barack Obama' used the State of the Union address to sow exactly that confusion. His much heralded war on inequality, barely a month old, was being replaced by a clarion call for a Marshall plan to build "ladders of opportunity." The politics was obvious: "opportunity" is less contentious. The opportunity theme has been picked up by many others on a bipartisan basis for that reason. America today is a plutocracy. Talk of how national wealth is distributed upsets those who garner the lion's share. It smacks of 'class war," i.e. the exploited, the short-changed, the neglected and the strugglers may get into their heads the "un-American" notion that the game is rigged - that government policies favor the well-placed, that appeals to that same government for relief are rejected as unacceptable abuse of the system which is theirs alone. Mr. Obama obviously had heard and listened to them between December 4 when he gave his inequality speech, "inequality is the defining issue of our times," and January 24 when he changed the mission.

Now Hillary Clinton seems poised to surrender to the mythology that so neatly serves the Republican philosophy and those interests it promotes. It literally is music to their ears. The unhappy economic plight of the less well-off thereby is no longer defined as the result of structural features of the American economy as fostered by government policy. Rather, it is transformed into an individual matter whereby persons are deprived because they have not managed to climb the latter of success.

The availability of such ladders is one issue. Another, even more important, is the condition of those who have no access to the ladder and/or that the reward for their work has dropped because of the way power is distributed and used in America. Most people are not going to reach the top or anywhere near it - that is an impossibility. But that does not mean that they should be denied a decent life.

By concentrating on opportunity alone, politicians and pundits evade the hard issues of public policy. Moreover, they ignore simple logic. It makes no sense to encourage people to climb the ladder of success when their conjectured ability to do so promises riches that are unavailable. Not everyone can be as well-off as today's 1% is, or the 5% or the 10%. There is not that much money to go around. Nor are there that many managerial/entrepreneurial jobs - who will do the work of the "working man?" In other words, improving the standard of living of salaried Americans whose share of national wealth actually has declined steadily for 40 years, who are worse off today in absolute terms than they were a decade or three ago, demands a shift in some portion of the wealth concentrated at the top to those lower down the scale. That is the arithmetic of it.

Against this reality, the placing of a few aluminum ladders against the commanding heights of the economy (whose denizens continue to ride the express elevator) will mean little or nothing for remedying the historic inequality that we are experiencing.

Moreover, the opportunity ladder metaphor disparages all those who work hard at the myriad jobs that the large majority of Americans occupy. Are they to be respected as diligent contributors to the national welfare - or deserving only of thin rations since they failed in a universal competition to scale the ladders that lead into the boardrooms, trading floors and real estate development sites of America?

These are the facts, and these are the questions that we should have in mind as the candidates nimbly try to finesse the inequality issue.

Two features of our political culture make this an imperative that we be self-reliant in informing ourselves. First, the MSM have largely abdicated their responsibility to serve as the public's watchdog. Initially too intimidated by a fear of political or commercial retaliation to do anything more that passively defer to the prevailing intellectual consensus, media executives and editors nowadays take as the norm a timid aversion to looking beneath the surface or behind the veil. Second, we cannot count on the political parties to highlight the errors and omissions in each other's public posturing. Politics has become a play of images with the contestants, especially the Democrats, keen to keep contentious substance at bay. That is due in large part to the degree of coincidence among the parties in accepting as given a broad set of premises about contemporary America.

Of the ten issues posed above and in my previous post, there is a near bipartisan consensus on nine of them; responsibility for the masking of disturbing realities is shared. Only on inequality, is there a noteworthy and visible difference - if we leave aside President Obama's backtracking and Hillary's equivocation.

Again - We're on our own.