Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Things That Everyone Knows That Aren't True

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

As another year comes to a close on Dorf on Law, I have recently been thinking about the surprisingly large number of issues on which the basic facts should not be in dispute, but about which there is widespread ignorance.  We have long known about the big examples of climate change and evolution, of course.  There are also plenty of other examples of politically "controversial" issues that are actually not especially controversial among the public, such as whether there should background checks prior to gun sales (which had a 90+% approval rating before Republicans filibustered it last year), or to ban abortions outright (which has the support of only 21% of the public, compared to 28% support for "legal in all circumstances" and 50% for "legal only under certain circumstances").

I should at least mention the now-dominant misunderstanding of the election results from November 2014, which have been called everything from a "drubbing" to "ball crushing" (the latter on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart).  Even though the Democrats' losses were clearly a disappointment to that side of the aisle, the fact is that a 9-vote swing in the Senate is hardly unprecedented (especially in the second mid-term of a two-term presidency).  And the "historic" fact that Republicans will have their biggest House majority since the 1920's looks a bit less impressive when you look at the size of Democratic majorities for most of the second half of the 20th Century.  Even so, that is not really a matter of believing something that is factually, demonstrably false, but rather of insisting on describing certain unremarkable facts in hyperbolic terms.  It is puzzling that Democrats and liberals are so willing to buy into the hyperbole, but that is a different matter.

No, my interest here is in thinking about the issues on which there is little if any factual dispute, but on which most everyone either thinks there is controversy or even that the facts are the exact opposite of what they actually are.  In his NYT column yesterday, for example, Paul Krugman described the disconnect between perceptions and reality regarding U.S. economic performance and job growth over the last six years.  The myth, especially on the right (but clearly shared by mainstream journalists) is that job growth has been weak under President Obama, and that the government work force has grown under a big-government Democrat.  The reality is that the economy has added 6.7 million private sector jobs but lost 600,000 public sector jobs under Obama, compared to the same point in George W. Bush's presidency, when the economy had added only 3.1 million private sector jobs, and public-sector employment was up by 1.2 million.

Or take my favorite topic, the federal budget deficit.  The myth is that the deficit is high and rising, whereas the reality is that the deficit is currently at a very low level and, even if it rises in the way that the CBO says it might, it will still not come close to "exploding," as we so often hear that it will.  At worst, the ratio of national debt to GDP will trend upward starting in the middle of the next decade.  Granted, those forecasts are not "facts" in the usual sense of that term, but the usual discussion treats as a fact that the deficit is out of control, and that upcoming increases in the national debt are set to destroy the economy very, very soon.

Similarly, if you talk to almost any of my students (or anyone under age 50, for that matter), you will learn that the Social Security system is going bankrupt and will disappear before any post-Baby Boomers collect a dime in benefits.  As I have demonstrated repeatedly (for 2014's leading examples, see a Dorf on Law post here and a Verdict column here), nothing about the laws governing Social Security, interacting with even the most pessimistic forecasts, supports that conclusion.  In the worst-case scenario, benefits will be cut once (in about 15 years, although it could be 20 or 50 years, or never) by about 25%, and then they will resume their upward adjustment every year for inflation and wage growth.  The system will not run out of money, and people who pay into it will get money out of it.  The only question is whether we will allow that one-time cut to happen (which will, by the way, affect many Baby Boomers, if it happens at all).  But everyone "knows" that Social Security is doomed, even though it is not.

A topic on which I have written only occasionally also suffers from this kind of craziness.  The attacks on tenure for public school teachers, (see my Dorf on Law posts here and here) are based on several non-facts: (1) Teachers' unions have fought tooth and nail to prevent any and all reforms to teacher evaluations or rules for dismissal, (2) Students in schools with unionized teachers perform worse on standardized tests than those in non-unionized schools, and (the flip side of #2) (3) School districts (and states) that have abandoned teacher tenure have improved their educational outcomes.  There are additional non-facts in the schools debate, including the idea that high-stakes tests actually measure anything useful, and that Democratic politicians do not dare cross the all-powerful teachers' unions (even though prominent Democrats have made careers of doing exactly that).  But the three non-facts above are the central lies of the debate, because they make it seem that a system that has been repeatedly reformed has been in stasis, and they allow people to believe that greedy union bosses are the only thing standing in the way of proven reforms.  The facts, however, simply do not support the starting points of the anti-teachers' union side of the debate.

As a law professor, I have also noted with bewilderment the fact-free nature of the attacks on law schools.  One particular good example of this is the idea that law schools are pumping new graduates into a world without jobs, a lie repeated last week by the Washington Post, where a reporter blithely referred to the "shrinking job market for young lawyers," even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics has shown that this is simply false.  (See excellent commentaries by Ted Seto and Stephen F. Diamond, here and here.)  The good news is not great news, but it is certainly not true that the job market for young lawyers is shrinking, or even that it is smaller than it was before the boom ended, or that salaries are down.  The news is good, but the people who report the news claim otherwise.

Finally, the most surprising example of a non-fact that "everyone knows" has to do with the divorce rate in the United States.  Like almost everyone, I have taken as gospel that "50% of all marriages end in divorce."  I am not sure why I blithely assumed that this number would be unchanged from year to year and from decade to decade, but I certainly believed that the 50-50 proposition on marriages was an established fact.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I read that "[i]f current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce"!  Apparently, the researchers who know about these trends have been trying to get the facts out to the public for quite some time, but it wasn't until the NYT decided to run a feature column on "The Upshot" (its data-nerd section) that reality peeked through.

Of course, as the Times article points out, lower divorce rates are not necessarily good news, and there is a distinct class element as well.  (Divorce rates are still about 50% for people without college degrees.)  Still, it is striking that such a large factual change in such a widely-discussed social phenomenon is almost completely unknown.

On most of these issues, the continued fact-free nature of the discussion might seem to be relatively easily explained: One side of the debate actively distorts the issues and promotes lies as fact, and the media reports the differences as "he said he said" differences in opinion.  That was certainly the pattern for a long time on climate change.  But the reality is that the fact-friendly side of these debates is often silent, and the partisans who might be expected to welcome those facts seem to go out of their way to accept the fantasies of the other side.  See, for example, Democrats' defensive crouch on Social Security, the economy, guns, schools, and so on.  This could, among other things, reflect an underlying conservatism among supposed liberals, as I have often argued with respect to the Obama Administration.

But even the nonpartisan issues like legal education are driven by the myth-makers, not the reality-based folk.  Moreover, none of those explanations can make sense of our continued ignorance about the divorce rate.  There, it simply seems that people (including me) have no reason to question the accepted non-facts, and we expect the media to bring such news to our attention.  We do so at our own increasing peril.


Anonymous said...

The problem I have with this essay is illustrated by the problem I have with the data on divorce. It's true enough that divorce rates have been falling but it is highly and I mean highly speculative as to whether current trends continue. As experts know, marriage and divorce doesn't drive social phenomena but is a response to it. One of my favorite charts in this regard is this one:


Conservatives often try to mythologize the 1950s but in fact the 1950s were a historically anomalous time period. In fact, the median age for men at first marriage fell from 26 years in 1890 to 23 years in the 1950s and didn't recover until the 1990s. The median age for first marriage of men was the same in 1990 as it was exactly 100 years earlier. Is it any wonder that the divorce rates exploded in the 1960s and 1970 when the median age at first marriage for women was under 21 for three decades?


That trend is illustrated clearly in the above chart. As median age at first marriage fell divorce rates climbed and now as median age at first marriage has risen divorce rates have fallen again.

The idea that people are now marrying for love, as that article claims, is fantastical. The real reason is far more prosaic. People who marry when they are older tend to pick better partners because they know themselves and the world better. They are more experienced. More directly on point, there is no reason to believe that age at first marriage is a historical constant. It rises and falls and as it does so do divorce rates.

Joe said...

Sounds like Geico potential.

"everyone knows that"

David Ricardo said...

Mr. Buchanan’s discussion of politics is illustrative of the denial that Democrats find themselves in following six years from Mr. Obama’s election. He takes a true but somewhat irrelevant point, that the party in power tends to lose Senate seats in the sixth year of their Presidency, to argue that things aren’t so bad. Consider the following more relevant facts.

1. If the Republicans had not nominated a bunch of Neanderthals in 2012 and 2010 in Nevada, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana and Missouri the Republicans would be one seat short of a filibuster proof majority (Joe Manchin changing party and they got it).

2. There were 10 competitive Democratic seats in play in 2014, Republicans won 9. Hit .350 and they put you in the Hall of Fame. A .900 won loss percentage wins any league.

3. The Senate seats Governor’s races where Democrats were supposed to be competitive were not.

4. Republicans gained governorships in three reliable Democratic states (Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois). The Democratic win in Pennsylvania took place in large part because the Republican incumbent was one of the biggest doofuses ever elected.

5. Republican gains at the state legislative level were significant. This is where future elections are won in the House and state legislatures because of gerrymandering. Republicans know how to play the game, Democrats don’t even know they are in a game.

6. Remember when Montana had Democrats in the governorship and senate? When West Virginia voted Democratic? When people actually thought the Dems had a chance in Texas? When there was more than one viable candidate for a Democratic presidential nomination? Fewer and fewer people do.

7. The Democratic leadership is old and slow. Harry Reid? Nancy Pelosi? The most effective Democratic politician, Jerry Brown, has no national role and will have no national role. No one is speculating on who the VP nominee of the Democrats might be, because no one generates any interest.

8. What about the chairman of the DNC? Not very effective, well maybe its because UNLIKE HER REPUBLICAN COUNTERPART SHE HAS A FULL TIME JOB DOING SOMETHING ELSE!

So what we are left with is the Democratic strategy of hoping to win elections because Republicans nominate unacceptable candidates, or in football terms, planning to win the game bY hoping the opposition fumbles the ball every time they are about to score. Mr. Buchanan is puzzled that so many Democrats buy into the hyperbole, a bunch of us are concerned that the hyperbole understates the problem.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

In my post, I wrote: "Like almost everyone, I have taken as gospel that '50% of all marriages end in divorce.' I am not sure why it never occurred to me that this number would be unchanged from year to year and from decade to decade, but I certainly believed that the 50-50 proposition on marriages was an established fact. Imagine my surprise, then, when ... "

I thus welcome James Longfellow's comment, especially his conclusion that "there is no reason to believe that age at first marriage is a historical constant." That's my point! Whereas it was all too easy to take the "50% divorce rate" statistic as something akin to Planck's Constant, it was actually interesting to see that this statistic has moved significantly over time.

Similarly, the statistics on deficits and debt have changed significantly, too. Other statistics do not move much, if at all, especially the forecasts on Social Security.

I was hoping to demonstrate in this post that the acceptance of "false facts" is pervasive. James Longfellow's comment explains one aspect of that phenomenon very well.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

David Ricardo provides much to think about in his multi-point comment, but I'll set aside our minor areas of disagreement for another day. What I find most interesting is this statement: "Republicans know how to play the game, Democrats don’t even know they are in a game."

That is my perception, too, and my point is that the Democrats' lack of awareness that they are playing a game can be seen in their willingness to make themselves seem weak. "Oh, we lost 9 Senate seats. We're the worst!" is not a political strategy. It is childish, self-pitying, and off-putting. They should say, "We lost the key races that we thought we could win, and we need to do better next time. We're disappointed, but we will come back." The public always gives people second chances, but it hates people who whine and appear to be losers.

Republicans got their clocks cleaned in 2006 and 2008, but they didn't respond by making it sound worse than it was. It was bad for them then, and it is bad for Democrats now. But "Boy, did we get our asses handed to us!" are the words of people who do not know that the game they are playing requires the projection of strength and confidence.

Joe said...

DR continues his hard hitting Democratic tough love approach. In general:

1. Republicans are Neanderthals in various ways -- a white supremacist sympathizer a House whip. But, remember, DEMOCRATS are the one who can't play the game.

2. The Ds had a bunch of tough seats here to uphold and lost them. It was a major loss, yes, but it was a hard midterm election that was in effect stacked against them. It was likely harder than the big loss of the Rs even back in 2006. Note as well the Senate changed hands repeatedly since the 1990s.

3. I'm wary about state races.

4. Old geriatric Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi repeatedly got things done over the last six years, including helping Obama significantly change the judiciary. Meanwhile, there are various young rising stars, including Gillibrand. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has received some criticism. Being old (she's 48) is not part of it.

But, the Dems have their problems and tough love (exaggerated as it might be at times) is appreciated.

Joe said...

to clarify #1:

It is noted that the Dems were lucky not to be in a worse position, saved by the Rs having lousy candidates in two election cycles. But, if the Rs knew how to "play the game" so much more than the Dems, why allow this?

Not denying various problems on the Dems side, to me there are limits to the "game" of the Rs. Their "give it everything" approach (in effect try to de-legitimize Clinton & Obama etc.) worked well for them up to a point.

But, it brought some problems, including some lousy candidates. I also wonder about their long game. Being against ACA was like there "thing" for years now. Seems a short term game. Some health care regulation is going to needed at any rate and the public actually likes many of the things in ACA. Blocking immigration reform also is a short term issue that hurts them with Hispanics. Ditto opposing Obama on Cuba.

BTW, If Pelosi and Reid should go for being old, is Mitch McConnell also a lousy choice? Consistency suggests "yes." Also, like Newt Gingrich, he is somewhat of a curious choice for leader of the governing party. Works better as a leader of the opposition.

The Republicans' success governing in the legislature in the national level remains unclear. The divisions in the House underlines this -- Prof. Buchanan even suggested the Dems stop helping them there in regard to the budget.

David Ricardo said...

I do not wish to prolong the debate in this Forum but I would note that the comments here and elsewhere are illustrative of the Democratic cognitive dissonance, that is, the ability to simply filter out and ignore evidence that does not support the position that the Democrats are a strong and healthy party. For example, on the age issue the Clintons, Jerry Brown, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid may be strong leaders, but the only other person getting good reviews is Senator Warren who is of similar age. There are no Democratic counterparts to Senators Cruz and Paul and Lee who are the young and energetic (and offensive) base of the Republican Party. And the complaint with Ms. Wasserman-Shultz is not her age, but the fact that Democrats treat their party’s top job as a part time position.

The idea that 2014 was a ‘difficult year’ for Democrats is an invalid point. 2014 should have been a great year. Employment growth was surging after a slow start and the unemployment rate was down significantly; an unpopular war in Iraq has ended at least for Americans and Osama is dead; inflation is a non-event and gas prices are way down; the deficit has been sharply reduced to the point of being a non-issue; millions of Americans have health insurance who did not have it before; the stock market has performed spectacularly and everyone’s 401k/ IRA plans look a lot better than they did in 2008. Democrats ran on support for the popular idea of increasing the minimum wage, Republican ran against it. (The big negatives, stagnant lower and middle class real income, student debts burdens and similar issues while real were not campaign issues.) Who wouldn’t have wanted to run on the record of the last six years?

North Carolina is prime example of the problems with Democrats. The electorate for the most part is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. But the governor is a Republican, Republicans have massive majorities in the state legislature. Both Senators are Republicans. The Congressional delegation is 10 Republicans, 3 Democrats. After two years in power in which the Republicans alienated a large part of the electorate with unpopular policies they emerged as strong post election as they were pre-election, and a leader of the unpopular legislature defeated a well funded Democratic incumbent. Is there any greater evidence of superior Republican electoral strategy and ability?

Finally, Democrats seem unable to understand the math of the Senate. Every state regardless of its population gets two senators. Duh. Wyoming is equal to California. Why is this such a difficult concept for Democrats to understand? And states where Democrats were once viable (Montana, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri etc) are moving towards becoming solidly Republican.

Democrats have to either organize and win in at least some of the current Republican dominant states or face the future as a permanent minority party with respect to state legislatures, governorships, the House and the Senate, comforted only with the fact that they are competitive for the Presidency and having a strategy that consists solely of hoping the Republican govern so badly that the voters will turn to Democrats in desperation as a last resort.

Joseph said...

For your consideration:


egarber said...

There are so many "truisms" that persist in daily conversation:

1. Private schools are always better than public ones.

Well anecdotally, my wife (former teacher) went to work at a private elementary school a while back and found that none of the teachers were certified, which resulted in an amateur curriculum.

On the data, it's not hard to find public schools that outperform private counterparts, especially in affluent areas where the public schools have proper support.

2. Anything the government does is inefficient -- i.e., "just go to your DOT."

This one is based on ideological culture more than anything else I think, stemming from the assumption that private businesses are always smarter and more streamlined. But my direct experience runs counter. I have seen good and bad in both arenas. The point is that good people and organization make things work, while the incompetent will fail wherever they work.

And of course, the 2008 financial implosion is a ready case study in how private enterprise can act in catastrophic ways.

3. This is a stretch on your topic, since it gets into the area of logical fallacy, but consider these gems too -

- "Oh, you favor government involvement, so you don't value hard work."

- "you don't support (insert war), so you're in favor of weakness..."

- "you want to negotiate, so you're all about appeasement..."

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