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.