Thursday, January 12, 2012

An Inconvenient Calculation

I have talked about the weather more in the brief time I’ve lived in Minnesota more than I ever did in California. Maybe it’s because it’s easy small talk or more likely because it’s something that has a very real impact on everybody’s day to day existence. My lack of practice in the subject could be because Los Angeles is perceived has not having weather while the Twin Cities are famed for their winters. Not this year. We’re in the midst of the mildest winter here in recent memory with daytime highs in the 50s in a city used to sub-zero January’s. I have taken credit for bringing the warm weather with me. Maybe Al Gore is right – and Global Warming is the reason?

His Oscar winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” laid out a powerful narrative about how the climate has changed globally. Relax, I’m not going to argue against nor deny climate change. Perspective in today’s hyper-partisan country (and world) is all about how an issue is framed than its basis in facts. From the National Climate Data Center run by the U.S. Government: “Some areas (including parts of the southeastern U.S. and parts of the North Atlantic) have, in fact, cooled slightly over the last century.” This quote from a highly regarded agency could be easily and legitimately used to dispel the idea that temperatures have gone up. The opening paragraph of their website concludes: “seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1995.” Using that quote exclusively similarly wouldn’t tell the whole story.

The inconvenient truth is that facts can be manipulated and used to support whatever one’s point of view is. Consider taxes. Under President Reagan the top marginal individual income tax rate fell from 70.1% to 28.4%. According to the Cato Institute, on 8 of the 10 key economic variables examined, the American economy performed better during the Reagan years than during the pre- and post-Reagan years. The economy produced a $15 trillion increase in American wealth. Reaganomics also took the U.S. from being the largest creditor nation to the largest debtor nation, tripling U.S. debt and starting the current pattern of deficit spending. Wages stagnated or decreased to the point that dual-incomes were no longer a political rallying point of the Women’s equality movement, but instead an economic reality. Government spending soared. Taxes increased on the Middle Class with increased payroll withholdings to fund Social Security.


All of these facts are true – the economy grew because of deficit spending and the wealthy were relieved of significant amounts of tax burden and businesses grew. The consequence was a more bloated government and the start of living off of credit that has lasted for 30 years.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. “ Catchy and valid, the quote ignores that selective choosing of facts to support an opinion is what helps to polarize U.S. politics. There will never be unanimity on any issue. Centuries later evolution continues to be debated.

Knowing that for each point there is a counter-point it’s possible to stagnate. Compromise is the ideal … except when it requires us to give up too much of our perspective. Common ground is the missing ingredient. On climate change there can be common ground that changes in temperature and weather patterns has a consequence on the environment. On taxes there can be common ground that revenue is required from individuals and businesses to support government functions. The devil is in the details of what to do to mitigate environmental hazards and in who gets taxed and by how much. Politicians and their constituents have failed in compromising because the common ground that unites us has all but disappeared from the equation. It’s time to recalculate.













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