August 11, 2007

Toward Fruitful Conversation

Justin Katz

I would never gainsay the importance of data and evidence to polemics, nor would I parade the pure primacy of reason, but I can't help but be amused at the failure of evidentiary debate to advance the discussion concerning Rhode Island's educational system.

As is so often the case, skepticism and credulity appear to find their impetus in tacit, nearly subconscious, understanding of the issues involved. Which is to say that there are deeper philosophical differences in play, and whether it is more effective and efficient to place them head to head or to fight the war through the proxy of agreeing upon a set of data is very much a debatable question.

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OK. I'll take up your "debatable question".

In my mind, coming toward some agreement on the question of how the world actually IS, precedes discussion on what we should do to change it, and even whether we should do so. Anybody who confidently yells, "teachers are paid too much" (or "too little") , but has no idea how much they are paid and no sense of the complexities of measuring or comparing income (or at least a willingness to try to figure it out), is not worth talking to.

The "head to head" conflict between philosophies (ideologies?), absent careful discussion on what is actually the case, is unhelpful at best. It makes talk-radio hosts rich (bloggers too?), but that's about it. What it does do is unnecessarily drive people into opposing camps, and make it harder for reasonable people to find common ground. That's actually harmful.

We can spend years yelling, "teachers are paid too much", "unions are the saviors of the working class", all liberals are wimps", "all conservatives are fascists" at each other. It's easy to do that, and some people have no interest in getting past that. It's a great game for Ann Coulter, & Co., but it's not going to solve even one of our problems and will actually make them worse.

What WILL help solve our problems is a recognition that reasonable people can disagree, but have a responsibility to work together as much as possible to find common ground. At least I think they have that responsibility if they really love their country and state, and have a sense of the meaning of citizenship. That work has to start with a good-faith effort to find agreement where it can be found. The facts are a good place to start.

I may be mistaken, but your post makes me wonder if you don't like the debate on numbers, and want to jack up the ideological volume instead. In the last comments in the education discussion below, people of obviously different points of view have stopped yelling at and insulting each other and are having a rational discussion. What's wrong with that?

If I had a cynical mind, I might say that you object to the "policy-wonk" type of debate because it's dull and will bore your readers who are looking for cage-match polemics and sound-bites. Moreover, it's HARD to discuss these issues.. At least it's a lot harder than sloganeering and mud-slinging. I say, too bad. Despite (or because of!) the work involved in the debate, I am learning from Tom W. and Frank and John in a way that I could never learn if we were just trading ideological slogans. I like that, and hope it won't stop.

Posted by: Thomas at August 11, 2007 9:55 PM

Oh, I'm sorry Justin... the half dozen sources and links I submitted weren't good enough for you? None of which were contradicted....

The assertions made, especially about disproportionate pay and benefits, without backup and contradicted by other sources supplied wasn't good enough?

Also, your insistence on facts without evidence makes clear that you don't really want to debate.

Maybe the next time the Journal publishes an editorial from this site maybe then can refer to it as " of the Rush Limbaugh school of argument" as opposed to a "public policy website." Oh, thats right, its the "liberal media."

Posted by: Pat Crowley at August 11, 2007 10:28 PM

Gee whiz. Why do y'all suppose I began this quickie post with an assertion that "I would never gainsay the importance of data and evidence"?

I've thought the comment-section discussion sufficiently substantive and un-dull that I've made extra effort to draw readers' attention to it. But come a Saturday afternoon, I was, as I wrote, amused at the degree to which the debate over ideology simply transfers to a debate over whose numbers can be trusted or are applicable.

Folks like Pat and Bob Walsh have a monetary interest in keeping their views unchanged. Folks like Bobby O. appear to have psychological issues of self worth at stake. Folks on the other side seem to have other forms of personal investment. In your terms, Thomas, people are invested in their current understanding of the way the world IS, and I thought it sufficiently interesting to merit 100 words of meta-pondering.

Amid all of this, the numbers and comparisons can become frustratingly complicated. Add in the legitimate note on which John's latest comment currently leaves the thread — that the discussion is mired in larger problems facing the state — and it is clear why people can and do make up their minds based on broader philosophical leanings and vaguer personal experience. Neither of which would I gainsay, either, and both of which ultimately play more strongly in the average citizen's voting habits (I'd suggest).

As for my motivation, it's certainly not money; my combined loss of time and money (through various expenses as well as technological investments) on Anchor Rising is huge. Furthermore, I'm not a political operative, and I've no interest in trapping readers with rhetorical hooks simply to drive up our statistics.

I guess I just love the experience of being misread, attacked, and belittled with assumptions as to my motivation by people whom I've never met every time I take a moment to say, "Isn't this curious..."

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 11, 2007 11:36 PM

Justin says "Folks like Pat and Bob Walsh have a monetary interest in keeping their views unchanged."

Unfair, Justin. As to debates over the underlying statistics, I am very forthright about the data, good or bad, and have no objection to the entire picture being presented - and I can also recognize spin on either side when I see it - I know, for instance, that the real BLS data on comparable positions shows RI teacher compensation to be fair, but if you want to rig the numbers to make teachers look overcompensated, you compare average private sector wages in total to teacher wages, as our blue collar wages in RI are low compared to other states. I also know the true story behind the educational performance numbers, and the pension system figures, and yes, we will often end up in statistics fights when we see them being manipulated.

But for you to glibly state that I have a monetary interest in not changing my views implies you know something about my character and my values, which you clearly do not. And since most people posting here seem to think that I am the only one in this conversation that actually has the power to do anything with this information, you had better hope that I am not here (at midnight, no less) earning overtime, but because I am genuinely interested in the points of view being expressed.

How ironic that you ended your post by saying "I guess I just love the experience of being misread, attacked, and belittled with assumptions as to my motivation by people whom I've never met . . ." when you just did that to me!

(And no, I am not earning overtime, and get paid no more or less to read this blog or not, which kind of goes to my points about merit pay that there are more things than money that motivate people.)

Posted by: Bob Walsh at August 12, 2007 12:10 AM

You're correct, Bob, my statement was unfair, and I apologize.

I didn't take the time to clearly articulate the point at which I was driving — namely, that in the ideological debate over unions, you have a financial incentive not to conclude (or at least to minimize the possibility) that they are a significant part of the problem. In other words, probably more than anybody else commenting around here, you have broader interests that will affect your interpretation of the data.

I'm not faulting you for that, just noting it as part of the meta-pondering.

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 12, 2007 12:25 AM


Apparently, I'm not reading very well tonight, since it appears from your comment that I misread your original post. If so, I apologize. When you mentioned the "failure of evidentiary debate to advance the discussion concerning Rhode Island's educational system", I took you to be saying that we would be better off forgetting it and going back a "higher" level of abstraction. Apparently, that's not what you meant.

I still would not say that the discussion was a failure. In fact, I thought Tom W, John and I seemed to be making some progress on triangulating an understanding of the meaning of the numbers, despite starting from different points of view. I thought the kind of discussion we were having was useful, both from the point of view of developing better understanding, and from the point of view of displacing the nasty rhetoric that sometimes makes this place, for me, less fun and useful than it might be.

Yes, people's views often color their interpretation of the facts, and which facts they emphasize. But if you tone things down a bit and everyone appears to be operating in good faith, I think you get places. I'm a believer that, in an open discussion, the partial truths presented by both sides can come together to form a complete picture. Facts, as one recent president said (or meant to say) are stubborn things. Sometimes we get down to facts that neither side can ignore without abandoning any pretense of objectivity and good faith.

I agree that the average voter is going to make decisions based more on ideology than an in-depth understanding of policy. To that, I would say two things: 1) I prefer to talk with above-average people. There are a good number of them here, yourself included, and it's fun to debate with them. 2) the average voter is likely to take cues from opinion leaders. Like it or not, you are one. That's why I was disappointed that you seemed, to me, to be suggesting we should stop working on understanding and go back to (what I see as) yelling at each other.

I didn't really mean to cast aspersions on your motivation.. The "bloggers too?" line was meant to be a joke, but obviously didn't work. I should go back to using smilies ☺. My the line about playing to the lowest common denominator was inappropriate, and I shouldn't have included it. I just could not figure out at all why you seemed to be saying we should abandon a productive discussion for one that I think gets us nowhere. Apparently, you were not, so I apologize again.

In fact, as I am writing this, however, I note that you have just put up a new post that dissects statements and interpretations of the facts about education discussed in the comments on an earlier post. Clearly, then, you think that discussion is worthwhile. Great….let's have at it and see where we get.

Posted by: Thomas at August 12, 2007 2:08 AM

"It's the reading, stupid!"

Posted by: iggy at August 12, 2007 8:20 AM


Well made points, although the multiple apologies weren't necessary. (I hope it's apparent that my emotional reaction was more to Pat than to you.)

I would add, though, that placing ideological differences head to head doesn't necessarily indicate talking-head shoutathons. We could, in a civilized and sometimes productive manner, turn the conversation toward such questions as (simplifying), "So why do you love unions so?" Or "What gives you such faith in the free market?"

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 12, 2007 8:48 AM

Dear Justin,

It's never about self-worth. I get a commission check every week, please read commission, and a bunch of salesman of the fill in the blank time period or region certificates to justify self worth.

It's about team. It's about making positive change. It's about staying focused on the issues instead the continual distractions from both left and right.

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at August 12, 2007 10:33 AM

"It's about team. It's about making positive change."

I'm intrigued. What positive change did your state 'team' make this legislative season?

Besides Grace Diaz's anti-cellophane bill, and the dog house bill of course.

Posted by: Greg at August 12, 2007 12:17 PM

>>I'm intrigued. What positive change did your state 'team' make this legislative season?

Well, I would never presume to speak for Mr. Oliveira.

But I'm sure that his team, standing on the precipice of economic catastrophe of their own making, would proudly point to the following as signature accomplishments of the last legislative session:

1) The enactment of the midnight union protection uber alles bill a/k/a the "we ain't gonna have no privatization in this state!" bill.

2) The Lincoln-admirer Frank Williams "I wanna build a monument to myself in Lincoln, RI" bill, authorizing over $100 million that we don't have to build it.

Is anyone willing to bet against the likelihood that (like the Bruce Sundlun "monument to myself before I leave" terminal at the airport) this courthouse will end up being the "Frank Williams Judicial Center"?

Despite this, my favorite courthouse name will always be the "Frank Licht Judicial Center." The guy lied about the state income tax. Later, the Democrat General Assembly names the State's main courthouse - a building in which people are sworn "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" - after that liar. Somehow, being that this IS Rhode Island, I guess that it's actually appropriate.

Posted by: Tom W at August 12, 2007 4:00 PM

Dear Greg,

There were numerous bills passed this year making it easier for small buinesses to deal with insurance regulations, insurance companies and so those same businesses could also save overall on insurance.

Tom W,

Sorry, once again, the facts are about to let you down:

1. The privatization bill was debated like everything else. In fact, just a couple of cycles ago, almost the entire GOP Caucus voted for it. It should be noted that what the Bill does do is keep from further embarassments. Need I remind you that GOP run DOT, I won't even mention the audit, is currently under investigation by the State Police?

2. The Lincoln Courthouse is not going to cost $100 million. Technically, this isn't even a done deal yet.

3. When did Frank Licht lie??

Posted by: Bobby Oliveira at August 12, 2007 6:59 PM

TomW, don't forget:

3.) Proudly continuing to offer the maximum welfare benefits - 5 years - permitted by federal law to both legal and illegal residents, even in the face of the seventh highest taxes and the second worst funded public pensions.

[Damn, they've got their priorities straight!]

Posted by: SusanD at August 12, 2007 10:46 PM

"Grace Diaz's anti-cellophane bill"

Thank heavens, Greg, Ms. Diaz saw the wisdom that once twinkies are outlawed, only outlaws will have (cellophane-wrapped) twinkies.

Hey, who says you have to be familiar with Rhode Island's existing laws to serve in the General Assembly?? Ignorant or informed - we are equal opportunity employers.

Posted by: SusanD at August 12, 2007 10:58 PM

>>Sorry, once again, the facts are about to let you down: 1. The privatization bill was debated like everything else. In fact, just a couple of cycles ago, almost the entire GOP Caucus voted for it. It should be noted that what the Bill does do is keep from further embarassments. Need I remind you that GOP run DOT, I won't even mention the audit, is currently under investigation by the State Police?

Yeah, it was “debated” at midnight after by-passing the normal committee hearing process. Much like the bill years ago when the Democrat General Assembly voted to give state pensions to teachers union bosses who didn’t even work for the state. Try again.

While I don’t absolve the current administration regarding the situation at RIDOT – if nothing else, oversight should have been much better – don’t forget that, like most of RI government, much of RIDOT is composed of career hacks who precede this administration, and will be there long after this administration.

<<2. The Lincoln Courthouse is not going to cost $100 million. Technically, this isn't even a done deal yet.

My recollection is that the ProJo reported that the $70 million figure was only to start, not to complete. In any event, you’re not really arguing that this RI “public works” project will come in “on time and in budget” are you????

Consider that Sakonnet River Bridge, first budgeted at about $60 million, and now at twice that and climbing.

Speaking of that bridge, as you know it is about 25 years “younger” than the Mt. Hope Bridge. The only reason that we’re replacing it is that the pre-Carcieri RIDOT didn’t properly maintain it during the early-1990’s, blaming post-banking crisis budget cuts.

To borrow an insurance industry term, political corruption has a “long tail.” Here we are well over a decade later incurring over a hundred million dollar expense – and mortgaging away most if not all of our future federal highway maintenance funds – to repair COLLATERAL DAMAGE from the Democrat General Assembly’s RISDIC corruption.

The new bridge should be re-named “The RISDIC Bridge” to serve as a public monument to the Democrat General Assembly’s multi-decade long history of corruption.

>>3. When did Frank Licht lie??

It is well known that during his campaign for re-election as Governor he said that he opposed the imposition of an income tax on RI, and then within a few weeks of being sworn in “discovered” the “need” for one … as if he didn’t know the fiscal situation in the state during his first term?

This from the URI biography of the LIAR: “One of the deciding factors of the 1968 gubernatorial election was the issue of the state income tax which was supported by incumbent Governor John H. Chafee and opposed by Frank Licht. Voters preferred not to pay a state income tax even in the face of dwindling government revenue and as result Licht won the election. Accordingly, Licht held this platform two years later in his re-election campaign against incumbent Attorney General Herbert F. DeSimone only to introduce it as a temporary tax in February of 1971 and a permanent tax by July of the same year.”

Posted by: Tom W at August 13, 2007 9:29 AM
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