Thursday, July 1, 2010

We've Cleared the Neutral Zone

Which of these claims, would you say, is simply a neutral statement of fact?

A.  "Unless we take necessary steps to plan for the future, our national infrastructure will decay, our citizens will not keep up with the world, and older Americans will suffer.  We need to spend now to ensure we get the America we want."

B.  "Unless we take necessary steps to plan for the future, our most productive citizens will be taxed into oblivion.  We need to cut taxes now if we want to create jobs and ensure maximum freedom for all Americans."

C.  "Unless we take necessary steps to plan for the future, our national deficit and mounting debt will grow out of control...We need to make real choices now to ensure that our nation continues to invest in national priorities."

I hope you realize it's a trick question: none of them are neutral statements of fact.  All three state political positions.  "Spend more" is a political position.  "Cut taxes" is a political position.  And "balance the budget" is a political position.  Statements A and B were written by me for this post (long ago, I was a Hill press secretary -- nice to use those skills once in a while).  Statement C, however, is from the materials available as background material on "U.S. Budget & the Economy" provided by the folks at America Speaks on their web site.  Below that introduction, America Speaks offers seven reports by a variety of organizations, liberal and conservative, for balancing the budget.  They claim, because of this, that they are politically neutral -- indeed, they have a prominently displayed "Statement of Neutrality."  However, the entire exercise they asked participants to "deliberate" about at their "National Town Meeting" was about cutting the deficit. 

Here's what how the materials they handed out began (pdf):
This guide is intended to provide an introduction to the fiscal challenges facing the country.  It is designed to accompany an Options Workbook that presents a series of options for reducing the federal budget deficit

In order to ensure that the information in this guide is as unbiased as possible....

Too late!  "Reducing the federal budget deficit" is not an unbiased goal.  It is one possible policy option, no more. 

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate for America Speaks or any other organization to advocate for their policy goals.  None of us should be so foolish, however, to accept such advocacy for neutrality, no matter how many times America Speaks claims it.  We wouldn't believe it from the NRA, we wouldn't believe it from the AFL-CIO, and we shouldn't believe it from the deficit reducers. 

For more on the methodological issues with the claims made by America Speaks, please see this post by John Sides, and follow the links there for a lively discussion at the Monkey Cage.  I think that Sides and Andrew Gelman have much the best of the argument, and more generally I'm not exactly a believer that this sort of deliberative democracy has much to recommend it from the perspective of democratic theory.  My main interest here, however, is just to try as hard as I can to drum in the point that the size of the deficit is simply not an apolitical, technocratic issue; nor is it an issue in which there is inherently a good side and a bad side.  The size of the budget deficit is a political issue, and there is no neutral position concerning what it should be.


  1. Actually, I think it's perfectly possible that one or more of those statements is actually a neutral statement of fact. In fact, I tend to think that both A and C are neutral statements of fact. If I didn't, then supporting policies aimed at solving those issues would be either selfish or silly.

    Now, if we only truly knew the answers for certain, we could discern which of the beliefs is actually correct. Sadly, we don't for many questions, and the ones that it would seem like we do, we still don't because apparently, that truth is not as self-evident as some of us think it is.

  2. Matt: That's the problem. If you don't know the outcome for certain, then any statement you make about it is, by definition, an opinion. It's possible that statements A and C--or any other statements about the future that you might believe--are well-informed opinions, but they can't possibly be statements of fact.

  3. Can't they be?
    When a person says the earth is round, isn't that a statement of fact regardless of whether that person actually knows it to be true? Doesn't a statement become one of fact if the statement itself is true, not if we know it is true?


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