The great British statesman and writer Edmund Burke was a critic of his government’s treatment of the American colonies in the years preceding the Revolutionary War. In particular, he insisted that when the colonists objected to taxation by Parliament rather than by their own elected legislatures, they were just standing up for their rights as Englishmen.
Among the arguments offered by Burke’s opponents was that the Americans had previously accepted their subservient status and had no business asserting a new right to colonial self-government. “I have disposed of this falsehood,” Burke replied wearily. “But falsehood has a perennial spring.”
That’s a wonderfully insightful phrase. Falsehoods — by which I do not necessarily mean intentional lies — have always been widespread in politics. Politicians employ falsehoods that fit their rhetorical needs, often without checking their sources and considering alternative explanations.
We are all prone to the temptation. Sometimes, a purported “fact” just feels like it must be true. It fits snugly within our preconceived notions. We repeat it, perhaps because we’ve heard others we respect say it. Still others then follow our lead.
Here are some often-repeated statements that, I would submit, are clearly contrary to the available evidence. See how many of these feel to you as if they must be true:
• Poor people don’t pay taxes. This is unambiguously false. If we divide households into five equal parts based on reported income, the quintile with the lowest incomes pays about 13 percent of household income in taxes, on average. The effective tax burden for the highest-income quintile is 28 percent.
Notice that the issue isn’t whether the poor pay income taxes. Most don’t, at least not directly. But other federal, state, and local taxes do hit them directly, including payroll taxes, sales taxes, and excise taxes. Lower-income households also bear some of the incidence of taxes on business income (via lower wages or higher prices) and real property (via higher rents or prices).
• North Carolina has below-average schools. You can’t just look at average test scores across the country, pick the highest ones, and then say those states must have the best school systems. Students come to school with a variety of advantages and challenges — the relative proportions of which are not equally distributed across the states.
Schools matter a lot, of course, but it would be silly to hold them fully responsible for educational outcomes. When state-by-state differences in student achievement are adjusted for student background, North Carolina ranks 12th in the nation in school quality. We can and should do much better than that — matching the performance of top-performing states such as Florida and Massachusetts would be no mean feat — but let’s get real.
• We’ve made no significant progress in reducing poverty. Speaking of getting real, America has experienced a dramatic drop in poverty over the past half-century, but neither Republicans nor Democrats seem keen to admit it. The former want to declare the War on Poverty an abject failure and the latter want to justify vastly more spending on it.
Properly measuring the poverty rate means starting with household expenditures rather than income reported to the IRS, including the value of non-cash government benefits, and using realistic estimates of inflation. Properly measured, America’s poverty rate has fallen from about 30 percent in the early 1960s to about 3 percent today.
• America spends more the other countries on health care without getting better results. The first part of this sentence is correct. The second part isn’t. Often-cited measures such as average life expectancy are influenced by a host of factors unrelated to the financing and delivery of medical services. After adjusting for America’s high rates of intentional and accidental deaths, for example, our average life expectancy soars to the top of the list.
Many years after the American Revolution, Edmund Burke wrote another gem: “Our patience will achieve more than our force.” Before enacting sweeping changes in government, policymakers should take the time to study issues carefully, separating demonstrable truths from familiar falsehoods.