(‘76 Contributor) Believing a free press to be a vital safeguard of liberty, Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Many believe the inverse of Jefferson’s maxim — the people are uninformed, and therefore the government can’t be trusted. After all, what well-informed American would knowingly allow politicians to lead us to the monumental economic and budgetary “cliffs” we face?
Despite a proliferation of new media, it’s increasingly difficult to separate fact from narrative. Combined with rancorous political discourse in which opponents are demonized in order to delegitimize competing arguments and render unnecessary the defense of one’s own, it makes demoralized Americans struggle to discern the truth.
When invited by The Aspen Times to help diversify its opinion page, I proposed my “Think Again” column as a fact-based, issue-oriented commentary that would challenge conventional wisdom and remind readers of the values that made America the freest and most prosperous nation in world history. Like “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” I attempt to expose readers to easily certifiable facts and perspectives they might not otherwise consider (see columns at www.thinkagainusa.com). The goal of “Think Again” is not to change minds but to open them, for civil discourse requires being informed and thoughtful, which is the essence of citizenship.
Last month, a community member targeted me in the letters-to-the-editor section with an unusual level of hostility and mean-spiritedness — he accused me of being an egregious, bald-faced liar and an embarrassment to Americans. Declaring me guilty without any possibility of innocence (or trial), my accuser and those who defended him from criticism believe their claims are objectively true and mine are lies.
Calling someone a liar is the ultimate character assassination. It means truth doesn’t matter to that person and that lying is not only habitual — it’s an indelible mark of a deceitful and immoral character. According to Jewish ethicist Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal,” the most grievous violation of ethical speech is “giving another a bad name,” for words are like bullets whose damage is mortal. To fight fairly, he writes, “you have the right to state your case, express your opinion, explain why you think the other party is wrong, even make clear how passionately you feel. … You do not have a moral right to undercut your adversary’s position by invalidating him personally.”
In my columns, I’ve made the case that our undisciplined, indebted and special-interest-oriented government is a bipartisan problem that subverts everybody’s interests. I’ve quoted Sen. Tom Coburn, member of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, who said, “Our economy is on the brink of collapse not because politicians can’t agree but because they have agreed for decades … to borrow and spend far beyond our means … to create or expand nearly 40 entitlement programs, carve out tax advantages for special interests, build bridges to nowhere and earmark tens of thousands of other pork projects.”
I believe it is a moral travesty that we’ve mortgaged our children’s futures because we’re unable to live within our means and are more indebted than any other nation in world history. Mandatory spending on “entitlements” (such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) is the single biggest financial problem we face, consuming 60 percent of our annual budget — up from 21 percent in 1955. As baby boomers retire and live longer, the current spending trajectory is unsustainable. Without reforms, it’s unlikely that these vital programs will be available for people who need them in the future.
One fact in particular irritated my accusers: we’ve spent less cumulatively on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars plus the 2008 TARP bailouts than we spend annually on mandatory programs. In contending that I’m a liar, and without citing sources, they claim the wars’ total costs will exceed $5.8 trillion and that TARP exposure exceeds $15 trillion.
It’s not my goal to disprove their claims, only certify mine. According to the Congressional Budget Office — created by Congress in 1974 to “provide objective, impartial information about budgetary and economic issues” — federal spending (excluding interest expense) totaled $3.3 trillion in fiscal year 2012, of which $2.1 trillion were mandatory expenditures for entitlements. Meanwhile, the Budget Office reports that through October, a total of $1.4 trillion was spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, while TARP has cost a net of $24 billion, after repayments.
My accusers argue that “true” costs must project a decade’s worth of related and longer-term expenses. Therefore, we’ll have spent $29 trillion on mandatory expenditures through 2022, according to the president’s fiscal year 2013 budget, while unfunded liabilities exceed $60 trillion, according to the trustees of Social Security and Medicare. To put these numbers in perspective, consider that 1 trillion hours ago, dinosaurs roamed the earth.
No doubt, fighting fairly is difficult, especially given the personal narratives that inform how we see the world. But as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Unfortunately, the one thing on which die-hard partisans seem to agree is that only one party is at fault — and it isn’t theirs. Unable to hold competing facts simultaneously in mind, it’s not surprising that they consider inconvenient truths to be lies.
But embedded within our First Amendment right to free speech is a responsibility not merely to tolerate others’ perspectives but to listen. Imagine if my accusers and I were to summon the mutual respect necessary to listen to each other’s concerns. I’m confident we’d discover that despite our differences, we’re equally committed to a “more perfect union.”
Think Again — instead of playing the “liar” card, we might each learn something new, informing us enough to elect leaders who can be “trusted with our government.”
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. Her column runs every other Thursday. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind.