Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #021. First published in the St. Cloud Times Apr. 28, 2009

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”

When people disregard this sage observation of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we’re Through the Looking Glass with Alice, where Humpty Dumpty declares, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

To Alice’s objection, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things,” Humpty Dumpty responds, “The question is which is to be master − that’s all.”

Facts, words, opinions get jumbled in the news, on the Web and in our heads. Which piece of this jumble is to be master of our own thought? The answer has practical consequences.

When our elected officials claim their opinion is grounded in facts, we should, at a minimum, be able to trust that they’re telling the truth.

Rep. Michele Bachmann is entitled to her opinion, but she is not worthy of attention or respect when she continues to cite as support for her opposition to cap−and−trade an MIT study, one of whose authors has stated publicly that Bachmann and some of her Republican colleagues misrepresent the study’s tax consequences by a factor of 10.

The apocalyptic rants of our congresswoman are an embarrassment to the 6th District, especially when she so blatantly tries to have “her own facts,” but at least we don’t have to worry that her extremist views will make their way into policy.

Humpty Dumpty holds more sway in our state, however.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature have 20 days left to solve the biggest budget crisis in the state’s history. The governor and the Taxpayers League keep telling us that Minnesotans are overtaxed and we can do all we need to do as a state with “the money we already have.” They even say that “facts” support their opinion that income taxes, especially on the wealthy, inevitably hurt economic growth.

They are trying Humpty Dumpty’s trick: making words mean what they say they mean.

The “2009 Minnesota Tax Incidence Study: Analysis of Minnesota’s Household and Business Taxes,” delivered to the Legislature by the highly regarded Tax Research Division of the Minnesota Department of Revenue, demonstrates that the state and local tax obligation of Minnesotans has actually decreased since the mid−1990s. During this time considerable cuts in state funding also have been made.

According to the governor and those who talk like him, lower taxes and starved government, achieved in recent years, are the recipe for economic success. Yet, according to “The Lost Decade,” a research report by the Minnesota Budget Project, median household income, adjusted for inflation, actually decreased.

In 2008 the state economist and state demographer reported that Minnesota ranked 30th in per capita employment growth from 2000−07, and 24th in real per capita GDP growth in that same period. By contrast, during the 1990s, when our tax obligation was higher, we were among the top 10 in the country in per capita income and, according to the policy research group Growth & Justice, we had the most robust economy in the Midwest. 

These facts tell us that Minnesotans are not overtaxed as compared to other states (in 2006 Minnesota ranked 19th in total state and local taxes measured as a percentage of income), that lower taxes and cuts in government spending in and of themselves do not bring economic growth, and that higher taxes do not necessarily hamper growth. 

These are facts, and no spin by our state’s Humpty Dumptys can change them. 

At the April 15 “tea party” demonstration in St. Cloud, former Rep. Jim Knoblach declared, “The power to tax is the power to destroy.” Recent history has shown that the refusal to tax adequately is the power to destroy − gradually and inexorably to destroy the quality of life that once upon a time made our state the envy of the nation. It’s time to invest in Minnesota again. 

The opinion is mine. The facts are everybody’s. And the facts should be the master.