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 #031. First published in the St. Cloud Times Feb. 23, 2010

To the commentaries on Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s final State of the State Address I add one from 390 years ago.

A sound framework for a critique of Pawlenty’s speech is provided by Francis Bacon’s treatise on the nature of thinking clearly, published the year the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Bacon identifies four impediments to clear thought. He calls them “idols” — not false gods, but what the ancient Greeks meant: “illusion” or “false appearance.”

Idols of the Tribe are limitations of human nature. “Human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.”

The governor claims to know “the true source of economic recovery,” though there’s seldom only one true source for anything. This Idol of the Tribe keeps Pawlenty from seeing that our economic challenges belie single causation or solution.

The Idol of the Cave is our tendency to assume that what we think is the measure of all things. Bacon sagely warns: “Whatever your mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion.” It follows that you should not assume others have the same motive you would if you did what they do.

Pawlenty slams those who reject his “no new taxes” dogma: “For generations, most Minnesota politicians wanted more taxes because they wanted more government.” But human motivation is complex, and a more compelling argument is that people wanted more taxes because they believed the common good required common investment.

Idols of the Marketplace are, Bacon says, “the most troublesome of all” for clarity of thought. He’s not referring to Wall Street, but to the many arenas in which we converse with one another and our words lose their mooring in reality. A modern form of this idolatry is selective use of statistics.

Attempting to portray a government out of control, Pawlenty says that “from 1960, the year I was born, until I became governor in 2003, state government spending increased an average of 21 percent every two years.” Even if he were right, it would be 10 percent a year, but he takes no account of price inflators, population growth (Minnesota has 50 percent more people than it did in 1960), or state takeovers of local government costs.

The meaningful figure is real per capita total state and local government general expenditures, which, as Minnesota 2020’s Fact Check shows, grew at an annual average rate of 2 percent from 1962 to 2007.

Pawlenty’s analysis, besides being superficial, neglects to tell us what we got for the investments we made: government wages for women comparable to those for men; a high-class transportation system; environmental protection; health care for seniors and infants; an expanded community college system; special education; and equalization of education opportunity across school districts.

Minnesota is a better place than it was when Pawlenty was born, especially if you are not at the top of the economic heap, or are a woman, or are a member of any other group marginalized before government acted to ensure more fairness.

Finally, there are what Bacon calls Idols of the Theater: “received systems [of thought] are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion.”

One phrase in Pawlenty’s address signals the world he inhabits. “Leave us alone” is what the governor says he hears businesspeople saying. And “Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives” is a recent book by Grover Norquist, a mastermind of the anti-government, anti-tax power structure’s “received system of thought.”

Instead of operating with a balanced and more complex understanding that government and taxes are sometimes the problem, sometimes the solution, sometimes both at once, our governor and his fellow believers are stuck in a world of their own creation.

Bacon concludes that “the several classes of Idols ... must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination.” The State of the State of Minnesota will be much improved when the illusions of Pawlentyism are renounced and put away.