Leaning Left/Leaning Right

A business journal recently reported that 26 U.S. Companies paid their C.E.O.s more in 2011 than they paid in taxes to the U.S. government. This is not surprising in this day and age of tax breaks and subsidies for large corporations — and given the obscene salaries and benefits garnered by corporate C.E.O.s. The corporations in this country call the shots and are in the process of buying the government, as I have said in past blogs (though not with their tax money: they buy the politicians who make and execute the laws.)

What is interesting about this story is that the companies, including Citigroup, Abbott Laboratories, and AT &T, are of one voice in their objection to the report, claiming that the methodology is flawed — given that the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. collected the data and drew the conclusions. The Institute is reputed to lean a bit to the left. Therefore the study is not to be taken seriously we are told.

I have been corresponding with a fellow blogger named “Jack” who objected to some of the things I said about Paul Ryan on the grounds that the source I cited (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) is reputed to lean to the left. The claim is that we cannot rely on data or studies that draw on that data when it is collected by a group known to be biased. To an extent this is true. But it is a half-truth. Furthermore, it smacks of “shooting the messenger.” We don’t like what the messenger says, so we label him and dismiss what he has to say. This gambit, in turn, smacks of the ad hominem fallacy, which I have also blogged about. In any event, the comment deserves further comment.

I recall the Bishop of Maryland years ago saying he wished someone would write an unbiased history of the Civil War — from the Southern point of view. Clever, and even quite funny (especially for a Bishop!). But also much to the point: it is not humanly possible to make a claim without bias entering in at some point. The data are straightforward enough, but as soon as someone, anyone, begins to interpret the data bias creeps in: it’s unavoidable. In fact, it is not even possible to identify a group as left-leaning or right-leaning without bias creeping in. To those at the far right of the political spectrum, those in the middle seem to be leaning left. To those on the far left, the ones in the middle appear to be leaning to the right. It’s a matter of perspective. No one is without bias, and all perspectives are skewed.

Given that this is the case, the most any of us can do is read and think about what we have read. If a study is based on data that are available to anyone we can draw our own conclusions. We can read what those on the political left have written (supposing that we know who they are) and then read what those on the political right have written (same proviso). Then divide by 2 — or something. In fact, we can spend the rest of our lives checking data and critiquing the conclusions drawn by various groups from those data. Or we can accept as true the results of studies that have been conducted by responsible, bi-partisan groups and hope the conclusions they drew are reliable  — to the extent that any conclusions are reliable.

In a word, I realize that the Institute for Policy Studies has a reputation for leaning a bit left of center. But the conclusions they have reached about the 26 U.S. companies accords with much of the information I have available to me about U.S. corporations generally and since it “fits” I will accept it as true until or unless I have good reason to reject it. It’s a question of coherence and plausibility, not absolute certainty. That’s the best anyone can do, given the limits of human fallibility and the constraints of time.

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13 thoughts on “Leaning Left/Leaning Right

  1. Good post. The shoot the messenger concept applies in a number of instances. This is one reason I watch BBC World News America as it provides a healthier outside looking in perspective of our successes and flaws. It is also a reason I prefer when I can to use global entities’ surveys like the World Economic Forum, World Health Organization and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as they are questioned less as they compare the US to other countries. These organizations show that the US is the one of the least taxed countries in the world, which directly contradicts the key premise of the TEA Party. These organizations show we spend more on defense than the next umpteen countries combined. And, these countries show we are ranked 38th in healthcare quality with the highest cost in the world. So, the R&R plan to our budget and other woes is to cut taxes for the upper end, repeal Obamacare, leave defense spending alone and cut social programs trying to help 45 million Americans in poverty. If we throw in gutting the EPA and perpetuating the expansion of fossil fuel use, then I would say the choice is pretty clear. As an Independent and former GOPer, Obama is not perfect, but he beats the hell out of this choice. Sorry for the soapbox, but I am increasingly frustrated by the cognitive dissonance and people arguing over poor choices of words. Thanks Hugh.

    • And the wealthy in this country have targeted Obama and are planning to spend billions spreading their version of the “truth” to make sure he is defeated. The Supreme Court has given them carte blanche. Brace yourself!

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  2. I like this. I think the difference between left and right is usually in the interpretation of the data and not in the actual numbers. So I usually feel pretty comfortable with citing the data if I know that the study is methodologically credible. I just may not share the interpretation. And frequently these think tanks are really citing a diffferent source, like the CBO, which is seen as more credible, so that is the source I will cite. Great points here, Hugh!

  3. I agree with Jenni. I have read studies which had great data in them, but I did not find the conclusions they made were supported by the data. It is all perspective.

    • I suspect there is some bias involved in selecting the data in the first place: what’s relevant?? But it doesn’t seem necessary to dwell on it!

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  4. Interesting…In reading Jack’s comments, he only suggested one actually reads the Ryan Plan (or at least the introduction!) before developing a full opinion about it. I know that it can be difficult to get through some of the original studies or sources…. but, I’ve found that once one has at least read the original, the commentaries about it provide even more light and I’ve found it is much easier (and more meaningful) to develop a well founded opinion.

    While there are many sources – left leaning and right leaning – that are credible and often even-handed in analyzes, it should scare all of us to build our opinions only upon a second-handed points of view – even if you take a left leaning and a right leaning and divide by 2! It does no justice in our pursuit of good governance and makes it easy for mass media or personalities to make lemmings out of us (right or left!).

    Brad-

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