Faith v. Reason: The Pitfalls of Ideology

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner A friend characterized many policy debates as disputes between “faith and reason.” The political season—particularly the primaries—involves repeated “professions of faith.” Candidates appear before the high priests of their sect and are judged on purity and zeal.

Unfortunately, uncritical faith leads to irrational policy. Consider Republicans’ faith in tax cuts. The lesson of the 1964 income tax cut—a Kennedy initiative, I remind you—was that high taxes can discourage industry and that cutting tax rates can paradoxically yield more tax revenue as the economy expands. When Ronald Reagan followed Kennedy’s lead, the tax rate on the highest earners was nearly 70% and almost surely discouraged enterprise. Cutting taxes was a reasoned response. Now an article of faith in republicanism, raising taxes has become a sinful act that invokes moral sanction. Even closing some of the loopholes that riddle the tax code can be deemed “raising taxes.” Reason responds that taxation is necessary and must be balanced—reductio ad absurdum surely applies: Reducing taxes to zero would be absurd and would lead to a very different society than what we now enjoy.

Orthodoxy is alive and well at the other end of the political spectrum. Democrats express reservations about a minimum wage hike at their peril. The rhetoric of the faithful focuses on the need of the earner for a “living wage” or a wage that can support a family. If $10.10 is good, $15 is better. Why not $25? Acolytes of the other faith see heresy in any minimum at all. Reason concludes that a modest increase in the minimum wage can protect some workers from exploitation without eliminating a path to employment for the unskilled and inexperienced. New York’s minimum wage hike for the fast food industry will help those who are still employed, but will also accelerate the introduction of labor-replacing technology like kiosks for ordering. Faith wins out over reason?

Reform of our badly flawed health care insurance system was a target for reasoned discourse only fleetingly before it was dubbed “Obamacare” and opposition became “faith-based.” Republican governors, unlike members of Congress, must balance budgets and be held accountable for services delivered. A few courageous governors—Ohio’s John Kasich and Indiana’s Mike Pence come to mind—have risked the wrath of the zealots and accepted some form of the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid. Most have cowered behind the faith-based argument that a state’s 10% cost share might risk job-destroying tax increases (excommunication!).

A powerful environmental lobby among Dems (reinforced by corn-state legislators of both stripes) has ensured that we’re still burning gasoline that has been diluted 10% by corn-based ethanol. That’s another triumph of faith over reason. Although Congress ended the explicit subsidy for ethanol production, the “renewable fuels standard” still applies and corn ethanol is still treated as the “green” fuel it isn’t.

And instead of encouraging the evolution of technology that has closed dozens of dirty coal plants and dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions, “fracking” has become the Obamacare of the left. In the place of rigorous, performance-based regulation, New York drillers now face an outright ban, putting shale gas beyond reach regardless of steady improvements in extraction technology.

Opposition to the Common Core curricular reform has become an article of faith on the fringes of both right and left. Skewered on the right by the shibboleth of federal control of education and on the left by its connection to assessment and accountability, Common Core has spurred a remarkable coalition of opposition. Of the crowd of Republican presidential candidates, Bush and Kasich are the only two to boldly stay the course. Many others (see Jindal, Walker, Christie and Huckabee) are playing “duck and cover.”

Faith-based political speech is hardly new. Nuanced public policy is hard—many voters want simple answers in black and white. Campaigns are happy to provide them. Media campaigns trade in sound bites.

The gatekeepers of the party primaries are the individuals and organizations with money and influence. Our nation has long struggled to defend democracy from the power of money—the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has facilitated a concentration of power, a concentration that quiets the voice of reason in the face of unquestioning faith. I despair at the influence of individuals with massive fortunes, larger egos and opinions reinforced by the isolation of personal wealth.

Reason-based public policy requires objectivity and independence. And political courage. As voters, let’s be wary of simplistic explanations of complex problems and suspicious of leaders who see the world’s problems with more clarity than the facts justify.