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Reform Party of California Essays 6: What is the Public Interest and How is it Best Served

The Reform Party of California (RPCA) essays generally refer to the public interest.[1] That is usually accompanied by assertions that the two-party system does not serve it effectively enough. The RPCA understands and accepts as fact that most or all supporters of the California Democratic Party and the California Republican Party believe that what they do and how they do it does best serve the public interest. The RPCA disagrees with those perceptions of reality.

Sources of distortion: The focus of essay 4 was on the nature of mainstream retail political discourse. At least in the context of presidential elections, most of the rhetoric coming from the two parties, their politicians and partisan players is spin.[2] Ideology and political self-interest can distort perceptions of reality (facts) and it can also distort memory or recalled reality/memory. It is no surprise that perceptions of reality vary. When perception differences are large, partisans on one side sometimes describe their opponents’ perceptions of reality descriptions as out of touch, clueless or delusional.

Terms of debate: There is another source reality distortion in politics. It arises from differences in how different people use or define basic terms of debate. For example, a liberal might call a particular piece of legislation that increases military spending for a weapons system “a waste of money”, while a conservative might call it “serving a critical national security need”. Unfortunately, neither description of the legislation sheds any light on its merits or how it serves the public interest. In essence, both assertions are conclusions, not the facts, context and rationale (spun or not) the conclusion comes from. Unfortunately, conclusions in lieu of context constitutes much of political “debate” in retail politics.

For the most part, two-party debates are mostly discussions with basic terms of debate left undefined, except maybe in the heads of the people doing the arguing. Debates can be won or lost based on how the key terms are defined and what definitions various people subconsciously assign to various terms. Debates like that do not effectively serve the public interest because the debate terms are simply unknown. If someone argues that “big government” is bad and define it as federal spending over 8% of GDP, then you have an advantage if spending exceeds your defined limit and your opponent does not challenge your definition. That kind of discourse rarely or never includes identifying the source or authority for exactly where definitions come from and why the definition used is the proper one. When one side in a political dispute talks, they rarely define their terms and rarely give context, except when unspun context favors their position.

In essence, one can argue that the bulk of political discourse is empty and rather meaningless in terms of shedding light on how the public interest is being served by one side or the other. There are reasons for that. For example, it allows partisans freedom to argue something one way in one context but another way in a different context. In other words, it aids and abets hypocrisy. It also affords politicians a subtle way to let their supporters draw favorable conclusions about the politician even if the politician does or is something other than what the deluded supporters might believe.

If you think that sort of thing cannot or does not happen, recall president Obama’s first presidential election. Most people read into him what they wanted to believe. Many (most?) voters really didn’t know who they were voting for in 2008. Evidence of that self-delusion is now manifest in the form of people who strongly supported him in 2008 but opposed or supported him less strongly in 2012.[3] President Obama was a master of letting people read into him what they wanted, but he could pull it off only once.

Advocacy vs. competition of ideas

There are different ways to serve the public interest. One is to let the ideas with the most merit in service to the public interest guide or dominate policy. The difficulty with that is how to reasonably know which idea fits the bill. The parameters of the debate are not defined and the debates are usually based as much on spin as fact.

Understanding the distinction between advocacy of policy choices grounded in ideology and self-interest compared to advocacy after a real competition of ideas is important. The difference is at the heart of how the RPCA’s approach to politics fundamentally differs from the two-party approach. Democratic and republican partisans may argue that their work product is the result of an honest competition in the marketplace of ideas. The RPCA hears and understands that argument but the reality of debate simply is not in accord with it. As argued before, there is too much spin for that argument to be persuasive. To the extent such a thing occurs, the debate is always limited by the factors criticized elsewhere in this series of essays (ideology, special interest money, self-interest).

What is the public interest?

The RPCA’s focus is on better service to the public interest (or general welfare) over service to special interests as a basic point of difference between itself and both the democratic and republican parties at the state and national levels. Unlike the other two, the RPCA believes in advocacy after a fair and transparent competition among competing ideas. Because the public interest is central to RPCA politics, what the public interest is should be defined. This essay begins to define the public interest and how a consistent use of and focus on that definition can improve the product that politics delivers to the public.

There is no consensus on what the public interest is, how to define it or even if it is a coherent concept at all. Given the lack of consensus and authority, the RPCA’s definition of the public interest is just as good as any other. To start with, the RPCA uses the following definition:

The public interest is the optimum balance between serving public and private interests, while (i) defending and growing the American economy, (ii) defending and improving the American standard of living, (iii) defending personal freedoms, (iv) protecting the environment and (v) when reasonably possible, fostering global peace, stability and prosperity.

The definition is complicated, but that should be no surprise. America and the rest of the world is complicated. Black and white and simple is insufficient. The RPCA’s fundamental point is that under two-party politics, the balance is tipped too far in the direction of serving special interests and that is often to the net detriment to the public interest.

How can or does this work in practice?

An example of how a focus on that public interest definition can help to clarify issues and tend to force an inquiry into a reasonable context for politics comes from the global warming (GW) debate. In the RPCA’s opinion, the GW debate is not simply about protecting the environment. Depending on who things ultimately turn out, GW can also touch on the American economy and its standard of living. It can also affect global peace, stability and prosperity.

When this issue first came to public attention, two-party rhetoric fell largely along party and ideological lines. Democrats and liberals tended to see GW as a serious issue requiring government action. By contrast, most republicans and conservatives tended to deny it or downplay it as natural and/or of little or no ultimate consequence. That is what standard two-party ideology, thinking and politics gives you, but is there a better way to look at this?

If you can set ideology and self-interest aside, the GW issue is a matter of climate science, not political or religious ideology. If you can accept that basic premise as essentially true and keep your ideology and self-interest out of the thinking, then simple logic will get you fairly far in clear thinking about options and how well, or if, the debate to date has served the public interest.

If GW is a matter of climate science (not politics), then the best place to look is for guidance and context is what climate scientists have to say. At the beginning of the GW debate, there was some uncertainty over whether human activity such as putting gigatons of carbon dioxide into the air had anything to do with GW. Over the last 10 years or so, more relevant data has come in. Now, the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that we have a real problem on our hands and it is happening decades sooner than most any climate scientist had predicted a few years ago.

Despite the consensus among experts with relevant expertise, many, maybe most, conservatives, anti-government ideologues and affected special interests still take the minority GW skeptic point of view. That point of view holds that there is nothing to worry about and/or there is nothing we can or should do about it.[4] Liberals seem to be open to the idea that GW is caused at least in part or mostly by human activity and something needs to be done. Independents are in between the left and the right. At present, about 84% of climate scientists see GW as caused by human activity and 70% of climate scientists see GW as a very serious problem.[4]

At the same time, trust in climate scientists is dropping. At present, 35 percent of Americans say they trust scientists only a little or not at all. More than one-third of the public now believe that climate scientists who say global warming is real base their conclusions based on money and politics. What an irony; Politics (ideology) and money affecting conclusions and opinions. That complaint sounds awfully familiar.

What on Earth is going on here?

Why do splits along ideological or self-interest lines remain despite overwhelming expert opinion that we have a real and urgent problem on our hands? Why are many Americans losing trust in a branch of science they know little or nothing about? Exactly what is going on?

What is going on is obvious. Both parties, but especially the republican party, are playing on people’s ideology and spinning to drive public opinion in their direction. This is their way of serving the public interest in this issue.[5]

If you take your ego and any potential hit to your revenue stream out of this and just look at the public interest as defined above and unspun facts or context, the options and logic are fairly straight forward. The facts include consensus opinion from climate science experts.[4] If you accept climate science majority opinion, the the dispute is over how serious the problem can be and how soon real harm will come. With the exception of GW skeptics, the dispute over whether GW exists or humans have anything to do with it is over and done with. If you accept minority skeptic opinion, then the question is why. If your ideology doesn’t accept consensus opinion as a “fact”, then you may, consciously or not, downplay or fully reject that ego-disturbing inconvenience. The converse is true for ideology that is generally compatible with the thought that global warming is a problem, i.e., liberals generally accept the science on this point without question.

These aspects of human behavior have been brought up before.[5] The foregoing just acknowledges human behavior. It has to be acknowledged and then dealt with. Ignoring it might help ideology, special interests and political self-interest, but not necessarily the public interest. Raising the profile of the definition of the public interest makes it less threatening to think honestly about GW and most other issues in politics.

The RPCA understands that details of GW, e.g., how bad, how soon, remain unknown among mainstream climate scientists. That is no problem. Inquiry and debate there should continue. However, when conservatives, anti-government ideologues or affected industries deny that GW is a serious problem, they deny the majority of experts and accept the minority opinion. They do that at the risk of consequences that range from moderate, say sea level increases of 20 feet in 100 years and significant loss of America’s capacity to feed itself, to very low-probability catastrophic outcomes like, say, the end of the human species within the next 500 years or so. No one, including GW supporters or skeptics can put accurate odds on the possibility that GW will literally wipe us all out in 500-1,000 years. No one knows for certain, including the skeptics, regardless of how hard they tell you they know what will happen. It has been argued before that experts are not very good at predicting the future.[7] The same concern applies here.

That is easy for you to say

It can be argued that it is easy for the RPCA to think like this.[6] That is right. It is easy. The RPCA has no ideology to defend or make reality fit into. Special interest money does not dominate the party’s thought or actions. The party’s focus is on serving the public interest, not political self-interest, ideology or harvesting cash from special interests. The human ego and self-interest are, to some extent, taken out of the process of looking objectively at problems and assessing their potential impact on the public interest. Collectively, that makes evaluating competing policy options less prone to error. The RPCA simply looks for facts and tries to assess them for what they are and then fit that understanding into how to best serve the public interest. The point of defining the public interest is to bring some clarity as to what it is. That is a different basis for perceptions of reality than what you get from the political status quo.

This distinction is very important to understanding status quo politics compared to RPCA politics. In essence, the two are opposite approaches to politics. Specifically, the status quo approach is mostly subjective and the RPCA’s approach is mostly objective.

The horsemen of the political Apocalypse

As points of discussion, the three horsemen of the political Apocalypse, ideology, special interest money and political self-interest, are not mainstream political topics. Unfortunately, those taboo factors mitigate against facts and conclusions that impede progress of the horsemen in getting to their desired destinations, i.e., ideological dominance, accumulated financial resource and political power. There is no doubt that essentially all defenders of the status quo will reject this view of reality outright. Fortunately, it is still a free country and people are still free to believe in any reality they think is real. The RPCA is simply proffering its view of how two-party politics works as an alternative reality or counterpoint to the fantasy the two parties routinely spin on the American public.

Conclusions

GW was selected as an example of how ideology and self-interest can lead to irrational thinking. This phenomenon is not limited to politics. It is innate to human biology. Examples in religion can be even more extreme.[8] If nothing else, focusing on service to the public interest should somewhat decrease the negative influence and failure that comes from the three horsemen.

If GW skeptics really were serious that politics and money had influenced the opinions of climate scientists who believe that GW is a serious problem, then what have they done about this deplorable alleged state of affairs? Like most other areas of science, climate science is largely funded by U.S. taxpayers. People who rise to the level of thought leaders in climate science do so in part through the peer review system.[9] When GW skeptics argue that politics and money had influenced scientific opinions, they are in essence arguing that the U.S. system of peer review is corrupt for climate science. If climate science peer review is corrupt then what have GW skeptics in congress and elsewhere done to fix it? The answer is that they have done nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The reason is that there is no evidence that climate science peer review is any better or worse than peer review in any other branch of science. There is no mountain of evidence that money or politics shaped the opinions of climate scientists who are warning us about the problem as they see it. In other words, GW skeptics have articulated no rational basis the RPCA is aware of that justifies their opposition to belief in GW. That leads to a logical conclusion: GW skeptics are skeptics because that fits their political ideology, serves special interest demands and/or serves skeptics’ political self-interest. Where is service to the public interest in any of that?

Footnotes:

1. This series of essays has and will usually continue to begin with a context section. There is a reason for that. Without a reasonable context, e.g., unspun facts, it is impossible for anyone with an open mind to assess whether the RPCA is being reasonable and truly committed to an honest competition in the marketplace of ideas. Without some context, hidden agendas can guide outcomes and opinions. The hidden agenda is the province of the two-party system, not the RPCA. They have mastered that art and the RPCA has no intention of even trying to compete in that competition. The RPCA will articulate what appears to be (i) the most accurate facts/reality and (ii) logic that reasonably flows therefrom. People are then free to decide as they wish. To the extent the RPCA has its facts wrong or articulates flawed logic, it is perfectly open to incorporating fixes into the context and reassessing its position. Without any ideology or special interest to defend the RPCA can, compared to committed Democrats, Republicans, ideologues and special interests, more easily change its mind if new or revised facts or logic are reasonably compelling. In short, facts and logic dictate, not blind faith and wishful thinking.

2. Essay 4: http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-debates-you-rarely-hear/. Spin in politics is some combination of various things including, but not limited to, (i) fact or context distortion, including hindsight biasing of facts or context, (ii) omission or denial of relevant facts or context, (iii) outright fabrication of facts or context, (ii) flawed logic, usually flawed by ideology and/or self-interest, (iv) fear mongering, e.g., “if my opponent is elected, terrorists will kill many American children”, and (v) irrelevant character assassination, e.g., if not true or not reasonably unsupported by facts, “my opponent is covering up his role in this awful scandal”. Spin is easiest to see when someone you support is spun upon by someone you disagree with. It is harder or impossible to see when someone you support spins against a politician you oppose. In other words, if you dislike something, it tends to be spin even if it is honest truth, but if you like it, it tends to be truth even if it is false. That is just normal human behavior. This point has been raised in the context of political experts, http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-its-role-and-limits/, but it applies to most everyone to some degree or another.

3. It is understood that presidential approval can fall before second term elections. Despite that, it appears that many people in 2008 did allow themselves to see what they wanted to see in president Obama and he was adept at facilitating that subtle mind game.

4. Links: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/04/22/how-americans-see-global-warming-in-8-charts/; http://reason.com/archives/2012/12/04/often-wrong-never-in-doubt.

5. Link: http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-its-role-and-limits/. It would probably be the case that if democratic ideology just happened to be conservative/anti-government and republicans liberal, then the democrats would generally reject GW as a serious concern while republicans would tend to feel the opposite.

6. The RPCA acknowledges that millions of democrats and republicans truly believe they are serving the public interest and doing nothing but that. The RPCA respects that, but firmly disagrees. The difference between the RPCA’s approach and the two-party approach are vastly different. Those differences cannot be reconciled without leaving status quo politics. There are three basic options: Stay with the status quo, walk away or do nothing.

7. Link: http://reformparty.org/reform-party-commentary-injecting-rationality-into-irrational-politics/.

8. A more extreme example of ideology influencing perceptions of reality relates to the “young Earth” hypothesis. That perception of reality (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Earth_creationism) says that the earth is about 6,000 – 10,000 years old. It is supported by by various lines of biblical evidence and argument (http://youngearth.com/; http://www.answersingenesis.org/assets/pdf/2005/TimelineOfTheBible.pdf) . By contrast, mainstream scientific opinion is that the Earth is billions of years old based on data from several disciplines, e.g., geology, paleontology and biology. This isn’t an obscure point. About 45% of Americans believe in the young earth theory according to a 2012 poll (http://www.gallup.com/poll/155003/hold-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx). This another example of the stunning power of pure ideology to dictate perceptions of reality.

9. Peer review is the process of scientists submitting their research findings and scientific hypotheses for critical review by their scientific peers. No one in any branch of science rises to be a thought leader without going through peer review. To a large extent, the entire peer review infrastructure is ultimately funded by U.S. taxpayers. There are some real problems with peer review but it is impossible for thought leaders to maintain a major fraud, e.g., GW is real and serious, for an extended period of time. If nothing else, there is a self-correcting mechanism built into the system in most or all scientific disciplines, i.e., if your science is baloney, your scientific rivals will eventually rip you to pieces. That is partly how rivals build their own careers and obtain research funding for themselves. There is incentive to eventually get the science right.

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