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Minnesota 2020 Journal: The High Cost of Silence

August 26, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

At Minnesota 2020, we swim in the public data stream, seeking patterns in order to understand policy choices’ consequences. Data analysis guides our work. When we discover, for example, that Minnesota’s property taxes have dramatically increased due to conservative-driven state tax policy changes, we share our findings and feelings with the world.

Conservatives, in contrast, invoke rhetoric, principle and misdirection, anything really, rather than confront hard data’s revelation. But, I’ve come to expect that from them. Every era is papered with its’ version of the pointless question, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

These issues serve as handy distractions from the real challenges affecting most people.

Conservative policy advocates purposefully create a public cacophony, a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal and other harsh sounds, hoping to drown reasonable voices. Their strategy facilitates conservative policy gains with surprisingly little public scrutiny. They’re hoping that we won’t notice that our state and nation are not becoming freer, better places; rather, conservative policy is directing public investment benefits to fewer people.

Public data has a funny way of working, though. Accumulated, standardized performance results tell their own story without concern for a conservative narrative. Or, for that matter, a progressive one.

Measuring human behavior requires establishing data points. Those points can easily reflect bias and may be manipulated toward a desired, proscribed outcome. Consequently, researchers work to eliminate those factors. Rigorous methodology combined with statistical analysis techniques undergirds reliable data sets. That’s why we can trust good data, particularly data assembled over time. Asking the same question every year allows for greater longitudinal insight.

Observations about the link between children’s nutrition and learning, for example, led to federal lunch and breakfast programs. Hungry kids are distracted kids. Distracted kids don’t learn particularly well. They’re more likely to disrupt the classroom, negatively impacting every student’s learning experience. Feeding kids creates an outcome that massively outweighs the program’s modest cost.

Conservative policy philosophy resists food assistance, fixing responsibility solely on families and purposefully overlooking the negative effects on other children. In time however, that impact accumulates as fewer well-educated, well-prepared students enter the workforce. Diminished capacity reduces Minnesota’s prosperity and competitive marketplace presence. That’s an effect equally observable in public economic performance data.

This is not an introduction to public data gathering, however. No, I’m concerned with what we do or don’t do with data-gleaned information.

Data doesn’t compel change but it certainly informs choices. Decision makers, particularly those folks leading organizations, constantly study available data to guide options. They rarely control variables affecting their organizations yet they must still act on their proscribed mission.

Once again, schools provide an example. Minnesota has reduced state funding of schools by an average per pupil, inflation-adjusted 13 percent since FY 2003. School leaders have cut programs, slashed budgets and raised local property taxes to off-set state funding’s loss. Schools are slowly but surely altering their educational programs, doing less because they have less.

Kids notice. Parents notice. Teachers notice. School leaders notice. Property taxpayers notice. And, the data bear it out. Yet, few seem to actually want to say anything publicly, worried that they’ll offend some in their community.

Silence infers consent. In other words, if we know something is wrong and we say nothing, we approve the situation. Free societies require civic engagement. Of our three elemental choices—approval, disapproval or inaction—inaction affirms convention. Absent coercion, silence means approval.

Over the past 40 years or so, conservative ideologues have subtly and effectively created a coercive environment. They’ve advanced, through repetition and insistence, the idea that public resources committed to public action—government—is bad.

Any activity associated with government is untrustworthy at best and harmful in general. Rather than see government as a group of people working hard to do what the majority desires and authorizes, conservatives have convinced us to treat public activity with barely concealed scorn and contempt. We have, in effect, been coerced into silence.

This conservative view is wrong but when we refuse to publicly disagree, standing silent, we approve conservative policy. We consent to defunding schools, reducing affordable healthcare, and public investment’s benefits accumulating to the richest few. We’re fooled into believing that harmful actions somehow help us.

The solution is simple: speak truth to power. When that truth is found in unimpeachable public data, those with access and understanding bear greater responsibility to share the data’s meaning. We have a responsibility to resist coercion, breaking silence. It’s what makes and keeps us a free people. Silence, on the other hand, chains us.

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  • KJC says:

    September 1, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    The high cost of not standing up for others, and for the interests of your fellow citizens is a reoccurring theme in history.  One lesson? The avoidance nearly always ends up as a mere delay before the problem gets to work on you. 
    One of the worst case examples?  Germany before WWII, admit it: many stood by while various groups… carefully chosen for their unpopularity… were thrown under the bus (in both figurative and literal senses.)
    Think that kind of “thwart the citizens” activity can’t happen here?  Think again.
    Try the latest article on the activities of the Koch Bros… and how they are out to change next year’s election, by literally disenfranchising voters.  Cleverly aimed at Democratic voters of course.  Regardless of your politics, this kind of assault on our sacred right to vote ought to leave you outraged.  If it doesn’t, I must ask: why not? 
    Here’s the link, and I wouldn’t recommend reading it on an empty stomach…