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Governing America: "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?"

A National Issues Forum

Co-sponsored by Grant Wood Area Education Agency,

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, Kettering Foundation

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Auditorium

West Branch, Iowa

Nicholas Johnson

April 3, 1997 9:15 a.m.

I want you to imagine that you meet me for the first time in your school cafeteria.

We sit down at a table by ourselves and start talking.

After we get to know each other a little bit, I tell you the following things:

What would be your reaction? How many of you would:

If you choose to ask questions, what should they be? Of all the questions you might ask me in the cafeteria, there are two that you can use in today's discussions, and throughout the rest of your life. They are:

What do you mean by "a better world than the one we have here on Earth"? Better in what ways? For whom? At what cost?

How do you know that world exists, or that there's a UFO flying behind the comet? Do you have a scientific instrument capable of detecting UFOs? How does it work? Did somebody just tell you that? Did you see it on an Internet Web site? Who is your source? How reliable are they? How do they know?

These are not questions designed to ridicule or embarrass the speaker. They do not say, "I think you're lying." Quite the contrary. They are friendly questions, designed to further communication, not shut it off. They are much more polite than running away. They show a genuine interest in what the speaker is saying, and a desire to understand it better.

Have you seen the lapel button, or bumper sticker, that says, "Question Authority"? These questions say, in effect, "I don't care how big your talk show audience is, how tall you are, how many positions you've held, how old you are, or what color robes you wear. When anyone is asserting facts, theories, making charges, or circulating rumors I want to be sure I both understand what they are saying ("What do you mean?") and satisfy myself as to its reliability ("How do you know?")

Nor is this caution limited to strangers and enemies.

It is most often the things that "everybody" knows, that we and our friends all agree about, that are most likely to be wrong.

To keep this bi-partisan, here's another story along the same line.

The student was right. Everybody he knew was for McGovern. He just didn't know a very wide range of people. Is your circle of acquaintance any wider? How many things do you think are true because "everybody you know" agrees with you?

It's true today that "what you don't know can kill you." But as dangerous as are the things we don't know are the things we do; the things about which we and our friends are all very confident. Things that, it often turns out, simply aren't so.

So you need to ask your friends -- and yourself -- these questions, too.

As you may have guessed, we're not here to talk about flying saucers, soft drinks or presidential election results. We're here to talk about some public policy questions confronting our country. Specifically, we want to talk about the most fundamental public policy questions of all, the process by which we govern ourselves. We will be evaluating the role of the federal government, the marketplace, state and local government, and citizen participation.

And as I thought about this day with you, and what I could possibly say in 20 minutes that would be helpful to you, it was this:

So that's what I want to talk with you about.

When you engage in this powerfully important undertaking today -- and hopefully throughout the rest of your lives -- keep those two little questions in mind. As you listen to the arguments and the examples offered by your colleagues today ask -- always to yourself, and sometimes to the person speaking -- "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?"

Here's an example from a well-known national talk show.

Many of his listeners, I'm sure, assumed that was the truth. After all, they heard it on the radio. The host was a powerful person whose views they generally agreed with. So they probably repeated this "fact" to their family, friends, neighbors -- and elected representatives.

How did their elected representatives respond? What public policy consequences might flow from the talk show host's assertion? Presumably, that we are providing too much financial support for the poor, and therefore should cut the budgets for those programs.

What I'm suggesting is that you should ask this talk show host -- or even the organizers of today's gathering -- the same questions you would put to somebody offering you a ride on a UFO.

What do you mean? How do you know?

What do you mean by "the poorest people," or "better off than"? How do you know? Where are your numbers coming from? How reliable are they?

Suppose we define "the poorest people in America" as the bottom fifth, the bottom 20%, in net income. We can argue about that cutoff point. Some would probably say it's too high. Those aren't the very poorest of the poor. But it gives our talk show host the benefit of the doubt.

We don't know where he got his numbers. He didn't say. So let's try to find our own.

The World Bank gathers and publishes some of the most reliable data. Its figures indicate that, at that time, the "mainstream families of Europe," the average families in Germany, France and Britain, were earning roughly three to four times what the "poorest people in America" earn. Even the average families in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Russia were earning more than "the poorest people in America."

Of course, my assertions need to be challenged by you also. How do I know the talk show host said that? What is my source? Is there any way we can find out what his source was? Did I quote the World Bank figures accurately? And how does the Bank know that its figures are accurate? How does it go about gathering this data, and how might one test its reliability?

The point is, simply, that as you go through your deliberations today you need to be able to challenge those who agree with your thinking as well as those who do not. You cannot build workable public policy merely by repeating some ideological belief, or factual assertion, you once heard but have never checked out.

The program today is broken down into three general choices: Deinventing Government, Reinventing Government, and Rediscovering Citizenship. Those are generalizations, labels. Are they useful in figuring out which policy questions can best be addressed by you, in your community, and which require a solution from Washington?

Consider this example.

When governments create and run businesses that is called "socialism." When private citizens create and run businesses that is called "free private enterprise." Someone who believes the people are better off if major businesses are publicly owned are called "socialists." OK, based on these definitions:

Now let me ask you free private enterprisers this: How many of you, in driving over here today, drove a part of the way on Interstate 80?

How many of you even realized at the time that you were riding on a socialist highway? Now that you know, does that bother you? Does that make you feel like a hypocrite? Were you disloyal to your ideology? Should you have walked, or searched for a privately-owned road?

Many of you attend socialist schools, ride socialist buses, go to socialist libraries, swim in socialist swimming pools, and vacation in socialist state and federal parks. You may believe that some of those services can be improved. You may even want to abolish some of them. But do you want to do it just because the label, "socialist," can be applied to them?

Or let's talk about "federal regulation." Are you opposed to federal regulation? Then let me ask you this.

Why is that? It's a result of, horrible of horribles, "federal regulation."

Throughout my experience in government, politics, public policy and law, I have never found labels -- like "liberal" and "conservative," "regulation" and "deregulation," "states rights" and "federalism" -- very useful. It has been my experience that ideology -- indeed, generalizations of any kind -- just get in the way of problem solving.

I often think of that line when I listen to ideologues of the left or the right. They're not asking questions. They're not making useful suggestions. They're "just singing a kind of song."

Some people refer to those receiving public assistance as "welfare cheats." But a large proportion of those on welfare, as you may know, are children. Is it accurate, or helpful for our policy analysis, to refer to a four-year-old kid as a "welfare cheat"?

Some argue that we should cut back on payments to mothers with dependent children. But what do they propose we do with these children? Some of them propose we save taxpayers' money by putting the kids in institutions. Is this a sensible idea, or are they "just singing a kind of song"?

What they fail to explain -- or perhaps they don't know -- is that putting kids in institutions will cost taxpayers five to ten times more per child than leaving the kids with their mothers. (As you may have heard, it is cheaper to put a high school graduate through Harvard than to keep him in prison.)

What other options are there?

Many years ago, an author named Jonathan Swift came up with one: perhaps we could just eat them. He called it "A Modest Proposal."

Remember this the next time someone talks to you about "welfare cheats." What do they mean? How do they know? What alternatives do they have? Do they want us to eat the kids? Or are they "just singing a kind of song"?

In my experience, when we gather around the table to make public policy decisions the useful divisions are not between conservatives on the one hand and liberals on the other. The divisions are between the ideologues, of whatever stripe, and the pragmatists.

The pragmatists are the ones who are capable of recognizing a genuine problem when they see it, who want to work toward the most sensible solution, are willing to consider any and all serious proposals regardless of ideological origins, and who repeatedly ask -- themselves as well as others -- "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?"

The ideologues are the ones who are "just singing a kind of song."

For an ideologue of the right, once you say something is "socialism" all further consideration ceases. For an ideologue of the left, "the marketplace" is an equal conversation stopper.

There are other industries where economic forces produce one dominant business. That's what we call a "monopoly," such as electric power, natural gas pipelines, cable television, or railroads. Most nations have state ownership, "socialism," for such fundamental, natural monopolies. The pragmatic way we've dealt with them in this country is to permit the monopolies to be privately owned, but then create a government agency to regulate their service and prices. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. But the one approach we know won't work is the unregulated monopoly that is often what business is asking for in the name of "competition."

Here is a personal example of how wrong we can be when we rely on our assumptions, what we "know" to be true.

By the time President Johnson appointed me U.S. Maritime Administrator, although I was only 29 years old, I thought I knew something about government. In college I had majored in political science. I had a law degree. As a law professor I had specialized in administrative law. I thought I knew that our Constitution gave the executive power to the President, and the legislative power to Congress. I thought I knew that "government bureaucrats" wanted to regulate business, and that business wanted to "get government off their backs."

Imagine my surprise to find out those things weren't true.

The power in Washington, it turned out, was located in some institutions I had never heard of, which I came to call "sub-governments."

Agencies created to serve "the public interest" are soon captured by the very industries they are supposed to regulate. I spent seven years as a Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, an agency created to, among other things, regulate broadcasting.

The FCC has everything a sub-government requires: the power to create great wealth, a wide discretion in deciding who gets it, a focus on a single industry (in this case broadcasting), and the ability to function largely in secret.

Who participates in the "sub-governments"? Not the President. Not the Congress -- at least, not in the sense of the entire House or Senate.

We could talk about the sub-governments that serve many industries, but let me use broadcasting as my example.

A sub-government consists of:

These folks work together, eat together, play together. They move around from job to job within the broadcasting sub-government. Their loyalty is not to the institution for which they work, their loyalty is to their sub-government. They often literally inter-marry. It is a tight, incestuous group that puts the wagons in a circle and protects what they have.

We have just looked at broadcasting, but the same story can be told about a great many other industries, and their sub-governments.

How do sub-governments create wealth?

Given what I thought I knew when I came to Washington, you can imagine my surprise when I found out that

In fact, in my experience in Washington, it was more often the "government bureaucrat" who was looking for alternatives to government regulation, and the business representative who kept knocking on Washington doors begging the federal government to get on his back.

So it is out of my own personal experience that I urge you to challenge your own assumptions. Are you confident yours are any more accurate than those I brought to Washington?

As a public lecturer I am used to speaking for an hour. As a university professor, a law professor, I am used to speaking for a whole semester. So the 20 minutes I have this morning is quite a constraint.

There are a number of things I would like to have talked with you about for which we just don't have time.

We haven't had time for those topics. I will be around the rest of the morning and happy to answer any questions or explore any of these themes.

The reason for selecting from all of them the subject we've emphasized is because it is the place to begin, the most basic, the most fundamental to your successful discussion of any public policy question.

We simply must be aware of how we are using language. We have to be willing to question authority. We have to know how to tell a fact from a phony. We have to get beyond the generalities and the ideology. We have to stop "just singing a kind of song."

We have to ask -- ourselves, as well as others -- "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?"

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