Monday, January 21, 2008

Pollution of Public Discourse

Anonymous commented last November, "You seem to be infatuated with Dan Fagan." I had been wondering myself why I was spending so much time on this guy.

Pollution of Public Discourse.

What's that? Suppose some chemical seeps into the water system. You can't drink the water anymore til you take the time to clean out the whole system, if it's even possible.  Or you can drink it and sooner or later it makes you sick.

Well, when we have civic debate, theoretically, the idea is that through debate we can work out our disagreements. Say Sam makes a proposal of some sort. We should do X and these are the reasons why. Ben tries to find flaws in the argument, questions Sam on a few points. Sam responds. He explains his reasoning, pulls out his supporting facts. Ben might challenge the facts, or even the underlying assumptions. They go on until they eventually get to a point where they've worked out a way to do the thing Sam wants to do without messing up Ben's needs.

When people come to the public forum, but insult their fellow citizens, spout half truths and complete lies, don't learn the complexity of issues, they are really civic outlaws who pollute the public forum. I see Dan Fagan in this sort of role. His columns aren't a part of a discourse. They're simple ranting and raving. He's not interested in hearing what others think, he's just interested in venting. I stopped writing about his columns because they were so totally ridiculous, but a few people told me that my posts helped them see the holes in his arguments. That they just hadn't known enough to see through his misleading arguments.

When someone like Fagan makes up facts or throws out false generalizations, he pollutes the public square. Our progress to finding alternatives that we can all reasonably live with is thwarted. Instead, the public forum is cluttered with rhetorical litter - lies, falsehoods - that have to be cleaned up before we can go on. But it's not as simple as picking up trash. We have to disinfect the brains of those who have found his platitudes convenient excuses to continue being noisy and selfish civic outlaws.

Thus, Fagan's column is not some harmless set of paragraphs that shows up in the paper every Sunday. Instead it pollutes our discourse. It pisses off some because of its arrogance and bombast. It encourages others who want to believe simplistic nonsense about how people should live. Our public forum has to be unFaganed before we can have a civil discussion on how to work through the challenges facing the citizens of Anchorage.

OK, I've made some generalizations, let me give some examples from Sunday's column.
[For more detailed critiques of other Fagan columns go here. Then skip down past this post.]
Of all the lessons history teaches, none is more clear than this. When government punishes good decisions and rewards bad ones, that society is doomed to economic failure.
He just says this sort of thing all the time. How did this become the the clearest lesson history teaches us? Simply because Fagan declared it so. I've never heard this one before. Examples please? Not just the historical examples that prove government punishes good decisions, but the other lessons that history teaches us so we can compare to see if there is none more clear.
The problem with the American dream of home ownership: It's not attainable. As least not in Anchorage.
Alaska Housing Finance Corporation's 2004 Annual Report says:
Alaska’s homeownership rate reached an all-time high of 70 percent, exceeding the national rate of 68.3 percent, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Alaska’s homeownership rate was higher than the nation’s once previously, in 1997.

Harvard's diversity data site tells us that in 2000:

HOUSING OPPORTUNITIES: Home ownership rate: 2000 by Race/Ethnicity, 2000
Metro Area
Hispanic 41.9%
Non-Hispanic White 65.3%
Non-Hispanic Black 36.8%
Non-Hispanic Asian 51.3%

Definition: The share of occupied housing units that are owner occupied.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Census Summary File 2

We seemed to be doing pretty well nationally, and Non-Hispanics Whites aren't doing badly at all. Of course, we'd have to compare a lot of things like age, level of education, how long they've been in Anchorage, etc. to figure out what this all means. But contrary to what Fagan says, home ownership seems to be attainable to more Alaskans than in at least half the other states.
So if for the most part poverty is self-inflicted, what business does government have punishing those who make good decisions and rewarding those making bad ones?
He never made anywhere near a convincing argument that most poverty is self-inflicted, and his other idea, that property taxes is government punishing those who make good decisions is another one of his made up truisms. It's true because he says so. First, we are the government. Second, the tax payers approved of the property tax rate. Third,
Alaska was ranked as the most tax-friendly state in the nation, with Alaskans paying 6.3 percent of their income towards taxes. [source]
and if Anchorage property taxes are somewhere in the middle, so what? It's the only tax we pay to an Alaskan entity. And many families get enough through their permanent fund dividend to pay most if not all of their property tax. Dan's solution is an 8% sales tax instead of property tax. Of course, he maybe forgot President Bush said
Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of our economy
so as patriotic Americans keeping the economy going we should all be out shopping. If we have to pay a sales tax, it would only be "punishing people for making good decisions." Consistency isn't one of Fagan's weaknesses.

But it's clear that there's a whole political industry creating out-and-out lies (Swiftboat type stuff) to pollute the public forum so that every truth is questioned to divert from realities that might hurt one's position. If you can't win through logic and facts, then trash your opponent to distract people's attention. Everything is about winning, truth has no role. Unless people grow up and face inconvenient truths, the US as we know it will disappear. The Dan Fagans of the world are part of this disintegration of public discourse, the backbone of democracy.

Charles Fox and Hugh Miller suggested some conditions for participation in a public discourse. The participants should all possess the following:
  • Sincerity - authentic discourse requires trust between participants that they are being honest and truly wish to find a solution.
Fagan's outrageous statements - both made up homilies and nasty tirades - mean there is absolutely no sincerity in his participation in public discourse. His is a one way rant.

  • Focus on specific issue - not simply ideological posturing without reference to some specific situation.
Well, he touches down momentarily on an issue, like property taxes, but then goes off on his ideological tirades that have no link to the world most of us live in.

  • Willing attention - Sincerely interested in the problem, willing to do the work necessary to get through the issues seriously, including listening attentively to what others say.
Well, he may be interested in the issue - getting rid of property tax - but he's not willing to listen to someone who would reframe the issue into "How do we fund the services the market can't provide nearly as well as government can?" He's a one track bulldog, he grabs his target and won't let go. No matter how reasonable anyone else is.

  • Substantive Contribution - having a unique point of view, specific expertise, or something that helps the discussion move along - even just the ability to express the concerns of a class of people.
The only column I read of his that had a substantive contribution was one about Vic Kohring, because he added his own personal knowledge of Vic's interactions. Otherwise, there is nothing but ill will that Dan contributes.

Basically, Fagan is about winning, not about learning.

That's why I've written so much. To point out the nonsense for those who've watched so much tv that they have trouble thinking critically, but aren't so far gone that they can't see the path toward reason when someone points it out. I don't claim to know all the answers, but I do have a sense of logic and consistency and I know how to look up facts.


  1. The problem I had with Dan's Vic Kohring column was that I had listened to Dan suck up to and praise Kohring back in early 2006 and 2005. Back then, during the heyday of Bill Allen and Vic Kohring, Fagan would have drunk a gallon of Vic's pee if Bill Allen ordered him to do it. But as soon as the part of Vic which many of us had known about or suspected for long became public, Fagan abandoned any respect for Kohring's good points, and piled on, piled on.

    Now Dan's drinking Conoco-Phillips' pee, so he's happy again.

  2. Steve, keep on writing. Bringing to light the feeble arguments and views of folks such as Dan Fagan is needed. Constructive public dialogue can be more of a challenge than just spouting off to get ratings up.

  3. Anyone who slams an entire platform like that as if he is some type of know-it-all begs to be ignored. He sounds like an 18 year old who thinks he's bright.

  4. Okay, that's it. Get help. Because it's official, you are absolutely obsessed with Dan Fagan.

    I enjoy reading his column aka "ranting and raving". Matter fact, I agree with almost everything he says on his show and what he writes in the paper.

    The best part is he makes people THINK. That's a good thing.

    I also enjoy your blog.

  5. OK, Dr. Anon, Now that you've got me diagnosed, you must email me so I can get therapy. I must talk with this person who agrees with Dan Fagan on most things yet also enjoys my blog. My brain hurts just thinking about it.

    There's a link in my profile.

  6. i have a theory that Dr. Anon is really matthew zencey.


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