Facebook and Politics30 Jan 2013
Every time I get on Facebook recently, I am completely baffled by what I see people posting about $politicianTheyDislike. I understand disliking a politician, preferring one party or another or disliking some policy. On nearly all issues, there is legitimate room for disagreement. And typically, the bigger and more "hot button" the issue, the more the room for disagreement. You probably won't find many people who think that the Earth is flat (although, even they do exist), but you will nearly certainly find people with divergent views on any larger question.
What troubles me is not that I see disagreement between various people on my Facebook feed or that the views are divergent in some cases from my own. What troubles me is that almost none of it is grounded in fact reality. And, in what can only be an intentional farce, neither side is "closer to reality" than the other. Instead of listing reasons for opposing current efforts for gun control (and there are many, potentially valid reasons ranging from the practical effect of restrictions to the target of any proposals), we get things like Joe Arpaio declaring that he will not enforce a ban on firearms in his county. The problem is, I don't see anyone, at least more mainstream than the Flat Earth Society, proposing a ban on guns.
Instead of responding to the actual proposed measures and making an opposition in the ample space for criticism afforded by these proposals, we have one side shouting that the others are going to take away their guns while the second side shouts back that the guns are scary and should be more restricted. Nobody is approaching the issue rationally.
It isn't just gun control that causes this behavior. And even when the statements are true, they are widely out-of-context. I recently read a post where someone detailed the extent of government waste, including wages paid after an employee had dead. During the year in question, the federal government had paid some 600 million dollars out to employees that were dead. (Knowing this number, of course, raises an interesting question of whether they were paid back for it. It is hard to imagine them 1) knowing that the money was paid out and 2) not attempting to recollect on that payment... but I digress). The poster was correct, 600 million dollars sounds like a lot of money.
But that presentation of information counts on you having a poor sense of scale. During the same year, the federal government employed something like 2.6 million employees and paid out an estimated 130,000,000,000 dollars in salary (assuming the 2.6 million employees made roughly the US median wage). With that number in mind, it looks like they federal government's budget for salary was 99.54% "not waste." I suspect any organization employing 2.6 million people will have some > 0 rate of waste on their payroll just due to inefficiencies related to size. Instead of reporting that 0.5% of the payroll was potentially overpayment and rates for other large corporations, the post simply counted on us going "I could buy a lot of Ramen* for 600 million dollars."
Both sides on both of these issues are with some degree of merit. Both sides need someone to speak rationally on their behalf. Lets try to restrict our criticisms to those which data support. Shouting emotionally charged emphatically untrue claims and counter-claims will never efficiently address the questions at hand. And the questions currently at hand in the world are far too serious to not attempt to address.
* In case you were wondering, 600 million dollars worth of Ramen would allow someone with the US life expectancy at birth to eat a bit over 51,000 packages of Ramen a day for their 78.1 years of life. I think I will pass.