Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Which side, exactly, is "reality-based"?

In The Republic, Plato related Socrates' description of a cave in which prisoners are chained to the wall, facing the wall, and know nothing but the shadows of things behind them and the echoes of distant activity. Knowing nothing else, these men perceive the shadows and echoes as reality and know not reality itself.

In the parable of the blind men and the elephant, (which probably originated in China or India), men who were born blind are asked to touch and describe an elephant. One man touches the ear and describes the elephant as something like a fan, another touches the legs and describes an elephant as a pair of tree trunks, another touches the tusks and says that an elephant is something like a spear, while yet another touches the trunk and says that an elephant is like a snake.

Differing incomplete perceptions of reality result in different analyses.

This is something that concerns me greatly at the moment, as I contemplate our political system and government budget.

Let us consider a couple more scenarios.

  • Two men, walking down a road together, meet an obstacle, and cannot continue. They perceive the obstacle as a downed tree, and disagree on whether to try to move the tree, to climb over it or to light a fire and burn the tree until a gap is opened through which they can pass. Or they perceive a huge hole and disagree on whether to cut down a tree to bridge the gap, or to climb a tree on the left side and move from branch to branch to pass, or whether to climb a cliff on the right side and scale it sideways to the other side of the hole. Whatever they choose will require cooperation, and they disagree on the solution, but they each perceive the same obstacle.
  • Two men, walking down a road together, meet an obstacle, and cannot continue. One of the men sees a giant tree across the road, and wants to burn it. The other sees a giant hole, and want to cut down a tree to make a bridge.

Differing incomplete perceptions of reality result in attempts to solve different problems.

In the first scenario, there is a good chance that, agreeing on both the goal and the obstacle, the two men will eventually come to mutual decision and work together to surmount the obstacle. In the second case, no discussion is likely to be fruitful, no productive decision will result, because they have fundamentally different perceptions of the reality of their situation.

When I read things like this, therefore, it scares the hell out of me.
While the plan put forward by the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform did not gather enough votes to make a formal recommendation, we remain concerned that the Bowles-Simpson proposal may serve as a starting point for budget negotiations. We consider this plan to be flawed inseveral key areas, especially with respect to its proposed cuts to Social Security Benefits. We believe that any proposal that includes cuts to a popular, fiscally sound program lacks credibility and does not reflect the political center.
That's from a letter to the President signed by Democrat Representatives John Conyers and Raul Grijalva. And it is horrifying. When I look at Social Security, I see a Ponzi scheme, a plain and simple wealth transfer from the young to the old, the economics of which get worse with each passing day as life expectancy increases and birth rate drops and/or stabilizes. Any surpluses are illusory.

It has to be fixed. And the fact that their perception is that it's a "fiscally sound program" means that they'll resist any attempt to fix it.

The people who claimed for themselves the mantle of the "reality-based community" in the last decade are those that predominantly believe, right now, that the big problems facing the United States government are not the deficit and the debt, but the fact that the government is not taxing enough or spending enough. That the stimulus was too small. That the health care plan didn't go far enough. That Social Security is a "fiscally sound" program.

Which side is really perceiving reality?

It is one more illustration of the fact that the biggest problem facing this country right now is that the right and the left don't look at the government and see different solutions to the same reality. They look at the government and see fundamentally different realities.

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