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Commentary: Too simple

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 14, 2011 - As a graduate student, I learned the fallacy of ascribing a single cause to a political phenomenon. Multiple factors interact to produce such things as presidential popularity or adoption of a particular law. Yet, many elected officials and a large group of citizenry are taken with simple explanations of very complex phenomena.

For example, a current war cry is "No new taxes." Taxes are job destroyers, per the Republican leadership in the House. In reality, the evidence for tax cuts doing good or tax hikes hurting the economy is mixed at best. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton raised taxes, and the economy perked along. And Reagan's earlier tax cutting seems to have had a positive outcome. In this century, Bush's tax cuts did not bring about unmitigated prosperity and were in effect when the economy went into recession. Obama's stimulus was laden with tax cuts that failed to cause a significant economic rebound.

It is easy for simplicity to rule when many citizens do not become well informed about the issues of state and rely on sound bites to pass judgment. There is reason to be concerned about the size of budget deficits and the national debt. The question is what to do about them. When some elected officials totally rule out raising revenues, all that's left is cutting programs. But where? Should major programs be eliminated or pared?

Given that Congress generally spends little time evaluating accomplishment or failure, it may not know which programs are more effective. Evaluation of the benefit of expenditures could aid debt cutting by highlighting what works or what doesn't.

Years ago, I studied the Title I federal aid to education program in the San Francisco Public Schools. Students were individually characterized as Title I eligible by test scores and family income. But if two students out of a class of 30 were not eligible, the class as a whole could not use teaching aids paid for by Title I and could not participate in field trips. Some students, because of disabilities, were not able to fill in answers to standardized tests; hence they would not be eligible. A teacher told me she put a few answers on the sheet for such a child so that he could get greater assistance.

Smaller government has long been a goal of Republicans who see a direct relation between less government and more freedom and prosperity. So it is not surprising that reducing programs is linked to the refusal to raise taxes and played an important part in the controversy over raising the debt ceiling. That controversy did the country no favors with Standard and Poors. Divided government necessitates compromise but such compromise is difficult to achieve when one side refuses to ever consider certain alternatives or multiple causes.

History is a wonderful teacher but it is not an absolute predictor. Certain factors may be the same; others may widely differ. Actions that worked before may fail at another time. Our economy is impacted today by global activity more than at any time in history. Whereas the U.S. weathered previous troubles in Asia or Europe, this time Europe's problems may cause damage here.

What should Congress, the president, the Federal Reserve and others do? The past may be helpful but it is not an infallible blueprint. And a narrow focus is unlikely to bring about the best results.

The simplest explanation -- one cause, one effect -- may prevail, however, because the electorate are often poorly informed about the news of the day. Complex explanations can be ignored, and unrealistic expectations can ensue. Slogans and sound bites serve to polarize rather than explain. In echoing the Progressives of a previous century, we still seem to speak of one best way, not realizing that our questions and answers are deeply layered.

Multidimensional realities are harder to understand and harder to adjust. But if we are to work out of the current financial mess, we have to hope that complexity is appreciated and that there is no single answer to our myriad problems.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.

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