Facts Are Stubborn Things

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Dec 08, 2011 12:01 AM

 

"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

--John Adams

That quotation may be among the best known in Adamsiana. Not as well known is that John Adams would utter it years before he became a wise old man, and was still a brilliant young one.

He would become, in succession, Founding Father, president of the United States, and unpopular old fogey as his Federalist Party dissolved under him. Mr. Adams saw many a change in his time, but he himself remained unchanged. Perhaps the most unchanging thing about him was his stubborn refusal to court the fickle goddess Popularity.

Mobs drew only his contempt, talk of democracy his suspicion. A country lawyer, John Adams knew the people too well to shift with its every passing mood.

The man seemed constitutionally, congenitally, completely allergic to doing the popular thing. No wonder he was outdated in his own time, let alone how he would appear in ours, when politicians and political buffs follow the polls not just daily but hourly. He'd never have made it to the White House today, or even a governor's mansion.

John Adams would coin his famous phrase about facts being stubborn things in the course of pursuing the most unpopular of causes at the time, which was 1770, when he found himself picked to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. The very name of that incident indicates how public opinion was running at the time.

New Englander to the core, Mr. Adams would do his duty as a member of the bar and stick to his convictions, come hell or high water or revolution, even a revolution he would lead. A thinker rather than a zealot, he refused to cut and trim his beliefs to fit the ideology of the moment.

Nothing is more offensive to ideologues than a fact that doesn't jibe with their slogans. Leading the list of those slogans at the moment is Occupy Wall Street's mantra about the greedy 1 percent who are exploiting us poor 99 percent. Oh, the injustice of it all!

No need to go into detail, like the fact that the grabby 1 percent, who account for 20 percent of the national income, pay 37 percent of the federal income tax.

As for the disappearing American middle class that today's protesters mourn, its death may be greatly exaggerated. The distribution of American wealth, according to Jim Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute, is pretty much the same as it was 20 years ago. Or even 20, 60 or 80 years ago. Even as that wealth has increased prodigously -- for all.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, every quintile of American income has shown a real increase in purchasing power of at least 18 percent over the past 30 years. What seems to irritate the Occupiers is not that all have grown richer, but that some have grown much richer. Their complaint is less analysis than envy.

How many times have we heard the American economy compared to a pie? The comparison usually precedes a complaint about how unequal the slices are.

But it's not how the pie is divided that determines Americans' wealth, but whether it grows -- or shrinks. It's a little embarrassing to make that elementary point once again and risk boring anybody who's had Econ 101, but it always seems to come as a revelation to some.

Expropriating the rich 1 percent would scarcely benefit the other 99 percent. On the contrary, without their capital, who would create jobs and employ the rest of us?

Pat answer: The government, of course. Well, we can all see how well that's been working out. All it takes is a glance at the unemployment rate, still hovering above 8 percent after almost three years of economic stimuli that don't much stimulate.

Theories, grievances and quick fixes abound in hard times. Facts don't seem to matter as much. Yet they remain stubborn things.

Whenever talk about redistributing the wealth surfaces, and it does so regularly, I think of a story Joe Hardin of Grady, Ark., used to tell. An honorable man who never gave up on reason in politics, he was one in a long line of sacrificial lambs who ran against Orval Faubus in the bad old days and, of course, got beat like a drum, for the race issue was still a sure political winner back in the Arkansas of his day.

A planter, Joe Hardin had a farmhand, one of the 99 percent no doubt, who would complain about how unfair life was: "You rich folks got all the money. What we ought to do is split it up even-steven. It'd be only fair."

Mr. Hardin's reply? "Now you know that once we divvied it all up, the same kind of folks would soon enough wind up with the lion's share."

Our sharecropper philosopher had an answer for that: "You don't understand, Mister Joe, we'd split it up every Sattiday night!"

Demands for redistributing America's wealth come almost as regularly as Saturday nights. The demands may vary in intensity, depending on whether the times are good or bad, but they always show the same disregard for mere fact. And facts are stubborn things.