Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How Do You Know That?

It's a valid question that we'd do well to ask more often. It's often not asked when best asked and often not asked even when asked, that is to say, the words are used to state incredulity not to solicit insight.

The guy next to me at the robata bar is talking to the bar tender about the financial crisis, how it's due to governments not taxing the wealthy. As he drones on, I turn to him and ask, "How do you know that?"

He looks at me squinting, his head cocked to the right and says, "How do I know what?"

"How do you know that the financial crisis is a result of not taxing the wealthy? How many dollars are we talking about here?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean: what would be the quantitative economic effect of increasing taxes on the wealthy? How much new revenue would that be? How would it compare with the deficits? What would be the net outcome?"

"Well, everyone knows that 90% of the wealth is in the hands of 10% of the people. The effect would be huge! Duh."

"How huge?"

"What do you mean?"

"How huge would the effect be? How many dollars?"

"Well... it would be, uh, billions. At least billions. Maybe trillions."

"How do you know that?"

"Well, everyone knows that."

"Look man, I don't have an opinion one way or the other. I've heard a lot of people talking about taxing the wealthy, but I've never met anyone who actually knew what he was talking about. I was wondering if you were just repeating things you'd heard or if you had some numbers."

Much of what we "know" is simply poorly relayed hearsay if not pure fabrication, so much in fact that we don't think to question it. We've become comfortable with worlds of would-be facts that have never been scrutinized, verified or validated; they've never even been questioned. The pedagogy of modern life is primarily unquestioned instruction of the way things are.

Your head is filled with impostor-facts: comments by your dad at the dinner table; opinions of your primary school teachers; flippant responses from your friends; gossip overheard in the boys room; the frustrations of your first boss.

What you remember most about Susie from high school or Timmy from grade school may never have happened. What you think about the person who was president or prime minister when you were five is likely no more than a mish-mash of your mom's and dad's comments. You may have strong opinions about car models you've never driven, places you've never visited, foods you've never eaten, people you've never met and activities you've never attempted.

Why? Because you already "know". You know that the car would be junk, the place dangerous, the food icky, the people boring, the activity impossible.

How do you know that?

Happy Wednesday,

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