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Guest Writer

Another way of looking at the same data
White noise
by Ryan Douglas

ou can’t tax the rich. The rich can afford to hire accountants who help them avoid paying any tax you try to impose on them. So, why try?

That’s not my opinion, it’s the message that President Bush sent to Oregon voters last month when he spoke before an audience of small-business owners and supporters at a Beaverton high school.

I don’t normally listen to political speeches. Each time I hear a politician speak, my tongue dries and I develop a strange and compulsive urge to do something else. But last month, in a glorious coincidence of cosmic alignment, the two front-running presidential candidates converged in the Portland area on the same day.

To further the coincidence, I had several hours of driving to do, and forces beyond my control had guided my radio to the very same frequency on which President Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s speeches were to be aired.

With a long drive ahead and the first speech getting under way, I decided that I'd listen to both speeches and hear both sides. I hadn’t really “gotten to know” the candidates yet, and I thought it might be a good idea to give them a piece of my ear. They had, after all, traveled all they way to my hometown; the least I could offer was the courtesy of hearing them out.

President Bush spoke first. He talked about some of his goals for the future and backed them up with some accomplishments from his past. To my surprise, the speech was engaging, entertaining and persuasive.

In a nutshell, he claimed that his tax cuts, along with a strong workforce, had helped the country overcome the 9/11 attacks. He stated that the economy was strong and that unemployment in Oregon had dropped from 8.7 percent to 6.8 percent under his watch.

In his words, American schools were better off and, because of new laws, corporations like Enron were now being kept in check. Seniors were better off, too, because changes in Medicare now afforded them better health care.

He went on to justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and proclaimed the freedoms that the people of those countries now enjoy because of the outcomes of those wars.

Yes. These things sounded good. The speech was hopeful and energetic. I felt like I had a better understanding of our president’s vision.

Then he said a few words and the walls came crashing in:

“I'll give you one other thought ... about taxing the rich. You know how that works. A lot of the rich are able to get accountants, so they don't – they're able to dodge. You've seen it before. We're going to tax the rich, and then they figure out how not to get taxed. So guess who ends up paying? You do. And we're not going to let him (Kerry) do it to us.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The president had conceded that the rich were beyond his power to control. The rich cannot be taxed. Instead of trying to tax them and failing, we could claim victory by never taxing them at all. We won’t let them dodge our taxes; instead we just won’t tax them.

I immediately saw how I could apply this logic to obtain small victories in my everyday life.

I could tell my boss that I had reduced customer complaints by 80 percent because I stopped selling them our product.

I could cut down on rejections by 100 percent by never submitting any proposals.

I could dramatically reduce hairballs by shaving the cat.

By creatively realigning the statistics and by carefully redefining my objectives, my failures can easily be turned into accomplishments.

For example: It's true that Oregon unemployment dropped from 8.7 percent in July 2003 to 6.8 percent in July 2004. But looking at the same data, I could compare the Oregon unemployment rate from the Clinton Era, July 2000 (4.8 percent) with July 2004 (6.8 percent) and cite a drop in employment of 2 percent since Bush took office.

That’s just another way of looking at the same data. The numbers can easily be used to merit progress for any agenda.

If the president cannot hand his constituents concrete examples of success, then he must cite progress as his accomplishment, and claim victory wherever and whenever possible.

When prosperity is important but unattainable, it becomes necessary to redefine accomplishment. When we redefine our objectives so that victory is the only goal, we can achieve victory with little sacrifice.

As the president’s speech wound to a close, my car summited the costal range and the radio reception failed, making it impossible to hear Kerry’s speech.

I can only imagine that he, too, would employ similar tactics of persuasion and biased statistics that would require hours of self-study to verify, dispute and reevaluate.

As we headed over the mountain that day and listened to the candidates' words slowly fade into static and white noise, it made me wonder if there was anything wrong with the reception, or if I had really been listening to white noise all along.

E-mail Ryan at ryonie@hotmail.com, and see more of his work in our archives.

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