Plant the seed for fruitful debate
RALEIGH — I’m told that while there is no firmly established gift tradition for a 28th anniversary, the modern practice is to signify the event with an orchid.
Well, this month marks the 28th anniversary of the birth of my syndicated column on North Carolina politics and public policy. It began during my tenure as a part-time reporter for a Nash County newspaper, the Spring Hope Enterprise. By the end of the 1980s, the column was running in several other newspapers in eastern North Carolina as well as Spectator magazine, a Raleigh-based weekly. Over the ensuing years, dozens of other daily and community newspapers picked it up. My column currently appears in more than 50 newspapers a week with a combined print circulation of nearly 700,000 North Carolinians.
I traffic in words, not flora. And my skills at flower gardening are truly legendary — in the sense of being exaggerated and only distantly related to real events. So I won’t commemorate the occasion with an orchid. Instead, I’ll talk about planting a different kind of seed.
Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from readers. Ignoring the usual ad hominem attacks, probably the most common criticism I receive is that I focus too much on statistics. “You seem to care more about numbers than you do about people,” goes the typical refrain.
I certainly do value statistics. Would you expect anything less from a columnist, trained in precision journalism, who runs a think tank? But I utterly reject the proposed dichotomy between a concern for numbers and a concern for people. The very reason why policymakers ought to use statistical analysis to make their decisions is that it will help them serve people better. Regardless of where governments set their tax rates, they only have so much revenue to spend. Without statistics to establish priorities or identify cost-effectiveness, governments will often make unwise, harmful decisions.
Moreover, debates in the absence of valid statistics are incoherent and pointless. They consist of political partisans talking past each other — or, perhaps more often, yelling past each other — with no practical means of determining which side is correct or finding an accommodation between them.
Consider the current debate here in North Carolina about education funding. Do you have the sense that our public schools have fewer resources today than they did when you were in school? I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you did, given the number of anecdotes and political talking points passed off as facts.
WRAL-TV in Raleigh, for example, recently told its audience that North Carolina’s education spending has been on a “decades-long slide.” Only, that’s not what the station’s reporting really showed. The share of North Carolina’s state budget devoted to K-12 education is lower today than it was in 1984, to be sure, but that’s not the same thing as saying that education spending has declined. What the statistic tells you is only that other categories of spending — primarily Medicaid — have grown more rapidly than education spending has.
To measure changes in government spending over time, you have to adjust for changes in the value of money and the population being served. In inflation-adjusted, per-student terms, North Carolina spent about twice as much on public schools last year as it did in 1983-84. While real spending went down slightly during the Great Recession, it remains (at about $8,630 per pupil) higher than in any year before 2004. Unless you are still enrolled, or graduated from high school within the past few years, North Carolina education is clearly more generously funded today than it was when you were in school.
That’s a fact, not an opinion. It still leaves room for plenty of contrasting opinions. Perhaps we still don’t spend nearly enough on education. Or perhaps all the funding added over the past three decades ought to have been spent differently.
However contentious that debate might be, there is at least the possibility it might be constructive. Here’s something I do know about orchids: the quality of the flowers depends on the quality of the seeds.