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Gerald Psalmond’s recent letter on the government’s handling of social security is, as usual with him, drivel.
First of all, Mr. Psalmond incorrectly claims that an annual contribution of 15% of a $30 thousand per year salary over 40 years, compounded monthly at 1% interest rate equals would equal $1.3 million. The actual number would be about $220 thousand, or roughly 1/6 of what Mr. Psalmond says it would be. So Mr. Psalmond apparently doesn’t understand high school algebra.
Second, Mr. Psalmond claims that illegal immigrants do not pay into Social Security, which is false. Social Security is funded by payroll taxes, which are taken directly from wages. Furthermore, illegal immigrants are ineligible for the benefits that they pay into, so they are subsidizing the rest of us. Third, Mr. Psalmond is upset that the technical term for payouts from the government are called “benefits,” as if merely having that label is somehow pernicious. What we name a policy has no effect on how the policy works.
Never mind the convincing evidence suggesting that Mr. Psalmond plagiarized the entire letter wholesale.
These basic errors are enough to destroy Mr. Psalmond’s credibility. His letter reveals he understands neither basic policy facts nor basic algebra nor basic citation practices, and so no reasonable person would trust his claims on the other points.
This obvious question this letter raises is, why on Earth would a newspaper publish it? A newspaper is, no doubt, provides an important forum for the meaningful exchange of opinions, a requirement for any healthy democracy. But there are competing theories about what the best way to do this is.
One way is to only print those opinions that meet certain criteria. These criteria need not be partisan: a newspaper that only publishes perspectives from a subset of the political spectrum will fail to reach many readers, and it will not fully inform the readers it does reach. Rather, the criteria should be more basic. Are the opinions based on a proper understanding of facts and theories? Do they give an accurate characterization of rival opinions? Are they fresh and original? Are they good faith attempts to understand something, rather than pernicious attempts to mislead or obfuscate? Under this model, in order for newspapers to be helpful, editors need to be curators, gatekeepers of opinion, always struggling to maintain the balance between presenting a diversity of perspectives while keeping out those that are inaccurate or clearly misleading, no matter what their political bent. The Observer doesn’t follow this model.
The model the Observer follows is to let anything in. All views, even those anchored on falsehoods rather than facts, are equally valid. This view has a perverse understanding of the First Amendment: Hey, you have a right to say anything, so that must mean we have a responsibility to print everything. If someone thinks the world is flat, the Sun revolves around the Earth, 2 + 2 = 5, September 11th was an inside job, or 47% of Americans don’t pay any taxes whatsoever, no big deal. Those opinions are just as vital to ensuring Moultrians are well informed as, well, opinions grounded in truth. It’s certainly not a newspaper’s job to provide reliable information, after all.
So, it turns out that there is a direct conflict between providing a forum for everyone to speak and providing a resource that helps educate the public. The one requires making sure that opinions are grounded in facts and good faith (and well-intentioned, knowledgable people can still disagree), while the other celebrates bad faith and ignorance. In the latter case, a reader can come away less informed because he gets conflicting information without any authority to help him sort out what is correct.
The Observer embraces its policy of printing anything and everything in order to help its readers become better informed. But bad opinions exist. Not bad in the sense that I disagree with them politically, but bad in the sense of not understanding basic math, science, and history.
So when the Observer claims that publishing different viewpoints leaves a reader better informed, but then publishes an opinion where the author obviously does not understand the basic facts about the issue he is discussing, the newspaper undercuts its own stated goal of making its readers more informed.
So long as it continues this practice, the Observer will remain and embarrassment to itself and to the town it serves.
Michael Wayne Harris
Ann Arbor, MI