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Commentary: Look, up in the sky

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2012 - Have you ever seen a UFO? Before you answer, pause to reconsider the question.

It’s not asking whether you believe that spacecraft from foreign galaxies are patrolling the heavens or whether you think little green men from outer space routinely perpetrate alien abduction upon hapless pilgrims of the night. It also doesn’t inquire as to whether you believe the government harbors dark secrets in Roswell, New Mexico.

In fact, it doesn’t ask anything at all about your belief system. It’s a simple empirical question: Have you ever seen an unidentified flying object — something in the sky you didn’t recognize? It may have been a weather balloon, a balloon from the school picnic three blocks away, a high-flying kite, a distant bird or a flying saucer manned by sinister aliens. After all, if you knew what it was, the object wouldn’t be unidentified.

Understood thusly, I suspect most of us would have to answer in the affirmative — yes, at one time or another, we have seen something in the sky we couldn’t name.

I pose the UFO question to illustrate how belief tends to determine fact. If you’re a member of the flying saucer set, you’ve probably seen a lot of alien UFOs. If you’re not, you’ve simply seen naturally occurring phenomena rendered indistinguishable by the limits of human optics. In either case, what you believed tended to shape what you saw.

Ironically, “UFO” was originally intended to be a value-neutral term to facilitate the objective investigation of unusual celestial sightings. It was meant to neither confirm nor deny the possible existence of extraterrestrial aircraft. Over time, it has become synonymous with the most unlikely hypothesis it was coined to investigate. When we read “UFO,” we think “space invaders.” Casual repetition has changed the meaning of the word.

Back here on Earth, the same conceptual bias frames our understanding of human events. No where is this tendency better illustrated than in modern politics, a sphere in which ideology routinely creates reality.

It is a rightwing axiom, for instance, that lower tax rates generate jobs. Higher employment, in turn, results in more people paying taxes, which ultimately yields more revenue for the government. So, lowered tax rates = higher tax income. The fact that this has never actually occurred is not seen as a serious fault with the theory.

When Reagan tried it in the ‘80s, the resultant deficits were sufficiently alarming to cause George H. W. Bush to commit political suicide by signing a tax increase into law. At the time, supply-side proponents blamed the shortfalls on the spendthrift Democrats who controlled Congress. What they never explained was why spending had to be cut if revenues were increasing.

After another tax increase under Clinton and an unrelated economic boom, George W. Bush inherited a budget surplus. He again tried the magic of tax cuts — this time with a friendly Congress. Ten years later, we find ourselves coping with deficits that make the earlier ones look like child’s play.

By any reasonable empirical analysis, the strategy would have to be deemed a dismal failure. Yet, every contender for the Republican presidential nomination steadfastly opposes upper income tax increases because they would thwart job growth and thus contribute to the deficit.

Of course, ideological blindness is not the sole province of the political right. President Obama, for instance, revealed an alarming economic misconception during his recent State of the Union address.

At one point during his generally persuasive speech, the president mentioned the projected savings from the conclusion of the Iraq War and the anticipated withdrawal from Afghanistan. He suggested dividing that windfall between investment in domestic infrastructure and deficit reduction.

At first blush, that proposal seemed like a sensible, middle-of-the-road compromise between social progress and fiscal responsibility. It did, at least, until you realized that all of the funding for both wars was borrowed. We’re talking negative numbers here. How do you spend money that doesn’t exist? We’re going to reduce the deficit by borrowing even more? If you had to borrow $2,000 last month to pay your household bills and only had to borrow $1,000 this month to do so, you may be trending in the right direction but it does not follow that you now have an extra grand to blow.

Both parties thus fail because they envision realities that are largely byproducts of their own preconceived belief systems. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to deal with the aftermath of their delusions.

With the ever-expanding campaign season now in full February bloom, you’re sure to have close encounters of the worst kind with a fascinating array of political UFO’s in the coming months. They will hurtle through the ether to invade your television, bringing electronic profiles of candidates extolling their uniquely American virtues while warning against the perverse inclinations of their opponents.

As you attempt to comprehend the image before you, remember that it might be a bird, it might be a plane, but it probably will not be Superman.

M.W. Guzy special to the Beacon