blank.gif (51 bytes) Second Thoughts

Assumptions, Assumptions
Assumptions Galore

by Ralph Heller

indful of the facts that the United States accounts for about half of the world’s Internet users and over 90 percent of the world’s most frequently visited Internet sites, the American public tends to assume the U.S. is the world’s technological leader in virtually all fields. But as The Economist recently pointed out, the boon in mobile phones is more of a European and Asian phenomenon. While America has been comparatively slow in telecommunications development, mobile phones in Europe have become an island of deregulation in a sea of old, stodgy monopolies. So which country has the most intensive use of mobile phones today? Finland, believe it or not, where 53 percent of all telephones are mobile phones.

Disassembling widely held but incorrect assumptions has become almost a fulltime job for Americans these days. Indeed, right here at home the Nevada Manufacturers Association reminded us in its January newsletter of what it smilingly calls a "major disconnect" between public perception and actual facts when it comes to international trade.

Labor leaders and some conservatives continue to cling to isolationist tendencies and protective tariffs to "protect" American jobs, ignoring the fact that without relatively free trade with regard to imports there would be greatly reduced opportunities for exporting.

Yet roughly one third of the growth in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product in recent years is attributable to U.S. exports. Job opportunities in U.S. companies that export continue to increase 18 percent faster than jobs in other companies. Exporting firms tend to pay their employees about 13 percent more than the national average and are 10 percent less likely than other companies to go out of business. But international trade is a two-way street.

Erect barriers to block the imports that so enrage labor leaders and certain conservatives, and you’ll simultaneously more closely limit America’s export trade.

In an era of widespread public naiveté and decreasing intellectual curiosity among journalists, such "major disconnects" are commonplace, perhaps especially with regard to education. There is no convincingly demonstrated correlation between class size and student achievement—or for that matter between teachers’ salaries and student achievement. Similarly, institutions of higher education are not finding themselves swamped with deserving applicants they cannot accommodate. Of roughly 2,000 four-year-colleges and universiries in the U.S., only 66 turn away more applicants than they accept. Almost no qualified high school graduates find themselves stopped from gaining a college education if they seek one, and right here in Nevada our state’s budgets for higher education have grown much, much faster than student enrollment in the last two decades.

Not surprisingly in a public atmosphere of false assumptions, legislative priorities are often up for grabs. A few years ago separate studies revealed that Nevada had more lawyers per 100,000 people than any other place in the firmament but Washington, D.C., and that when it came to the number of dentists per 10,000 children Nevada ranked 45th among the states. But an increasingly useless daily press ignored the findings of both studies for the most part, leaving legislators free to respond to "political juice" rather than to public need. So which do you think was destined to come first in Nevada, a law school or a dental school?

Happily, some longtime false assumptions are giving way to reality, however belatedly. The nation’s childlike trust in federal government agencies is now little more than a dim memory, and as we approach tax time the IRS has stepped forward to remind us of just how unreliable a government system can be. A recent information bulletin from the IRS included this advice:

U.S. taxpayers shouldn’t be wary of using the common W-2 form even if the form incorrectly lists them as dead or contains some other errors.

Law enforcement agencies are especially stubborn when it comes to loosening their grips on long-held assumptions. For example, study after study now indicates that treatment is far more successful than putting drug addicts in jail, a determination that first came to light in a 1994 Rand Corporation study. Treating addicts was shown to be 10 times more effective than trying to keep drugs from entering the country and 23 times more effective than attacking drugs at their source.

But there are agencies, bureaucracies, drug prevention programs and government careers to protect, of course. Law enforcement would have us believe that programs like DARE are working, even though DARE soaks up $700 million in donations and tax dollars every year while having no measurable national impact on drug use.

Meanwhile you can’t be too skeptical about the assumptions you find inherent in what you hear and read these days ... unless you find them in this especially trustworthy magazine, of course. NJ

Ralph Heller is senior consulting editor of Nevada Journal.


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