Can we all just get along?

  • By: Fresno Chamber President/CEO, Al Smith

Those six words have become a part of our lexicon since uttered by Rodney King back in 1992. The answer in Sacramento seems to be a resounding “NO!”

For more than a decade, we have seen an increased dysfunction in the ability forCalifornia’s elected officials to find any common ground and address what appears to be an upcoming train wreck. Unfunded pension liabilities spiral upwards, general fund deficits expand dramatically and little support or even interest to rein in spending – all the while continuing on with no visible source of revenue to balance any of this.

Many of us watching from the sidelines are perplexed that 120 elected officials – seemingly with a decent education, passable IQs and politically sophisticated thinking – dig their heels and hold on to their ideology with an attitude of “damn the consequences.”

When our Chamber goes to Sacramentoto try to explain the “facts” (well, as we see them) they fall on deaf ears. How can they be so stupid, we think? Well maybe, it’s not stupidity.

From 2005-2006, researchers in Michigan did a study that reveals that “when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they become even more strongly set in their beliefs.”

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you are wrong,” political scientist, Brendan Nyhan, stated in the study. The phenomenon – known as “backfire” –  is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

This tendency allows us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. It even allows us to accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs – thus making us more confident that we are “right.”

In all fairness, this tendency apparently goes both ways. They feel the way they feel and we feel the way we feel. (Of course – this is absent any special interest influence.)

So even if our “educating” lawmaker is not altering the effect on decision making,  where does that leave California?

I stole the idea for this article from a friend of mine who is a radio talk show host in New Orleans. He pointed out that in spite of the “facts” that he preached continually about how the loss of coastal wetlands in Louisiana would one day drown the City the unthinkable happened. You guessed it. Hurricane Katrina. That, my friend, is a “fact” that changed many people’s thinking.

Will California have to have a “Katrina” before it addresses the catastrophe that is headed our way?  Like New Orleans, will we have to. My friend once stated, “Be driven to our knees – with pain, sacrifice and forced change?” WillCaliforniabe drowned in another way? (Economically, rather that water?)

The Michigan study was quick to point out that this “backfire” is a tendency – not an absolute. This ultimately gives us two options: early education, before they stake out a position, which the Chamber continually strives to do; or, option two, missing that opportunity and barring any change in attitude at the state capital, which will result in financial disaster.

What is my suggestion? While we continue our efforts, make sure you keep one hand on your life jacket!


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