I am often amazed at how the context in which something is presented affects what we read, see, or hear.  It also seems that politicians work hard to form arguments in a context that obscures the otherwise untenable position they support.

In an earlier life, I was part of a citizen’s committee to help craft a ‘sign ordinance’ for our town.  I am a strong believer that either you participate in the process or you shut up and take your medicine.  But this was a hard one for me.  Don’t get me going about sign ordinances in general.

The committee met about a dozen times for an hour or more and each member spent quite a few hours researching, studying, and generally trying hard to come up with reasonable solutions to appease the public without overly restricting the rights of the sign owners/merchants, etc.   It never ceased to amaze me the passion people had for restricting “ugly, commercial signs.”  What also amazed me is how people could get all fired up about a few signs, calling them “a blight on our community” or “the ugliest structures ever made by man.”  Yet, they could not even see, let alone object to, the telephone and power poles that were present everywhere, in residential as well as commercial areas.  In the context of their passion about how ugly the signs are, most folks miss the power poles that truly are ugly. The picture below is an example:

Signs are Ugly/Poles are Not?

Have you ever heard of a city ordinance against power and phone poles because they are ugly?  The anti-sign crowd likes to claim that signs are not necessary, yet right next to the sign for a gift store is a sign of the same size directing you to the City Library.

Here are a few things that make me wonder and each shows just how the context of the situation or statistic determines how it is viewed:

Number One – In Iraq, in 2009, there were 149 U.S. personnel killed.  That is a lot of people and something that should cause a good deal of concern.  This is a political hot button issue and these deaths get a great deal of press, as they should.  (source – http://icasualties.org/)  In Washington, D.C., in 2009, there were 144 people murdered, the lowest number since 1966.  With a population of almost exactly 600,000 that means a rate of 24 per 100,000 (from – http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/dccrime.htm).  There were approximately 200,000 U.S. personnel in Iraq in 2009 so the death/murder rate in Iraq would be about three times that of Washington D.C., unless you take the entire population.  In that case (estimates vary widely, pending the source and the political intent of the study/report), there were about 4700 civilians plus about 300 soldiers killed in Iraq in 2009.  With a population of about 32,000,000, that would indicate a “murder rate” of less than 16 per 100,000.  Doesn’t this mean that it is 50% more dangerous to be a resident of Washington, D.C. than of Iraq.  Where is the outrage about crime in Washington, D.C. to match the outrage over the deaths in Iraq?  I guess it is because we view crime in D.C. as a normal thing and in that context, 144 murders is no big deal.   A war, anywhere, is not a normal thing so loss of life in a war is a big deal?

Number Two – Actor Wesley Snipes was convicted of tax evasion for not filing his required tax returns.  He has a pretty high profile and I am sure part of his 3+ year sentence was meant by the IRS and the Courts to send a message to others who would consider evading taxes.  He has lots of friends and fans, but sending him to jail will only really hurt his immediate family to any great degree.  On the other hand, Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner did not pay his taxes for four years.  He was then audited and ordered to pay about $35,000 in back taxes, he did not do so for almost two years until President Obama offered his name for Treasury Secretary.  He then paid but wasn’t charged interest or any fines.  Had he been jailed for tax evasion (which was the clear case, at a minimum for the two years after the audit) many people would have been hurt.  And many of those people were very powerful people, like the President.  In the context of Wesley Snipes, Geithner would have made a better example of what happens if you evade taxes.  In the context of the powerful in Washington, this lawbreaking is hardly noticed …..like the telephone poles.

Number Three – Much like our belief in the rule of law, most Americans believe that justice is blind, or at least, should be.  The idea is that if we lend power to our government to allow it to help us keep social order, that power will neither be abused nor used to favor one group over another.  Yet, in the context of fair and equitable laws and justice, we constantly allow our government to favor one group over another.  Examples?  Ill-named “Equal Opportunity” laws and regulations established by our government regularly give advantages for one group over another.  Tax policy becomes codified in ways that say that if you make more money than I do, you must pay taxes at a higher percentage than I.  Labor law famously favors groups of workers who join Unions over groups of workers who employ others.  Why do we allow this?  It is because of the context within which the argument is framed.

Number Four – In the context of hour long waits in line for fuel and prices doubling for gas in a year, it was easy for politicians to sell the public on the need for a Department of Energy.  Again we were asked to forfeit a bit more power and a bit more of our hard-earned money to our government to pay for a “needed” agency to help save us from greedy foreign suppliers of fuels.  The Department of Energy was formed by an act of Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter in the Summer of 1977.   In the 30 years since it began operations in 1980, what has the Department of Energy done for us, in exchange for the power over us and the tax dollars spent to enable its activities?  What have 15,000 government employees and about $25 Billion a year produced?  It is a good question.  The better question is: If, today, there were no Department of Energy, how much better or worse off would we be?  My guess?  We would have somewhere near $25 Billion in tax dollars to spend on something of value.

Final thought on “context:”  Politicians tend to manufacture crises to which they propose government solutions.  If we continue to allow politicians to manipulate us in this way, government will continue to grow and freedoms will continue to shrink.  It’s time for us to start looking at the picture and ignore the frame.