Just the Facts

When I was a kid, I used to watch a show called Dragnet. It was a police show starring Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday, who coined the phrase “just the facts ma’am” when interrogating female informants. I think Sergeant Friday’s admonition could benefit us today.

We live in an era of spin and propaganda. I think there is so much of it because it works so well. I like to believe, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary, that humans are rational beings. Yet despite what I like to believe, I know we’re highly susceptible to manipulation. I know that propaganda can be highly effective. I know we believe certain things not because the facts (the evidence) suggest them to be true, but merely because we want them to be true.

I’m constantly reminded of this reality by our president. I doubt a week goes by — indeed, possibly not even a day — in which he doesn’t say something that isn’t true. Some people and organizations chronicle all his lies. I have no interest in doing so. My concern is broader because it’s clear that the president isn’t the only purveyor of propaganda out there in the world today.

All I’m suggesting is we would be better served by heeding Joe Friday’s admonition and focus ourselves on the facts, if for no other reason than we’d learn more, become better informed and be able to make smarter decisions. And, in the process, avoid a lot of mistakes and bad consequences, not only for ourselves but also for our nation.

Here is just one example of what we’d learn. The president gloats from time to time about the performance of the stock market during his tenure as president. The message is clear: the performance of the stock market has been extraordinary and it’s all because of him. I suspect some people believe it. Not because it’s true, but because they want to believe it.

When one looks at the actual facts versus the propaganda, one learns a couple of things. First, one learns the increase last year wasn’t remarkable. In fact, it was average for a bull market (and, of course, as even the president knows, the bull market began long before he was elected).

Second, we’d learn that the performance of the U.S. stock market last year was pretty mediocre (at best) on relative terms. In fact, the S&P 500 (the standard measure of U.S. stock market performance) came in 33rd. In other words, an American would have made more money by investing in any one of 32 other stock markets last year than if they’d left their money in the U.S. stock market.

You would have made more money by investing in Poland. Argentina. Hong Kong. China. India. Emerging markets generally. (Interestingly, one of the few markets that did worse (Russia and Saudi Arabia) are led by autocrats who apparently have a special place in our president’s heart.)

This is but one example of the false messages that are being peddled day in and day out. And most of them are coming from places other than the White House.

It would be nice to be able to rely on what people in positions of power or authority tell us. But to do so, at least in these times, would be foolish.

Just the facts.

I’ll reach my own conclusions, if you don’t mind. And form my own beliefs. Based on the evidence (facts), not on someone else’s self-serving claims.

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