The Outstater: Questions Unasked

December 6, 2017

This morning’s newspaper ran almost 20 paragraphs on our city council’s decision to give a downtown section special tax consideration. The story included testimonial after testimonial to the brilliance of this action, including a picture of smiling beneficiaries in a congratulatory pose.

The degree of acclamation was such that the reader was surprised when in the 13th paragraph he learned that two councilmen actually voted against this civic boon. Had they dozed off? Were they drunk? Were they merely disgruntled, defeated by the forces of progress?

We don’t know. The reporter didn’t ask them.

That was a pity. For who won a particular vote is only part of the story. It can be determined by anyone with basic math skills. Those on the losing side, though, often have the more interesting and perhaps prescient observations.

It is why Romans pulled winning generals from the field. It was understood that winners have trouble understanding why they won, their egos having taken over at the moment of victory to credit a heroic vision rather than, say, the simple and more determinant lay of the land.

Losers, though, know exactly why they lost. They spend a lot of time thinking about it.

It was Rudyard Kiplings definition of a man: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.” Or if that is too old school for you, there is Donald Trump: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”

How many can remember the score of the 1979 championship between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the game that popularized big-time college basketball? And was the score the important thing? As broadcaster Al McGuire said after the game, “Winning is only important in war and surgery.”

In any case, you would think it a basic of the journalism craft to be curious about the reasoning of those on the losing side of a vote.

The great economist Thomas Sowell suggests three questions of any proposal:

• Compared with what?

• At what cost?

• On the basis of what hard evidence?

My guess is that the winners of most votes by our local council could not convincingly answer all or maybe any of those questions. We owe it to the losers to at least ask them.

— Craig Ladwig


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