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Feelings versus reality

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John Newkirk

While my name may sound more like the captain of the Starship Enterprise, my kids think I’m more like First Officer Spock: I tend to base decisions on logic and not emotion, I favor facts over feelings, and I judge a government program on its outcome rather than its intent.
It’s a tough gig.
Especially in a world where emotions increasingly dominate the conversation and facts increasingly don’t matter.
An early introduction to this dichotomy came when, as a newly elected official, I was asked to increase public funding for a multimillion-dollar free full-day kindergarten program. Fine, I thought, but first let’s see how effective it’s been; if it’s a responsible use of taxpayer dollars I’ll gladly advocate for it. I asked the chief academic officer (a PhD in educational policy) to research the matter, but a gathering gloom of eyebrow furls sent a message loud and clear: Why are you guys even questioning this?  Everyone knows it’s a good idea.
A week later the analysis came back with some very inconvenient truths. Despite spending more than $26 million over the course of seven years, the data showed that those who participated in the free full-day kindergarten program consistently underperformed those who didn’t — regardless of demographics — and there were no positive long-term impacts.
An opponent pressed me on the issue during a public debate.
“I’m not going to do it,” I responded, “You’re asking me to fund a program that decreases student achievement. Think of what could have been done with that $26 million — build two schools, permanently endow Outdoor Lab, increase wages, hire a hundred more teachers.”
“But it’s for the children!” she cried, and then literally snatched the offending report from my hand and crumpled it up. Case closed. End of conversation.
Holy denial, Batman!
In their recent book “Uncle Sam Can’t Count.” authors Burt and Anita Folsom document one government program after another that’s failed to deliver on its intended purpose, yet continues to be supported year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation. From Roosevelt’s New Deal to Johnson’s Great Society to Obama’s Solyndra to a $26 million full-day kindergarten initiative in Jefferson County, history is replete with examples of well-meaning programs rendered feckless by fallacious feelings.
There’s nothing wrong with feelings per se; they’re what make us human. But feelings are a poor substitute for facts when life, liberty, and a civil society are at stake — and they’re a poor basis for policies that ultimately defraud the very people they intend to help.
Feeling good is not the same as doing good — and nothing good ever comes from relentlessly rehashing the bad. Facts and feelings are powerful forces and we need them both, but they need to be balanced in a way that, in the words of First Officer Spock, helps us all live long and prosper.

Opinion columnist John J. Newkirk raises cattle on a ranch near Conifer.