The busted myths of 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010;

Every big news story spawns misinformation, allegations and misperceptions -- and every week, Outlook takes them on in our 5 Myths feature. Here's a look back at some of the hot-button issues that dominated public debate in the past year.

Investing in new technology is key to better security.

Placing too much reliance on sophisticated tools such as X-ray machines often leaves the people staffing our front lines consumed with monitoring and troubleshooting these systems. Consequently, they become more caught up in process than outcomes. And as soon as procedures become routine, a determined bad guy can game them.

We would do well to heed two lessons the U.S. military has learned from combating insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan: First, don't do things in rote and predictable ways, and second, don't alienate the people you are trying to protect. Too much of what is promoted as homeland security disregards these lessons. Full-body imaging machines . . . are far more effective than metal detectors at screening airline passengers. But new technologies are also expensive, and they are no substitute for well-trained professionals who are empowered and rewarded for exercising good judgment.

- From "5 myths about keeping America safe" by Stephen Flynn, Jan. 3

Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts Senate race means health-care legislation is dead.

Their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is now a thing of the past, and Democrats have been left to scramble to salvage President Obama's main legislative priority. Options remain, though, even if none of them are very appealing, particularly since Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pronouncement that the votes are simply not there to pass the Senate bill through the House without any changes. The simple political reality is this: The White House believes that any bill at this point is better than no bill at all. Remember that this president was elected to get Washington working again; an utter collapse of health-care reform would badly undermine that image.

- From "5 myths about the Massachusetts election" by Chris Cillizza, Jan. 24

Gay priests are to blame for the Catholic Church abuse scandal.

Some defenders of the Catholic Church's response . . . say that homosexual priests are responsible for the majority of abuses, in part because more than 80 percent of the victims are male. They argue that true pedophiles - adults who are pathologically attracted to pre-pubescent children - constitute a small minority of offenders. Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone repeated this gay-pedophile link . . . and such reasoning was partially behind a 2005 Vatican policy barring gays from seminaries.

Such assertions have numerous flaws. For one thing, research shows that gay men are no more likely to molest children than straight men. (And celibacy doesn't seem to be a determining factor, either.) Yes, 80 percent of the victims were male, but many offenders assaulted children of both sexes. . . . Finally, while critics of gay clerics fret that homosexuals dominate the priesthood and endanger children, in fact the ostensible increase in gay priests in recent years has coincided with a sharp decrease in reports of child abuse by clergy.

- From "5 myths about the Catholic abuse scandal" by David Gibson, April 18

Immigrants take jobs from American workers.

Immigrants tend to be concentrated in high- and low-skilled occupations that complement - rather than compete with - jobs held by native workers. And the foreign-born workers who fill lower-paying jobs are typically first-hired/first-fired employees, allowing employers to expand and contract their workforces rapidly. As a result, immigrants experience higher employment than natives during booms - but they suffer higher job losses during downturns, including the current one.

It's true that an influx of new workers pushes wages down, but immigration also stimulates growth by creating new consumers, entrepreneurs and investors. As a result of this growth, economists estimate that wages for the vast majority of American workers are slightly higher than they would be without immigration. U.S. workers without a high school degree experience wage declines as a result of competition from immigrants, but these losses are modest, at just over 1 percent. Economists also estimate that for each job an immigrant fills, an additional job is created.

- From "5 myths about immigration" by Doris Meissner, May 2

Extending the Bush tax cuts would be a good way to stimulate the economy.

As a stimulus measure, a one- or two-year extension has one thing going for it - it would be a big intervention and would provide at least some boost to the economy. But a good stimulus policy can't just be big; it should also offer a lot of bang for the buck. That is, each dollar of government spending or tax cuts should have the largest possible effect on the economy. According to the Congressional Budget Office and other authorities, extending all of the Bush tax cuts would have a small bang for the buck, the equivalent of a 10- to 40-cent increase in GDP for every dollar spent.

Why? As the CBO notes, most Bush tax cut dollars go to higher-income households, and these top earners don't spend as much of their income as lower earners. In fact, of 11 potential stimulus policies the CBO recently examined, an extension of all of the Bush tax cuts ties for lowest bang for the buck. (The CBO did not examine the high-income tax cuts separately, but the logic it used suggests that extending those cuts alone would have even less value.) The government could more effectively stimulate the economy by letting the high-income tax cuts expire and using the money for aid to the states, extensions of unemployment insurance benefits and tax credits favoring job creation. Dollar for dollar, each of these measures would have about three times the impact on GDP as continuing the Bush tax cuts.

- From "5 myths about the Bush tax cuts" by William G. Gale, Aug. 1

The tea party is racist.

It's a phenomenon that some activists call "nutpicking" - send a cameraman into a protest, and he'll focus on the craziest sign. Yes, there are racists in the tea party, and they make themselves known. But tea party activists usually root them out. Texas activist Dale Robertson, who held a sign likening taxpayers to a racial epithet at a 2009 rally, was drummed out of that event and pilloried by his peers. Mark Williams, formerly the bomb-throwing spokesman for the Tea Party Express (he once told me he wanted to send the liberal watchdog group Media Matters "a case of champagne" for calling him racist), was booted after penning a parody that had the NAACP pining for slavery.

Liberal critics of the tea party argue that conservative opposition to social spending is often racially motivated. That's not new, though, and it's not the basis for the tea party.

- From "5 myths about the tea party" by David Weigel, Aug. 8

The Iraq war will end "on schedule."

Much as we should want the Obama administration to succeed in Iraq, this statement by the president in a speech to veterans this month [August] should make us wary. If uttered in the first act of a Greek tragedy, it is exactly the kind of claim that would end in a Sophoclean fall.

As George W. Bush learned to his dismay, once you start a war, a lot of bad, unpredictable things can happen. No war has ever gone precisely according to schedule, not even those that have ended in the most dramatic victories, such as Israel's Six-Day War or the Persian Gulf War. What's more, war's aftereffects linger for many years. . . .

The need for a U.S. presence will endure for many years. Iraq has demonstrated great potential, but at this point it is only potential. The country still holds great peril as well - not just for Iraqis, but for our interests in one of the world's most strategically important regions.

For these reasons, Obama was right to also warn that the United States will need to remain deeply involved in Iraq and will probably face casualties there in the years to come, regardless of how we label our mission.

- From "5 myths about withdrawing from Iraq" by Kenneth M. Pollack, Aug. 22

Mosques lead to homegrown terrorism.

To the contrary, mosques have become typical American religious institutions. In addition to worship services, most U.S. mosques hold weekend classes for children, offer charity to the poor, provide counseling services and conduct interfaith programs.

No doubt, some mosques have encouraged radical extremism. Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian sheik who inspired the World Trade Center's first attackers in 1993, operated out of the Al-Salam mosque in Jersey City, N.J. But after the 2001 attacks, such radicalism was largely pushed out of mosques and onto the Internet, mainly because of a renewed commitment among mosque leaders to confront extremism.

There is a danger that as anti-Muslim prejudice increases - as it has recently in reaction to the proposed community center near Ground Zero - alienated young Muslims will turn away from the peaceful path advocated by their elders in America's mosques. So far, that has not happened on a large scale. . . .

Mosques should be welcomed as premier sites of American assimilation, not feared as incubators of terrorist indoctrination.

- From "5 myths about mosques in America" by Edward E. Curtis IV, Aug. 29

The troops oppose repealing "don't ask, don't tell."

It is true that when asked their policy preferences, more troops say they favor DADT than allowing gays to serve openly. But there are several caveats: First, the margin is small, and a large number of troops say they have no opinion. Typically, polls find that about 40 percent of troops prefer DADT, 30 percent prefer open service, and 30 percent have no opinion. Second, the vast majority of troops say they are comfortable working with gays and lesbians. Third, even among those who have an opinion, very few feel strongly about it. . . .

I have made more than 25 visits to service academies and military universities over the past decade, and I have noticed a remarkable shift. Among those gays and lesbians who are out to their units, very few are encountering problems these days. The gay troops who experience the most difficulties are the ones who remain in the closet. Their peers know they are hiding something, and that perception of secrecy does undermine cohesion.

- From "5 myths about 'don't ask, don't tell' " by Aaron Belkin, Sept. 19

Sarah Palin is unelectable.

Without question, a Palin 2012 campaign would be an uphill battle. Palin is unpopular - massively so among Democrats, decisively so among independents. Even many Republicans don't believe she's ready to be president.

But opinions can change. Look at the political resuscitations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton. If Palin works hard and runs an impressive campaign, wavering Republicans and skeptical independents may give her a second look.

To earn that second look, she may need to find a big idea. It's hard to become president without one. Reagan had supply-side economics and the end of detente with the Soviets. Bill Clinton had the third way. George W. Bush had compassionate conservatism and the freedom agenda. Obama had national unity and hope and change.

At the moment, however, Palin still expresses her agenda mainly in negative terms, focusing on her opposition to Obama and the Washington establishment. She hasn't defined her "common-sense conservatism" in positive language. And she hasn't found a unifying, exhilarating theme.

Then again, she just might get along without one. After all, a presidential contest is a choice. The public might not love Palin. But by 2012, Americans might absolutely despise Obama. Two more years of a bad economy and an unpopular Afghan war, and anything is possible. Yes, there's a ceiling to Palin's support. But in 2012, there also will be a ceiling to Obama's. Whose will be higher?

- From "5 myths about Sarah Palin" by Matthew Continetti, Oct. 17

The North Koreans are crazy.

They may be weird, but they are not crazy. Yes, the unpredictable, nuke-toting Kim Jong Il puppet in the 2004 movie "Team America" has come to define the real Kim Jong Il in many people's minds. But in truth, the country's diplomats are savvy and well-educated about the United States, and have an epicurean taste for California's red wines. In my negotiations with them as an official in President George W. Bush's administration, I always found them to be rational.

Of course, it is possible to be both rational and belligerent. In North Korea's case, belligerence is part of a calculated effort to win concessions of food, fuel and political recognition - an effort that has repeatedly paid off. A study I recently directed at the Center for Strategic and International Studies examined negotiations dating back to March 1984 and found that every North Korean provocation has been followed, sooner or later, by talks, many of which led to goodies for Pyongyang.

North Korea is behaving perfectly rationally, then.

- From "5 myths about North Korea" by Victor Cha, Dec. 5

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