Analysis, facts should trump 'believing'

The third-floor scene in the Capitol was truly touching. Quietly, as privately as possible, Gov. Sam Brownback clasped hands in prayer with Don Wistuba, the longtime operator of the statehouse snack shop. It was Don's birthday, and the gesture was profound.

Sam Brownback is a believer. All observations and his own words indicate the governor has meditated long and hard about religious beliefs in migrating to his Catholic faith.

The key word is faith.

The nature of religious belief means that it requires neither facts nor analysis for support. Indeed, faith is essential precisely because belief transports us beyond science or physical observation.

When we enter the realm of policy-making, however, "believing" is not enough; facts and thorough analysis are -- or should be -- required. That doesn't mean that everyone will reach the same conclusions. But solid analysis should support the search for the best public policies.

Which gets us to Gov. Brownback and his inalterable faith in the power of eliminating the state income tax. He believes, truly believes, that this policy will lead to a meteoric rise in Kansas's economic fortunes.

Typical is his recent opinion column: "Empowered by a tax policy that is built on liberty and rewards hard work, we can accelerate economic growth, create well-paying jobs, increase family and community stability, and reduce the number of children living in poverty."

Wonderful sentiments -- supported by virtually no serious research. Backed by a handful of fellow believers -- especially Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, the state Chamber of Commerce, and Arthur Laffer, with his $75,000 consulting fee -- Brownback steadfastly expresses his income-tax faith, day after day, month after month.

My colleague Ed Flentje, in two coherent, fact-based columns, laid out why Kansas is not like Texas -- the Holy Grail for the governor -- and how the state has proven successful since the days of Alf Landon. Indeed, various analyses have debunked the simplistic argument that lower income taxes will create economic growth, especially in high-tech, information-oriented enterprises.

Retired Wichita State economics professor William Terrell dismantled the no income tax argument last week, but like Flentje's reasoned pieces, his words fell on deaf ears. Rather, we must believe that changing one modest component of economic decision-making will lead to a capitalist paradise.

Faith is powerful, but it's no substitute for analysis or facts or shrewd political deal-making. Moreover, in politics and policy-making, pure faith can be destructive. For one thing, the true believer "cannot compromise over the holy without compromising the holy."

If you know through believing, why should you compromise? Or if you do, it's a mere way station to the eventual perfect solution. Yet compromise on substance constitutes the essence of politics and policy-making in the American system.

The election of 2010 swept into office a wave of true believers -- from Gov. Brownback to Kris Kobach to 30-plus Kansas House members. Cabinet members were recruited as much for their beliefs as for their skills.

The faith in small government runs rampant. Not small, effective government, but small government, period. Likewise, the belief that privatization of Medicaid will save money and provide better services, all the while producing profits, trumps careful analysis.

To be sure, belief -- true, encompassing belief -- is a remarkable leap, and one that we should hold in awe. But it's incompatible with governing a state as a steward for the entire population.

A leap of faith is just that, and entirely appropriate as an individual act. But just as politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose, those who govern must not demand that we all leap together. Their responsibility is to write the prose of close analysis, hewing to the facts, as policy is developed.

In this world of flesh-and-blood decisions, worshiping at the altar of income-tax elimination has no place in the public square.

Burdett Loomis teaches political science at the University of Kansas.