Former President Reagan had the tendency to invoke anecdotes, his own guesses, and even just make up stuff as ‘evidence’ for his preferred political positions. For example, he is famous for saying things like “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do” (to support his position that more stringent automobile emission controls were not necessary) or (to presumably oppose any gun control legislation) that “In England, if a criminal carried a gun, even though he didn’t use it, he was not tried for burglary or theft or whatever he was doing. He was tried for first degree murder and hung if he was found guilty.” When his spokesperson was told that this statement about English gun law was just false, he said: “Well, it’s a good story, though. It made the point, didn’t it?”
As a result of this practice, Reagan’s assertions were sometimes treated as less than credible. One such claim that he used to support his attempts to discredit the welfare system was his story of the ‘welfare queen,’ about a woman who lived in a mansion and drove a Cadillac and wore mink coats, all on income derived from defrauding the welfare system by using false names and imaginary children.
This welfare queen story provoked considerable skepticism since he never actually provided any specifics about who she was and the details kept changing. Even after he died in 2004, an obituary by David Shribman in the Boston Globe on June 6, 2004 said: “[Reagan] was a colorful character, both a spinner of anecdotes (many of which were apocryphal) and a spawner of anecdotes. He once said that scientific studies suggested that a substantial amount of air pollution was produced by trees, and he loved to tell stories about a “welfare queen,” never identified, who unlawfully used food stamps to buy alcohol.”
But in this latter case, Reagan was right, at least partially. A colleague of mine, alerted by one of his students, pointed me to the story of Dorothy Woods, a woman who seemed to fit Reagan’s description. A search on the Lexis-Nexis database elicits a New York Times article on December 21, 1980 that says:
She is reported to own Rolls-Royce, Mercedes Benz and Cadillac automobiles, and the Superior Court documents say she allegedly filed fraudulent public assistance claims for 38 nonexistent children
. . .
Investigators also said that records had been found in her home that indicated that the couple owned 100 to 120 rental units, property in Chicago, and other real estate including two homes on Prospect Boulevard in Pasadena, each estimated to be worth $250,000 to $300,000.
The couple lived a lavish lifestyle and it seems that she and her husband were otherwise wealthy people. It is not clear why they also resorted to welfare fraud. Clearly, the amount she stole from welfare ($377,000 over seven years) would not have been enough to purchase all these things and sustain this kind of lifestyle, so Reagan’s implication that it was welfare fraud that enabled otherwise poor people to live like this was not correct. This welfare scam seemed like extra pocket money for rich people who got even greedier and defrauded the government. In that sense, she is not much different from other rich people who defraud the government in other ways.
Woods was sentenced in 1983 to an eight-year prison sentence. Queen Latifah is reportedly starring in a film based on her life to be released soon.
The evolution of such stories is interesting because it shows how dangerous and slippery and unreliable our own memories are and how we must be vigilant and especially on our guard against uncritically accepting as ‘facts’ those things that fit our preconceptions.
Let’s speculate and see if we can recreate the genesis of this particular story. Given that Ms. Woods lived in Pasadena (close to Hollywood where Reagan lived and worked), this story must have been reported locally and Reagan must have seen or heard or read about it. Since it involved welfare fraud, and Reagan was opposed to the welfare program, this story would have resonated with him and he would have remembered it. All of us are prone to remembering those things that support our preconceptions. At the time, the story would not have made national headlines because its main point “Rich people defraud the government!” is hardly news.
But over time, the discrepant details of the story, that showed that this was a fraud perpetrated by a rich person, must have disappeared from his mind, and what remained was the story that he wanted to believe, that the welfare system was too lax and too generous and that it enabled shiftless, lazy, poor people to live luxuriously at taxpayer’s expense. Again, this is a natural tendency to which we are all prone. I have written before about the ability of our memories to play such tricks on us.
Many people (including me) were skeptical of this story and dismissed it, since we knew that Reagan was cavalier with facts in general. We knew that he was opposed to the welfare system and so we did not take his welfare queen story seriously, similar to the way we dismissed his statements about polluting trees.
How can we prevent this kind of sloppiness? This is where the academic practice of providing supporting evidence and documentation for assertions is important. If you can cite sources for your assertions with names, dates, places, and numbers, those assertions become more credible. If you do that, then people who disagree with you are obliged to investigate the information you provide to see if it really means what you say it does. If, however, you simply say things like “I heard that. . .” and “People say. . .” then the listener really has no idea if you should be taken seriously or not, and they will go by your reputation for reliability or lack of it.
In general, the burden of proof rests with the person who makes the assertion to provide at least some positive evidence in support of it, as otherwise the people who challenge it are left with the impossible task of proving a negative.
I will discuss this question of the burden of proof more thoroughly in a future posting, since it is an important factor in weighing the merits of competing claims.
POST SCRIPT: Politicians live in a different world
I have written before at how surprised I am at the willingness of politicians to be bribed by lobbyists by petty things like golf games and meals and tickets to sporting events. I asked why they would do this since surely they could afford these things on their own salaries.
I was reminded of just how out of touch I am with the lifestyles of the rich and famous by the recent story of Katherine Harris, a congresswoman from Florida and now also the Republican candidate for US Senator. Political junkies may remember her as that state’s Secretary of State in 2000 and at the heart of the election shenanigans during that infamous election. It has been alleged that she was instrumental in helping George Bush win that state.
Harris’ current senate campaign has been hit by one setback after another, described as a ‘train wreck,’ with staffers abandoning it in droves. The latest scandal is a dinner that she had with a lobbyist Mitchell Wade, who was one of those who pleaded guilty to bribing Republican congressman Duke Cunningham of San Diego, who had to resign his seat and go to jail.
Apparently the dinner for Wade and Harris (paid by Wade) cost $2,800 as the Orlando Sentinel reports, and adds “House rules forbid members from accepting gifts worth $50 or more[.]“
My first reaction to this story was to question how a meal for two people could possibly cost so much. What could you possibly eat that was so expensive?
My problem in understanding was because when I think of a ‘meal’ or ‘dinner’, I think of food. I hardly ever drink alcohol and it is apparently this that can be the big ticket item. Certain wines can be really expensive and this is what apparently drove up the price.
Since I could not, for the life of me, be able to tell the difference between a bottle of wine that costs $10 and one that costs $1,000 bottle, plying me with such things would be a waste. But I wonder how many of our congresspersons can really tell the difference either? Are they simply flattered by the mere fact that someone is paying so much to please them? But if their palates could not tell them that the wine was really expensive, wouldn’t that require the briber to point out to the bribee the price of the wine in order to make the attempted bribe work? “Here, have another glass of this $2,000 wine.” Wouldn’t that be somewhat tacky?