Political “MacGuffins” Ignore Facts

David Crane
Lecturer and Research Scholar at Stanford University and President of Govern for California

Alfred Hitchcock often made use in his films of a “MacGuffin,” which according to Merriam-Webster is “an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.” (emphasis added.) The MacGuffin itself is usually irrelevant to the plot. What matters is the effect it has on the audience.

MacGuffins abound in politics. An example today is the word “billionaire,” which Bernie Sanders pronounces with the same indignation that Donald Trump pronounced the word “China” during the 2016 presidential campaign. Today, billionaires are blamed for everything from ringworm to the insolvency of public school districts and more.

Most susceptible to the power of political MacGuffins are audiences that struggle with math. The “billionaire” MacGuffin is a good example. According to Forbes, the US has 540 billionaires with a total net worth of $2.4 trillion. That’s a lot of money   but it’s only 2 percent of the $108 trillion the Federal Reserve estimates is the aggregate net worth of US households. Spreading all the wealth owned by all US billionaires among the US population would add next to nothing to the net worth of any individual American. Neither would it meaningfully assist government spending.

The State of California alone spends as much in a single year as signers of the Giving Pledge commit to give away in their lifetimes. Every year California alone spends twice as much on K-12 education as the Gates Foundation holds in its endowment.

Another example is outrage over “spiked” (extra-large) pensions for a few retired local government employees. Articles about such pensions inflame citizen passions but fail to point out that eliminating every such spiked pension would have next to no impact on the overall pension problem. That’s because the pension problem is largely caused by a deliberate failure by elected officials to adequately pre-fund pension promises, not by the size of individual pensions.

Few subjects are more often the subject of political MacGuffins in California than charter schools, which are public schools that operate with freedom from some of the regulations imposed upon traditional schools. According to the United Teachers of Los Angeles, charters are chiefly responsible for Los Angeles Unified School District’s financial problems. But UTLA’s own math shows that’s not the case. According to UTLA, LAUSD will spend $591 million on charter schools this year. In comparison, LAUSD will spend nearly $1 billion this year on retirement costs. The money spent on charter schools serves 138,000 children. The money spent on retirement costs serves no children. Which item is more responsible for LAUSD’s financial problems?

Political MacGuffins will never disappear. They are too valuable to politicians and special interests. Citizens must drill down and know the facts.

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