Perception, Proof, Prevention, Public Policy

“Perception does not make fact,” said Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy.

Except when it does.

Mayor Piercy wrestled aloud whether she would support extending the Downtown Exclusion Zone for another two years, as requested by Chief of Police Pete Kerns.

The complete quotation, as recorded by Register-Guard reporter Edward Russo, shows the complexity of the mayor’s thought. “I agree there is a perception by some that with the (exclusion zone) the downtown is safer. And I agree that there is also a perception by some that the city is unfairly targeting individuals in the (exclusion zone) who are hanging around downtown and are not committing serious offenses. Perception does not make fact.”

Piercy voted to prolong the 20-block zone in modified form for another year. A citizen panel in the meantime will look into ways to end the zone in late 2013 or lessen its impact on civil liberties.

Eugene City Councilor Alan Zelenka voted against continuing the exclusion zone, noting there is “absolutely no proof” that the tool has made the area safer.

Last week I asked readers to consider the Impossible Hamster. Continuing what must be Mythical Cute Critters Month on the opinion page, I direct your attention to what logicians call the Black Swan. You cannot disprove the existence of a black swan without displaying every swan and showing that not one of them is black.

Lining up every swan would be easier than proving that a preventative measure has worked. If it did work, the “proof” is in what didn’t happen. If you care to count all the things that didn’t happen, simply count all the things that could have happened, then subtract the number that did. It would be a big number, especially when you consider the possibilities imagined of every person involved.

Did somebody, somewhere inside the exclusion zone over the past four years, plan to do some bad thing and then reconsider because of the additional or immediate penalties he or she might incur? Almost certainly.

Did somebody over the last four years decide to meet a friend for coffee or lunch downtown, when they would have chosen differently five years ago? Almost certainly.

But neither rises to the level of proof, settling in at the lower level of what Zelenka acknowledged as “anecdotal evidence.”

Fair enough, but consider this. We want to pay as little as possible for government services. We expect public employees to do more with less. So why wouldn’t we applaud a proposal that offers an ounce of prevention?

Because a pound of cure cannot easily be distinguished from a pound of flesh. No American should ever have to prove they’re not going to do some bad thing, but airline and federal building procedures stand as our admission that we have lost that battle.

Perceptions do make fact, all the time.

When unemployment rates are heading down, businesses increase their hiring, even before the data has impacted them directly. Perception of hiring makes a fact of hiring.

So last Friday, HBO comedian and Democratic id Bill Maher accused the Republicans of “borderline treason” when they refused to accept the government’s unemployment calculations when the rate dropped from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent.

He said what others can only think. President Obama’s opponents appeared willing to thwart any optimism that lower jobless rates would produce. If their actions succeed, those altered perceptions would — in fact — slow the nation’s economic recovery.

Obamacare seeks to change perceptions, which will then change facts. Insurance and assurance can be a distinction without a difference.

Once uninsured Americans stop fearing that a heart palpitation could lead to foreclosure because of unpaid medical bills, they’ll be less likely to avoid preventative care. The greatest value of any safety net is for all the people who never use it, but who are reassured that it is there, in case they need it.

The downtown exclusion zone has been a safety net for workers and diners and investors and employers. They consider downtown less risky because of it. How to prevent this safety net from being a dragnet is the important work that lies ahead.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.