Does truth get more difficult the smarter you are?
On August 17, 1998, President Bill Clinton told a Washington grand jury, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is....[I]f 'is' means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement."
He was trying to explain why he had allowed his attorney to tell a judge he hadn't had sex with a White House intern when he had.
On March 22, 2009, The Dallas Morning News quoted Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert as saying, "I asked then and I keep asking, 'Is there anything that at this point in time would keep us from crossing the goal line?' Their answer is no."
Leppert was trying to explain why he had told voters two years earlier that federal officials had "signed off" on safety issues in a major public works project when, in fact, they had not.
The Dallas May 9 referendum on a city-owned convention hotel, as Sam Merten explained in our cover story last week "Who Do You Trust?," has become a referendum on Mayor Leppert's honesty. Is he a truth-teller? Or a liar?
The mayor goes before audiences every day and vows the hotel project is all good: Construction costs will be within the half-billion-dollar estimate; the hotel will make its ambitious revenue numbers; the city will bask in black ink for decades with new revenue the hotel will bring Dallas in increased convention trade.
In ads and debates, however, opponents of the hotel point out that Leppert's word has been less than golden on similar issues in the past. This is the same man, after all, who vowed to voters before the 2007 referendum on the Trinity River Project that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had "signed off" on all of the important safety and engineering issues associated with building a high-speed, limited-access highway between levees along the Trinity River where flooding occurs on a biennial basis.
Leppert also told voters he had spoken personally with the North Texas Tollway Authority and was "very comfortable" that the NTTA would fund the entire cost of the road above and beyond the city's modest share.
Leppert also based his advertising campaign on a claim that changing the alignment of the toll road—moving it outside the levees—would "send a billion dollars down the river" in lost cost-sharing from other agencies.
All three of those claims turned out to be false. The Corps of Engineers had signed off on nothing. The NTTA had promised nothing. There was no billion dollars at stake.
Three major untruths, three explicit declarative promises made to voters in exchange for their votes, all false.
But in a column by business writer Cheryl Hall in last week's Morning News, Dallas oil and real estate tycoon Ray Hunt voiced anger at the anti-hotel forces who have questioned Leppert's honesty.
"This is an attack against the office of mayor," Hunt told Hall. "The mayor is being punished because he disagrees with the opposition on a legitimate civic issue. That's unacceptable."
The subtext in Hall's column was that almost all of the city's business and social leaders, with very few exceptions, support the hotel and support Leppert. The suggestion—identical to the claim made during the Trinity River toll road campaign two years ago—is that not everybody in business and social leadership in the city can be a liar. Not everybody!
It's a powerful argument, with an equally devastating obverse. In order to believe that everybody in leadership is a liar, wouldn't you have to be a tinfoil-hat-wearing, self-mumbling paranoiac? Isn't it sort of crazy to imagine that it's all one vast conspiracy?
That's why I was so fascinated by an academic article recommended to me last week by community activist and political consultant Lorlee Bartos. Called "Delusion and Deception in Large Infrastructure Projects" in the winter edition of California Management Review, it's a study explaining exactly how and why everybody involved in a big project can be a fool, a liar or both. And to explain it you don't have to invoke anything tantamount to a real conspiracy.
It's more like human nature.
The study's three authors, business professors at the University of Oxford, University of Sydney and the University of Western Australia, start out with three global truths that seem to apply equally to all cultures all over the world. 1) Most people love their mothers. 2) Almost all people are afraid of large predators. 3) "...across the globe, large infrastructure projects almost invariably arrive late, over-budget and fail to perform up to expectations."
The authors cite three flamboyantly disastrous examples. One was a German project in 2003 called Toll Collect that wound up losing so much money in toll road collections—a quarter of a billion dollars a month—that Germany had to put its entire national highway program in mothballs until the Toll Collect project was fixed.