gimme-five | The blog of a busy guy.

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Faking the Issues

Generally, candidates for any election in the United States do quite a bit of pandering.  And generally, the pandering they do is a wholly illegitimate take on a given issue.  One such issue that strikes me in particular is free trade.  Politicians regularly attack free trade by claiming that trade takes away jobs from Americans, and that it is bad for the country, etcetera.  They do so even though virtually 100% of economists agree that free trade helps a lot more than it hurts.  Yet, somehow, politicians get votes by bashing free trade.

My question is: how in the world is this strategy successful?  For instance, during the nasty Obama-Clinton primary debates, both candidates continually tried to one-up each other by bashing free trade.  Obama is now backpedaling on that issue for the general election, which indicates he was probably just trying to pander during the primary.  If that is the case, then why would he not respond to Clinton’s anti-free-trade rhetoric with: “Your assertions are wrong.  All economists disagree with you.  Economists are trained to know whether free trade is good or bad.  Would you want a professional bowler to act as your doctor when a doctor says the bowler is wrong?  No.  Would you want a doctor doing your taxes when a tax professional says the doctor is wrong?  No.  Would you want Joe Schmo down the street telling you how to set trade policy when all economists say he is wrong?  Hell no.”

Or, better yet, he could explain why economists think trade is so great.  He could explain that, yes, indeed, there are some downsides to trade, but the upsides are much greater.  He could explain the concept of comparative advantage once explained by David Ricardo and the basic idea of the source of wealth from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  It would be a glorious moment for Mr. Obama and the entire country.  It would be a rare occasion when a politician actually explained the pros and cons of an issue in a debate, and then explained why his side prevailed.  It would not be the generic politician’s response to a question: say something incomprehensible and then throw as many buzz words and campaign slogans out to the crowd as possible.  And significantly, it would require the opposing candidate to respond in a substantive manner.

How would someone respond to a clear argument about the benefits of free trade, an argument supported by an entire profession, followed by the question: if you disagree, please explain why?

If two candidates were in a debate, with one candidate pro-trade and the other anti-trade, and the pro-trade candidate explained the benefits of trade and uttered the “explain why” question, it would be a glorious moment of awakening in this country for several reasons.  First, everyone watching the debate would learn about free trade – a topic most Americans are ignorant about.  Secondly, it would be a rare occasion when a politicians in a major election actually debated the pros and cons of an issue rather than uttering buzz words and catch phrases to pander to whom he or she hopes is the majority voter.  Finally, the candidate willing to actually debate the facts of an issue would likely be one of the smartest, most candid, and best candidates the country has seen for a long time.

The cynic in me says this would never work.  The cynic in me says that Americans are too stupid to listen to real pros and cons of issues and figure out their own opinions – that is why buzz words and catch phrases at debates work so well.  The cynic in me says that Americans would rather hear “I’ll get the government out of your pockets” than “A study by this prominent professor shows that tax structure X is better than tax structure Y.”

But I believe that this country is smart enough for real facts to come to surface in major political debates.  Back in the revolutionary era, our founding fathers had nowhere near the kind of education that Americans have today.  Even the worst educational systems in America today are miles ahead of anything our founding fathers had.  Yet our founding fathers debated serious issues in politics, and people were very interested in knowing the cold hard facts.  I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that politicians in those days treated the voters with respect.  They didn’t try to pander the way politicians do today – they debated the theories of Locke and Montesquieu and argued passionately and intelligently.  Regular citizens regularly read what the prominent politicians had to say and often wrote to the papers to voice their opinions.  There are plenty of people out there today that would do the same, if today’s politicians would treat them like adults and argue the issues, rather than trying to argue using empty dialect.

This article is not an endorsement of either Barack Obama or John McCain.

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Apparently, one of Barack Obama’s largest political liabilities is that 15% of voters think he is a Muslim, and do not feel comfortable voting for a Muslim (AP-Yahoo Poll Conducted April 2-14) (some polls say 10%).  Notwithstanding that it is a bit crazy to think someone who just publicly dealt with his connections to a crazy Christian pastor is Muslim, it disturbs me that 15% of the country would not vote for a candidate because he is a Muslim.  Isn’t it racist to not vote for someone because he practices a particular religion?  I do not see any other way to describe these attitudes.  Isn’t the Jim Crow era over?  Haven’t we moved on?  Apparently not, for 15% of the country.

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Please note: This is not an endorsement of Barack Obama.

I’m tired of hearing the argument from Clinton and now McCain that you should not vote for Barack Obama because he lacks “experience.”  The argument is simply not persuasive.

This argument assumes that the more time you spend being a politician, the more fit you are to act as President.  I don’t buy it.  In fact, because of the nature of politics in this country, often politicians become less fit to act as President the longer they are involved in politics.

To be successful in American politics, one must be willing to do what it takes to make and keep powerful friends.  These friends can be interest groups, individual businesses, fellow politicians, political parties, or many other entities.  These friends can provide a politician with a needed vote, verbal support, or, often most importantly, money.  But there is no such thing as a free lunch.  If a politician wants to make and keep these powerful friends, he or she needs to give something in return.  Often it is a vote or a series of votes in return.

The problem is, the longer one wants to stay in office, the more loyalties he or she has to build to others to have the money and support necessary to be re-elected.  The word loyalty in this context does not have a positive connotation.  The only loyalty politicians should have is to their constituents as a whole and the country, not a particular constituent or entity or fellow politician.

So when someone gets elected President who has all of this “loyalty baggage,” he or she can face a difficult choice between proceeding in a manner which helps out the country as a whole or hurts the country in favor of one of his powerful friends.   I would rather see someone in office with less loyalty baggage, so I know there is less of a chance that his or her decisions are motivated by a particular someone or something rather than the national interest.

The “experience” argument also assumes that one can appropriately prepare to be President by serving as a national politician.  I disagree – at best it is marginal preparation.  The job of President of the United States of America carries exponentially more responsibility than any other job anyone in this country could ever have.  Serving as a national politician has far less individual responsibility and is under far less national scrutiny.

The best one can hope for with a President is that they are extremely smart and willing to work hard.  Obama, at least, was president of Harvard Law Review.  I can speak from experience that law school is extremely hard work, and the fact that Obama was president of Harvard’s law review is extremely impressive.  Sure, perhaps he does not have the experience scratching backs that Hillary and McCain do, but I find that irrelevant, if not a positive for Obama.

Aside & Rant: I have no idea who I am going to vote for in the national election.  Policy-wise, these candidates are all over the place for me, and I can’t pick one whom I fully support.  I cast my vote in the Virginia primary recently, and although at the time I felt a bit emotional at the power of voting, right now I’m not extremely enthusiastic about anyone.  I think I’m going to write in Greg Mankiw for president.

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I don’t know what I think about John McCain as a presidential candidate. However, I applaud his record on earmarks:

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the likely GOP presidential nominee, was one of five senators to reject earmarks entirely, part of his long-standing view that such measures prompt needless spending. (Source)

No, this is far from a make or break statistic on whom one should vote for, but it’s certainly a positive on McCain’s side in my opinion.

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American politics today has gone so far from what the founding fathers desired.  To be politically charged in the past was all about passionately advocating ideas and informing one’s self about the state of the nation.  Today, people who watch the news on TV are plenty informed – about statistics.

When I turn on the news if I’m running on a treadmill or taking a break from studying – it’s always the same: “so-and-so has momentum here;” “this state is more likely to vote for a woman;” “study shows 56% of people like good candidates.”

I would wager today that a good chunk of the US population that claims they support a particular political candidate today has absolutely no idea why they do.  This is because most Americans get their political news from the TV, and talk about the issues on TV is rare.  You can go a full hour on CNN without actually hearing about what a candidate stands for, even though you know the percentage of independent voters that need to turn out in state Z for him to win.

And the debates are similar.  The candidates vaguely dance around like they’re going to talk about something substantive but it always just ends up being a slugfest about whether or not someone is running a negative advertising campaign, is black, is female, is Mormon, “has experience,” etcetera.  Sure, candidates will mention that they’re “pro-economy,” or “pro-middle class” or “religious,” but what does that entail?  When will a candidate just step to the floor and give a cost-benefit analysis of his position?  Tell me what you stand for – tell me why – and tell me how it will help the country.  Is that too much to ask?

I’m sick of hearing about race, gender, sexual preference, and religion when it comes to selecting a presidential candidate.  Bring me ideas – show me you are smart – be awesome!  Is that too much to ask from a candidate for the Presidency of the United States of America?

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