A picture is (almost) worth $1.9 trillion.
Why so big? I trace it to three things:
- No politician ever wants to raise taxes. When’s the last time voters wanted to pay more in taxes? This is the most basic pitfall of liberal politics and politicians who have to find ways to defend or structure their tax proposals as “falling only on the rich/companies/lawyers/bad doctors/immigrants/[some other unpopular target group]”.
- No politician ever wants to cut programs. After all, every program/spending outlay has at least one big, well-funded fan. This is the most basic pitfall of conservative politics and politicians who have resorted to arguing that some programs are “wasteful” or “expensive or “bureaucratic” or “unnecessary”.
- Politicians aren’t rewarded for the state of the government years after their term. You don’t ever see a politician seriously campaigning on “I know my proposals are hurting your wallet today, but I swear, in 20 years, the economy and the budget will be awesome.”
So, liberal politicians fight a little less hard when Congress/the President/local governments cut/stem the rise in taxes, and conservative politicians fight a little less hard when Congress/the President/local governments spend more money on new programs, resulting in a (generally) growing budget deficit (depending on the rate of economic growth). And, depending on who controls the Executive/Legislative branches, one party will complain a little more loudly about the national budget deficit – at least until the parties switch positions of authority.
After all, does anyone remember when the Democratic Party (accurately) accused the Bush administration/Republican Party for causing record-high budget deficits, and the Republicans argued that budget deficits were necessary during a recession and could be controlled in the future? Funny how that’s changed more recently…
Now, before someone gets angry at me for attacking their favorite politician/policy proposal/political party, let me make it clear that this is not meant to criticize a particular politician or policy proposal. This is a criticism of a democracy where voters don’t want to engage in actual policy debate and are content with “debates” which amount to little more than liberals hurling “why do you hate the poor/minorities/the environment/healthcare” insults at conservatives and conservatives hurling “why do you love hurting businesses/taxing the American people/wasting taxpayer dollars” insults at liberals. This is a “debate” which has no purpose from an “intellectual” perspective (do you learn anything from hearing two politicians rip into each other with three-second soundbytes?) or from the perspective that a democracy ought to be formulating the best policy by combining the best ideas from the people (so if liberals love wasting taxpayer dollars and conservatives hate healthcare, what does that mean we do about expanding healthcare coverage?).
It is not sufficient to hear “this bill will give every American healthcare”. We must aspire to hear “this bill which costs $XX billion aims to give every American healthcare; it does so by doing A, which impacts proposals B and C, and limits our ability to spend money on the War on [Drugs/Terror/Juvenile Delinquency/Swine Flu]”. And until the public hears that type of information from policymakers, they are merely blind passengers on a car that someone else is driving.
So where does that leave us? I see three ways forward:
- The public needs to demand more from their politicians and the press. Mainly, less soundbytes/talking points, more discussion of tradeoffs, numbers, and consequences.
- Education in statistics and basic policy analysis needs to be introduced in high school. Governments lie, numbers don’t. But you can’t have a government by the people when said people have no idea how to look at numbers.
- People should capitalize on the fact that policy wonk/wonk-lites of all political persuasions now blog and use the internet as a medium to engage in much more productive debate and discussion than traditional media outlets allow. People like Megan McArdle, Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, Gary Becker & Richard Posner, and Tyler Cowen (among many others) maintain blogs which provide insightful commentary on the big policy debates/discussions of the day. They, of course, each have their own biases and perspectives to sort out (and what better way than to read other bloggers with dissenting opinions?), but the point is there is a way to get better information and insight than what the media currently provides and the public would be remiss to not use it.
Here’s hoping for that day when political soundbytes become a thing of the past…