August 08, 2011

Awhile back, I wrote about some of my frustrations with the way our political parties go back and forth across their perceived spectrums without actually saying much. The conclusion - that very rich people can and do buy political power - could be construed as conspiracy-theoretic. I think it’s more of a sad sarcasm about the difference between most of the population and the people that play politics.

But the politicians need most of the population. Literally. The notion of democracy suggests that the politicians, at least temporarily, have the ear of the majority. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but let me rattle off some facts about the majority, as presented by some statistics about the median American (the difference between a majority and an average is significant, but is reasonable here):

  • $46,000 salary
  • 2.7 hours of TV per day
  • $18,000 in total savings (retirement too)
  • $5,100 in credit card debt
  • 85% have a high school degree, only 27% have a college degree

These are averages of course, and statistics can be difficult to deal with. Nevertheless, let us compare these to averages across Congress:

  • $175,000-$220,000 salary
  • $920,000 average net worth
  • 237 are millionaires
  • 95% have college degrees, somewhere around 70% have advanced degrees

These are not the same segments of the population, and that’s fine by me. To put it more bluntly, the average American has a very average education, almost no savings for retirement, a huge amount of debt compared to their salary and likes very much to soak up TV on their couch. Congressional members, on the other hand, are very well educated and reasoned people who are typically set financially for life and have no time or effort to waste on boring hobbies like TV. So why does the one group try so desperately to mollify the other? And why do they also insist on the myth that they are just like the average American? If they were, I wouldn’t elect them.

I realized recently that this single problem is my whole issue with politics today. It was this comment of Obama’s that did it; he said, “I’m not going to remove these energy investments when so many taxpaying citizens are feeling pain at the [gas] pump.”.
He was defending some government “investments” (spending) that the Republicans wanted gone as part of the debate over raising the debt ceiling.

There are three problems with this statement:

  1. The two things have nothing to do with each other.
  2. Obama knows it.
  3. His audience (largely) doesn’t.

This is called pandering, and it’s loathsome standard practice, and has been around as long as government. TV, radio, and media only make it worse.

NPR also recently had a small forum on the chances of Jon Huntsman, the recently announced Republican candidate from Utah. They all agreed that, although Huntsman might be the most popular and likable in a general election, he first had to navigate the Republican waters to achieve the nomination. In other words, he had pander to a specific political base before re-aligning himself to pander to the country at large. There’s a good possibility Obama could be a one-term president, he certainly isn’t going to enter this election year looking great, so I couldn’t believe the Republicans would hamstring a nomination at all.

But unfortunately, to get the nomination of a party the morass of the RNC or DNC must be assuaged. Candidates must be sufficiently aligned with the party line to be in line for the seat. Just ask Joe Lieberman.

Pandering is, by definition, the act of debasing a particular issue into an easily readable scale for a general audience. The audience isn’t always the entire population; as we’ve seen it can be the party bases, or perhaps even smaller segments too.

For well-reasoned political discourse, this is the exact opposite of what should happen. Our elected leaders are just that - our leaders. They are the cream of the crop: independently successful, highly educated and charismatic. Instead of coming down to our average level, shouldn’t they be helping to illuminate the nature of the debate for us?

This is an achievable goal. If it wasn’t, maybe democracy wouldn’t be such a beautiful ideal. Here are a couple of thoughts that could help.

Beware one-dimensional spectrums

Liberal----Conservative. Rich----Poor. Green----Greedy. These labels almost always have no meaning for one very good reason. They are totally subjective. No matter where the observer sits on the spectrum, the labels mean the people to their right for one label and the people to their left for the other. I call this the Highway Test, because speed on the highway is another example of a one-dimensional spectrum. A lot of people think that anyone going faster than them on the highway is a maniac but anyone going slower is stopping up traffic and needs to get over a lane. Your perspective is 100% subjective, since you don’t always go the perfect speed either, and your assumptions mean you have no idea what you’re talking about. If you have this reaction on the highway, I’m sorry, you’re probably not the best driver, or at the least you can’t look at a situation very objectively.

Taxes are an example of this in the public realm. Democrats like more taxes and Republicans like less, right? Which taxes? Corporate income tax or individual income tax? Corporate deductions or subsidies? What about mulitnational corporations based in the US? Multinationals based outside the US? More taxes or less deductions? More complicated or more general? Value Added taxes or sales tax or real estate tax or gas tax or state tax? What about the effect of taxes on inflation? On government spending? On the bond market? How does the Federal Reserve act? Are the projections based on totals or baseline? On law or policy?

Taxes aren’t one-dimensional, despite sound bytes. Beware anything that seems one-dimensional. If it is, you probably don’t have the whole picture yet.

Open Government

One of the reasons subjects become one-dimensional is that both politicians and media push them into easily consumable snippets. There’s definitely no quick solution for this, but there is an easy, if long, path to success: learn the issues. Fight partisanship with knowledge. An informed public is one who can see through a politician’s veil (or CNN or Fox News’ veil for that matter), who can understand the underlying principles and reason about them. After all, isn’t an informed vote the original reason for public education in our country?

But beyond education, the public needs help in understanding the principles of politicians. We need more open-source government and more non-partisan sources. OpenCongress and OpenSecrets and FiveThirtyEight and CSPAN (yes, CSPAN) do wonders for understanding both the issues that politicians debate, how they debate them, and how they deal with them. The closer you get to primary sources, the more complete your picture.

On a related note, I only get news from two real sources: Hacker News and Google News. I don’t ever watch TV news, it’s dreadful and a complete waste of time. Google News is developed algorithmically to have a listing of the most recent and most important news in the world. Meanwhile, Hacker News is a social news aggregator site catering to a fairly narrow and nerdy mindshare, which is exactly what keeps it so interesting. The percentage of links of interest to me on Hacker News far outweighs the front page of any news site or even a more general aggregator site like Digg or Reddit.

The one thing that’s missing from news is slow news. The instant consumption of everything today from Twitter, TV, Facebook and Google leaves a huge hole for a very neutral and factual site that describes what happened after it happened. For example, to better understand the debt ceiling and budget comedy in Congress, I turned to an excellent EconTalk podcast with Keith Hennessey that explained the whole thing. The minimum delay for a topic on this news site would be one week after something happens. The coverage would be extensive and would focus on emphatically not spinning the story. It would also include lots of factual information that people tend to miss, for example the USGS map of recent earthquakes around the world and long term weather patterns. If I built this thing, I’d actually call it SlowNews. The closest thing I’ve found so far is the right hand column of the main Wikipedia page.

Long Term Thinking

When Kennedy announced that NASA would take a person to the moon, he was thinking ten years out and beyond his own presidency. When Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he was thinking far beyond the political landscape of 1803. These sorts of visionaries seem to have left our public offices. At the very least, we the public don’t hear much about their visions if they exist.

We need this long term vision. Instead of arguing about wanting to get rid of Social Security and Medicare, we need to talk realistically about what they will look like in 20 or 40 years. They cannot continue forever at current levels, especially with the Baby Boomers coming into play. Instead of pandering for the senior vote now, I’d love to hear more about taking care of the seniors 20 years from now.

We need to face these issues as long term challenges rather than short term myopic fixes that span election terms. Imagine what we could do with 50 years for the environment, for energy, and for wealth. We will likely continue to do better than we do now, but wouldn’t it be great to optimize? This is not a call for central planning, but for honest and long-term thinking.


The reason both sides pander for the senior contingent is because they vote. They have quite a voting block. And politicians, more than anything else it seems, want your vote. Warren Buffet had a great quote about the deficit a couple weeks ago:

I could end the deficit in 5 minutes. You just pass a law that says that anytime there is 
a deficit of more than 3% of GDP all sitting members of congress are ineligible for reelection.”  

Maybe that’s not such a bad idea. Our elected politicians are there to show us the path forward, not perpetuate their position. If they’re not doing the job, let’s ditch them. I’ve been reading recently about Vickrey auctions and how they’ve been used by Google and others to raise efficacy standards for both buyers and sellers. We’ve relied on the very first pass at incumbency and elections for a long time. What would a second pass look like? (If anyone has any resources, I would love to understand more about how incumbency affects the political process and how it might change in the future.)

Congress should raise the bar, not drop down into averages and mediocrity.

Some stat sources:

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