Political Common Sense that Isn’t

Now that the conventions of both political parties are over, we’re in the campaign season, filled with all sort of high-sounding political rhetoric designed to appeal to partisan prejudices on both sides. And both candidates will have, if past campaigns are any indication, proposals that seem the heart of common sense… and that are, in fact, both meaningless, irrelevant to the problems at hand, or dangerous, if not all three.

Based on my past experience, I’m going to trot out some of the ones used in the past, along with some commentary. As many of the warnings for products posted here and there state, past history is no guarantee of future performance, but I’m certain some of these will come up somewhere.

I’m going to go over the budget line-by-line and get rid of the waste in government. As an economist, I did just that for various legislators for years. The problem is that the amount of true “waste” is rather small. The number of small programs with comparatively expensive benefits for relatively small constituencies, however, is enormous… but don’t tell small local communities that libraries and community centers that serve a few hundred people at best are a waste. Don’t tell a politician trying to get re-elected that a library or building memorializing a local hero is waste. A bridge serving a thousand people who have to wait for ferries in bad weather isn’t a waste to them, even if it costs the rest of us hundreds of millions. And, of course, someone always brings up the thousand dollar aircraft toilets or the hundred dollar special hammers for the military — and almost always those are required because someone didn’t order enough of them in the original procurement and, in order to keep the scores of aircraft flying past their original design life, the replacement equipment required is far more expensive because of the limited numbers and the one-time production costs.

I’m going to reduce taxes on the hard-working middle class and make the really rich people pay their fair share. This sounds really good, but something like 40 million Americans don’t pay any federal income taxes at all, and the lowest fifty percent of taxpayers pay less than five percent, while the top ten percent pay close to seventy percent. I’m certainly not rich, as anyone who knows the trends in the publishing industry could tell, and I’d certainly like my taxes cut, but how, exactly, is increasing the taxes on those who already pay most of them “fair” when the bulk of the services go to those who aren’t paying the taxes? As a society, we’ve already accepted the idea that those who have more need to help support those who are poor and struggling. It’s necessary so that the less fortunate can gain opportunities and do not live in the grinding poverty and misery that they would otherwise face — and which, unfortunately, some still do. But, please, let’s not dignify income redistribution through taxes as “fair.” Also, practically speaking, as I’ve noted before, there’s a limit on how much one can tax “the rich” and how effective government is in addressing the root causes of poverty.

I’m going to push for a modern and efficient military, and one that will support our men and women in uniform so that they are well-equipped to deal with the challenges that face us. Right. First, an effective military is never “efficient” or “cost-effective.” An effective military needs excesses of equipment and munitions, among other things, because once a war happens, it takes years to catch up to the needs of the military. The job of a military in a representative democracy is to use force to keep other people from doing bad things to others or to us or our interests. That means having lots of a equipment in lots of places, doing lots of training with highly expensive equipment, and then when the time comes, going out and doing the mission, and generally losing and/or breaking or destroying some, if not a great deal, of that most expensive equipment, along with incurring casualties. None of that is cheap, and the missions we seem to place on our military suggest that its role will never be terribly limited… so, if any politician pushes for “efficiency,” he or she is essentially limiting capabilities and increasing the likelihood of higher future casualties — which is what has happened in every conflict we’ve been in since WWII. In practice, that means either continued high and theoretically “wasteful” spending or an overstretched and overstressed military or a much lower foreign policy profile.

We’re going to push for environmentally safe energy independence. NO form of energy is environmentally benign. Every form of energy creates pollution, somewhere along the line, whether in the manufacture of the components, the extraction of resources, the power generation process itself, or the waste products produced. The only question is what form of energy creates the least adverse environmental effect in a given situation and location. Add to that the fact that capital and development costs of such an initiative would dwarf the costs of our adventurism in the Middle East. It’s a wonderful goal, but any politician who pushes it is either ignorant of the financial and technical realities or being deliberately deceptive.

I’m going to ensure that all American children can do anything they put their minds to. This one is sneaky. It’s one thing to posit a goal for every child to achieve to the best of his or her potential, but not all of us have the talents to do everything we can conceive of, and everyone has some limits on their potential and ability, but none on their dreams. All the work and dedication in the world would not allow me to become a professional opera singer — not when I can’t tell when I’m singing on key and not when I have no sense of rhythm. People cannot do all they would like, and they never have been able to do so. Saying that they can only breeds resentment… and we have far too much of that in society today.

I’m going to go to Washington and get things done… or some variation thereof. The Founding Fathers designed our government with checks and balances and procedural delays precisely because they feared that, without them, a popular government would act in far too hasty and dangerous fashion. Our entire federal government structure is designed in a fashion to make change difficult and slow, and any politician who thinks otherwise and that he or she can change that understands neither history nor people.

I’m certain that there are other supposedly common-sense proposals for political change that really aren’t that sensible under examination, but these should do for starters.