Political Dialogue and Analysis

With just a bit less than six months before the fall elections, in one sense, I can’t wait for the elections to be over, if only to get a respite from political news and sensationalism… but even that respite isn’t likely to be very long, because politics has become not only continuing news, but something resembling a spectator sport.  And like all spectator sports, the political arena is filled with commentary.  Unlike athletic spectator sports, where the acts of the players and the results can be seen immediately, in politics the results of political actions, laws, and policies, in the vast majority of cases, can’t be discerned clearly for years, if ever.

This allows everyone to comment with “equal validity,” because very few members of the public have the knowledge of economics and politics, as well as the patience, to wait and see how things actually worked out.  Nor do most people remember what did happen accurately.  So they tend to trust the commentator whose views most nearly mirror those, not necessarily the commentator or expert who’s most likely to be right.

One of the things that appalls me the most is how both parties distort not only each others’ positions, but also employ the most inaccurate comparisons, and truly inapplicable facts and comparisons.  What makes it worse is that very few commentators or talk show hosts, or columnists, have either the ability or the nerve to suggest that such distortions are doing extreme violence to accuracy [I won’t say “the truth,” because that’s become a pseudo-religious term] and relevance.

Some of the worse offenses to such accuracy lie in the fallacious ignoring of well-known and proven facts.  For one thing, economies react slowly, often ponderously, to changes in law and policy. So like it or not, Bill Clinton got a tremendous boost from policies enacted by the first President Bush, and in turn, the first President Bush was forced to raise taxes by the policies of his predecessor, a fact gloriously ignored by those who cite the great Reagan prosperity. Admittedly, in Clinton’s case, he had enough sense to continue them when he was under pressure to change them, but the conditions for his highly praised period of expansion lay in his predecessor’s actions.  Likewise, to blame President Obama for current high unemployment and recession when those conditions were created by policies created well before his election, and when the U.S. also has to absorb economic fall-out from all across the world, is politically easy, but factually inaccurate, especially when political gridlock in Congress has restricted his ability to attack the problem in the way he would like.  But few of his critics will admit that they’re judging him as much, if not more, by Congressional inaction than by his own acts.

Comparing one economic recovery, or non-recovery, to another is not only inaccurate, but disingenuous, because the underlying factors differ greatly, yet such comparisons are a staple in the political arena, because politicians and their aides have an addiction to the simple and superficially relevant.

In addition, some factors are beyond any President, or any Congress’s, ability to change.  Oil is a fungible global economic good, and, in the short run, no change in U.S. environmental, energy, economic, or tax policy is going to measurably lower the price of crude oil in the months ahead, although the Saudi actions to flood the market with cheaper oil will likely cause a temporary respite, at least until world economic activity picks up.  Unwise government action can, as Richard Nixon proved with his ill-fated experiment with price controls, cause gasoline and heating oil shortages and increase prices in the long term.

Another problem in assessing government/political actions is determining how effective preventative actions are… or accepting the benefits while disavowing the means.  We know that the U.S. safety net for the poor has in fact historically reduced overall poverty in the United States – but which programs really work the best?  Which are failures?  Which work, but are so inefficient that they should be replaced?  How many of all the Homeland Security measures are truly necessary?   Most Americans seem to have forgotten that before the enactment of the Clean Water Act, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland actually caught fire, or that the Potomac River was actually toxic.  Or that before the enactment of the Clean Air Act, office workers in Pittsburgh often took a second white shirt to work because the first got so soot-filled by midday that it looked black and gray?  Instead of the debate being about drinkable water and breathable air, it’s become about whether environmental protection costs too much and slows or hinders job creation, and almost no commentator questions the terms of the debate.

As I’ve pointed out all too many times, there has not yet been any determination of personal accountability for the latest economic meltdown – and now we’ve had a reminder, in the recent Citibank derivatives loss/scandal, that neither Congress nor the President [either Bush or Obama] ever truly addressed the problem, but merely papered it over.  But I’ve never heard any commentator mentioning that – or attacking the corrupt culture of the financial world and those who lead it.

Instead, we get media and political emphasis on the irrelevant, the inaccurate, the inappropriate, and the inapplicable… and the worst part of it all is that it’s only going to get worse over the next six months.


4 thoughts on “Political Dialogue and Analysis”

  1. j says:

    Given the power and momentum that our troubled financial and political institutions currently have, it seems difficult to bring about a real change for the better without first undergoing a major disaster. I’m wondering though if, drawing on your long experience, you can discern a moment or series of moments in the past where our problems could have been prevented and we could have gone down a different path instead. Could a few small changes in culture or policy back in the 60s or 70s or 80s have put us on a more prosperous path, or was the current situation inevitable?

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Nobody wants starving mobs, or filthy air or water.

    But the question is not only which programs work and which don’t, but at what point will more cost and/or reduced freedom reach a point of diminishing returns in terms of bettering the human condition.

    Just the numbers for the debt and the portion of the GDP consumed by government suggest that quite a lot of programs (all of which are _someone’s_ favorites) have already gone well past that point, or are otherwise legitimate targets for elimination or modification.

    The pendulum swings. We’ve tried spending ourselves rich, and it hasn’t worked. Time to again try NOT spending so much.

  3. rehcra says:

    As the newspaper industry has deteriorated so to has Americas reliably news. I honestly don’t think any of the major sources try to keep opinion separate from facts at all.

    Right now we don’t have a reliable pay for news system set up. And if your not paying for your news source that means someone else is sponsoring it. That doesn’t necessarily mean its corrupt but it does mean that a level of integrity and responsibility the reporters held is now lost.

    Of course this point is purely opinion based and isn’t based on facts either.


  4. Tim says:

    To Rehcra. In the UK we tend to view the BBC as impartial as it is funded entirely from the mandatory licence fee levied on TV usage in Britain. The real blessing is that the are never any ads. The are also views on the perceived political bias of the channel and especially it’s news anchor men.

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