There are many things to dislike about American politics, but possibly my least favorite is the degree to which we’ve completely given up on solving problems, and spend time debating solutions to the symptoms. Even during an election year, when there’s no scarcity of big talk, our politicians are largely still unwilling to talk about problems – only symptoms.
Some recent examples:
There is no shortage of debate about paying for healthcare. There is a very serious shortage of debate around why healthcare is so expensive. There is considerable work that could be done to lower the cost of providing health care and all we’re doing in this election year is assuming the cost is fixed, and fighting about how to pay for it.
Paying for Higher Education
Similar to heath care, this is another case where we assume costs are fixed. However what upsets me the most about this discussion, which also made it’s way into the State of the Union Address, is that we continue to frame it as a conversation about Federal Student Loans. It is absolutely mind-boggling, in the wake of the housing crisis, that someone can make the logical argument that inexpensive, low-interest rate loans keeps costs down. Some (non-politicians) are calling it a Higher Education Bubble. Even if you disagree that the ROI on a college degree is decreasing (that is, what students get out of it is not increasing proportionate to the cost) it is undeniable that making money cheaper drives prices up. Giving students access to cheap money makes it easier for institutions to raise prices. This fact also got a nod in the State of the Union, but it’s been happening for decades and it would be blasphemous for a politician to suggest that the government should subsidize less. No one is talking about the cause of high tuition. They’re only trying to solve the symptom.
The president called this “the defining issue of our time” and history will regard it as the central argument of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On this issue I’ve heard some discussion on the causes, but by and large even this argument degrades into one about taxation. That is, after the income is already unequal, how do we re-equalize it? Unfortunately this problem is actually really hard, and an across-the-board AMT-style tax like was mentioned in the speech is completely unrelated to the root cause. I don’t believe most Americans #1 issue is income inequality, it’s mobility – their ability to advance (we’re all “temporarily embarrassed millionaires“) which would mean that the conversation has almost no connection to the problem.
These are just a few of the most recent hot topics for which there’s no solution in sight… because the problem is not part of the conversation.
I’ve always found C-SPAN interesting, but not engaging enough to sit down and watch most times. Occasionally they’ll have a good show on, but often they’ll just show live footage of the House or Senate which can be pretty slow.
Yesterday it occurred to me that I could stream it at work and listen while I worked, which I did all day. It was interesting, and worth doing again. Among the things I heard:
- One congresswoman reading from a Dr. Seuss book, and explaining how important reading is. It was the National Education Association’s Read Across America day.
- The White House Daily Briefing with Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. This time was spent in part with him answering questions about recent comments from Jim Cramer (who said Obama has caused “the greatest wealth destruction I have seen by a president.”) and recent comments from Rush Limbaugh. There were also a number of questions which could be paraphrased as “Obama said [insert vague statement here] about the economy, what precisely [did he mean / will he do] about about that?” which were largely answered by some degree of clarification, and usually some promise about him releasing more details soon.
- There was a fairly lengthy debate about re-authorizing the “Civil War Battlefield Preservation Act” which from what I gathered is some spending bill regarding battlefields in the South.
- There was some discussion of the economy taking place, but I don’t know under what context (that is, I don’t know if the legislators were voting on something.) I was amazed at the lack of depth in discourse. People were just re-iterating soundbites such as “Socialism is great until you run out of other people’s money.” Not so much a debate as a battle of catchphrases.
I’m currently listening to a debate as to whether or not March should be considered “National Criminal Awareness Month”. And, I’m not joking, Rep Zoe Lofgren from California just said that it would help make Americans more aware of how harmful crime is.
It’s eye-opening to see how congress spends it’s time, and how they conduct themselves. I’m hoping that if I listen enough I’ll have a better understanding of how things work there. At present I cannot understand why someone would stand up and read from “Oh the places you’ll go.” I’m not trying to be critical, I genuinely don’t understand why.
In every election I
throw my vote away vote for change by voting for the person who most closely resembles my political ideology, which has thus far always been the Libertarian candidate. It doesn’t much matter that I’m not helping influence the decision between the two major/viable candidates, because they are always so much the same. This year I’ve been especially amazed by the degree to which people have played up the “change” that’s coming to Washington.
It’s a great story, but I don’t believe it holds up to scrutiny. At least, this is what I know:
Although this isn’t nearly as interesting as Instant Runoff Voting, it’s still cool to see that Washington is adopting a mechanism of voting that was favored by the people, and opposed by political parties.
I enjoy almost every essay that Paul Graham writes, and his recent one on wealth was no exception. He sounds quite libertarian… the speech is reminiscent of Francisco D’Anconia’s money speech in Atlas Shrugged. A few highlights:
People like baseball more than poetry, so baseball players make more than poets. To say that a certain kind of work is underpaid is thus identical with saying that people want the wrong things.
With the rise of the middle class, wealth stopped being a zero-sum game. Jobs and Wozniak didn’t have to make us poor to make themselves rich. Quite the opposite: they created things that made our lives materially richer. They had to, or we wouldn’t have paid for them.
In the section titled “The Lever of Technology” he uses a number of examples to make an interesting point. When people talk about “the gap” between the “middle class” and the rich, they’re usually talking about income. However, there are other gaps that are much smaller than they used to be, especially general lifestyle attributes (cars are cheap/available, etc).
According to CNET, Libertarian candidates have the best websites in terms of compliance with web standards.
It’s all going according to plan:
- Make standards-compliant websites.
- Win elections!
Last night there was a debate between 3 of the candidates for Senator in Washington state – they put the full debate online here. I enjoyed it, mainly because for once a Libertarian candidate was able to put together enough money to get into a televised debate alongsinde a Democrat and a Republican. Bruce Guthrie had to mortgage his house and donate that money to his campaign in order to meet the criteria for inclusion.
To my surprise, he didn’t come off as sounding crazy, like so many Libertarians do. He approached the issues fairly moderately, effectively saying we’d take steps to gradually move towards Libertarian ideals (decriminializing drugs, lowering spending, etc). He appeared a little nervous and not as polished, but I was still impressed. He called out both Democrats and Republicans for their failures – both being big spenders, playing politics with every issue, etc. He joked that rather than testing people on welfare for drugs and alcohol (as McGavick wants) they should be testing congressmen.
From one article:
But if anyone “won” the televised exchange — Cantwell’s and McGavick’s second and final formal debate — it was a third candidate, Libertarian Bruce Guthrie, just by being there.
I was flipping through the channels on Sunday and stumbled upon a tape of the recent Libertarian Party Convention in Portland, OR. They were showing a speech by Andrew Neil of the BBC. One of the interesting points he’d made, which I’d never considered, dealt with a common conclusion people make in elections with low voter turnout.
In the UK they went through a period of declining voter turnout during elections. It caused many to conclude and report that people aren’t interested in politics or social issues. Simultaneously (and unceremoniously), membership in various social groups and charities was on a rise all around the UK. He went through some numbers, many of which were quite dramatic. The point he was making was that election turnout isn’t a reliable indicator as to how much people care about their country, their fellow man, or how involved people are in their societies. His hypothesis is that people don’t participate in national elections because they don’t feel like they’re incredibly affected by the outcome. They involve themselves in areas that they care strongly about, and where they believe they will really be able to influence change.
Speaking at the Libertarian convention, he of course regarded this as a good thing. A population that doesn’t regard the federal government as a provider of everything they need, and a solver of all of the nation’s problems, demonstrates strong libertarian tendencies.
I don’t watch either The Colbert Report or The Daily Show religiously, but I catch them from time to time. Last night they both happened to be on while I was in the gym, although I was only half paying attention (I was watching an episode of Lost on the ipod). The bits I did catch confirmed this sneaking feeling I’ve had in what I’d seen of each show recently. I think The Colbert Report is funnier. I did a quick search to see if people are actually comparing these shows head to head, and it looks like others agree with me. At the very least, it seems like it’s become popular to compare the two shows.
This article isn’t great, but it’s still fairly interesting to read someone criticizing the flat tax idea as something that’s not radical enough. The only reason I felt the article was blogworthy were a number of points/quotations made near the beginning.
The US tax code — with its “nine million word mountain of verbiage” — is so complex and “littered with impenetrable passages” that a fictional tax return given by Money magazine to forty-five tax preparers resulted in forty-five different calculations of the correct amount of tax due. This is not surprising since IRS employees (Forbes says that there are 97,440 of them) don’t even give the same answers to tax questions. Forbes mentions a 2003 Treasury Department study which found that callers to the IRS toll-free help lines “gave the wrong answers to tax-related questions more than 25 percent of the time.”
Regardless of one’s take on an appropriate level of taxation, I’d assume most people agree the current tax system is amazingly screwed up. Stats like that are almost unsurprising.