Blaise Pascal, PenseĆ© 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

Pity the Poor American Voter

Pity the American voter, trying to make sense out of an election that is mainly about the economy. Most of us have no education in macro-economics; those of us who have some, may have picked up a few classes in college. (I had three: macro, micro, and investing.) We have experience with our own household budgets and we try to extrapolate from that. We have the experience of participating in the U. S. economy for however many years we’ve been American citizens, in my case, 60. Some of us have experiences in running our own businesses. Most of us are employed by others, in my case, the state of California, under whose tutelage I have learned nothing about fiscal responsibility except by negative example.

We quite rightfully distrust politicians and editorialists from both parties, each of which tell us radically different stories. American politics, as Ross Douthat accurately describes it, has large elements of messianic and apocalyptic religion. We are always portrayed as being on the brink of catastrophe: economic collapse, climatic disaster, energy exhaustion and blackmail, terrorist attack. That’s the apocalyptic. Each party offers a messiah to deal with the problems while demonizing its opponent. Each party offers up startlingly different views of reality. Fact checkers check fact checkers in a never-ending Google-powered daisy-chain. We have access to more information, and more noise, than ever before, and the truth seems harder to find. And who has the time to dig around on Google for hours a day just to get at the facts about the issues, let a lone digest and evaluate them?

Have you ever tried to find an unbiased economist? Like a lawyer, I can find experts to support whatever side I want to take. If you are a conservative, go to the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, or the Hoover Institution, and you will find platoons of economists with impeccable academic credentials to support your position. Liberals are behind in the think tank category, perhaps because they have most of the Ivy League already under control, but they have theirs as well, such as the Center for American Progress, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Then there are think tanks whose “unbiased” status is currently in dispute, most notably the Tax Policy Center.

For the next several weeks, leading up to the election, I’m going to use this blog to try to sort through the issues, mainly economic. I am under no illusions that I will convince anyone of anything; I want to clarify things for myself. No one starts from a blank slate, and neither do I. I have an ingrained distrust of utopian aspirations and the idea that powerful central government can make us happy, mainly on the basis of 20th century European history. I think Augustine was right about original sin and the tendency of human affairs to go wrong. So did the people who wrote The Federalist Papers and drafted The Constitution. I don’t trust big corporations for the same reasons. At this point in my life, I uneasily gravitate toward the Republican end of the spectrum. I don’t see that the current debt trajectory is sustainable and I don’t see any will in the Democratic party to contain the debt. I don’t see how we can add a national health care entitlement when we have two, Medicare and Medicaid, that are going broke, and in the case of Medicaid, does not provide adequate care. If we can’t fix these programs, I wonder, how can we make Obamacare work? If we’ve found the solutions, so that Obamacare will work, why don’t we apply them to Medicare and Medicaid?

On the other hand, having grown up in a small town, I like the idea of a country that has lots of small farmers, small businessmen, doctors, lawyers--like Tolkien, I'm a Hobbit at heart, and I don't see that Republican politics consistently takes the view that small is beautiful. The people I care about have often been ground between big business and big government. I think these people represent most Americans, and that their overall capacity for love and self-sacrifice more than balances their darker tendencies. My faith in people, though qualified, is stronger than it has ever been; without both moral caution and faith, I think rational politics and the service it requires are impossible.

This is where I start from. But I’m not satisfied to just leave it there.  If I get nothing else out of this election, I’d like to be at least more informed about the issues. Feel free to comment—I’m curious about what you think.

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