Archive for September 2008
How can America have so many Counties when our only Counts are on Sesame Street and cereal boxes? Maybe its time to bring the position back. Can you just declare yourself Count? Or must you get the County Commissioner to swear fealty to you? I’ll get to work on both.
When I tell people I’m studying economics, many respond with something like “thats great, I wish I knew more about handling money” or even more directly “now you can tell me what to do with my money!”.
Of course, as an economist I have no special knowledge about this. A financial economist could give them narrow advice, about how to maximize returns on their savings; but only after people have made their own choices about their risk preferences and time values of money.
Traditional economics sees people as rational agents, each maximizing their own utility- that is, doing the best they can for themselves, with no need for help from economists. The only domain where economists presumed to give advice based on their own special knowledge was macroeconomics, studying how all these individually rational decisions add up. And on this scale, economists can be pretty arrogant: Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter describes how economists and ordinary people disagree about issues like trade and unemployment- and concludes that since ordinary people don’t believe what economists do they must be irrational.
But behavioral economics, for all its wonderful insights, opens the door to a whole new level or arrogance. Before, it was only public policy that people were asked to leave to the experts. But when the assumption that people behave rationally gets thrown out, their whole lives are now open to criticism. Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge is only the beginning. Behavioral economics is likely to reveal more and more areas in which people seem to act irrationally in their daily lives, and economists and policy makers will be more and more tempted to intervene, telling people how to live their lives “for their own good”. We of libertarian disposition must be vigilant lest this nudge become a strongarm.
As cynical Americans, we hardly expect our politicians to do in office what they promised to do on the campaign trail. But many presidents end up doing just the opposite of what they promised, speeding away from their original platform like an Olympian diving off the 10 meter- though rarely with such purpose or grace.
Woodrow Wilson was reelected in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Within five months, he was asking Congress to declare war against Germany.
Franklin Roosevelt called President Hoover a profligate spender and promised to balance the budget and reign in spending. But once in office he quickly surpassed Hoover, increasing government spending and defecits to peacetime records.
On the campaign trail in 2000, then-Governor Bush criticized Clinton and Gore for their attempts at “nation-building”, and said he would never do such a thing. Less than a year after he was elected, President Bush had decided to give nation-building a try in Afghanistan, soon followed by a larger and less necessary attempt in Iraq.
Were these men simply lying to get elected? I don’t think its so simple; I suspect all of them, especially Bush, intended to follow through on their rhetoric. They changed their minds in response to changing circumstances- like unrestricted German submarine warfare, a persistent depression, or the Sept 11th attacks. There is a least a modicum of honesty and legitimacy in these actions.
But the fact remains that these men were given power by an electorate because of what they promised to do. Some of those who voted for Bush in 2000 in hopes of a less activist foreign policy were deeply dissapointed with his change of heart; some Floridians especially must have been driven to despair knowing what their hand had helped to wreak.
But what can we do as voters? How can we know what a presidential candidate would really do, when they may not even know themselves? Given the history just cited, it almost seems as if the best bet is to vote for the candidate with the beliefs most nearly opposite one’s own. But really, it is probably best to roll the dice given the information we have. Looking at the records and speeches of Obama and McCain, we can gain a little information. It may not cover everything; it may be contradictory already; it will almost certainly be contradicted later. But voters too must take the plunge, and hope the pool we are aiming for turns out to be where we think it is.
The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H.W. Brands purports to explain why LBJ-style liberalism no longer has any real influence on American governace.
He is right to note that its influence has faded away. No matter how many times Bill Clinton is labelled a tax-and-spend liberal, the facts remain that he balanced the budget, reformed welfare, and introduced no major government programs. The comparison to LBJ and even Nixon could hardly be more stark.
Brands’ main thesis is that liberalism is a political philosophy that puts enormous trust in the government, and that Americans are only willing to give that much trust to a government which is successfully prosecuting a war.
Most basically, Americans only tolerate the expansion of government power during wartime. Brands tells the story of government expansion during and after each American war. Each time the government takes on extraordinary powers; at the end of each conflict, the size and power of the government ebb- but never all the way back to prewar levels.
The Cold War allowed America to remain in a war mentality for decades, building a huge military and national security bureaucracy at the same time as it expanded domestic spending and policing abilities.
Vietnam and Watergate brought a loss of trust in the government, while detente meant a partial end to the Cold War. By the time Nixon resigned, the liberal era was over.
Brands thesis is fine as far as it goes. I get the sense that the heart of this book is about the wartime expansion of government power, in ways liberal or not; the title was probably chosen to sell more copies rather than to describe the contents. His writting is clear and occassionally compelling. He makes one prediction which is obvious in the abstract, but bracing given he timing: in a book published in early 2001, he states that the next major expansion of government would come only after a “national emergency.” The emergency, and the expansion, of course followed swiftly.
This made me wonder how far the government’s size and power will ebb when Americans perceive the “War on Terror” to be over. How many of us will outlive the Department of Homeland Security? Or Federal security and shoe removal at airports?
Mostly I wonder what a President Obama would do. His stated position of ending the war in Iraq, restoring many civil liberties, and also introducing major new government programs such as national health care, is impossible according to Brands. Major new domestic powers can only come in wartime. So will Obama continue the war in order to have a freer hand domestically? Will he end the war along with his plans for major new initiatives like health care? Or will he prove Brands wrong?