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The Public Opinion Option

February 22, 2010

Over the span of twenty four hours, I had two conversations with two friends, both in medical school, and the topics of conversation were remarkably similar and interrelated.  The questions included:

  1. Have you seen Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story?
  2. Was the stimulus squandered?
  3. Did the bailouts and stimulus have a net positive effect?
  4. Has any [significant] green energy been developed through the stimulus?
  5. Has Obama squandered any of the momentum [or political capital] he had following the election?
  6. Wouldn’t it be easier for Obama to just dictate the terms of a bill on health care and ram his policies through like George W. Bush would have done?

Though I think the most correct answer to all (but the first) of these questions is probably that it is really too soon to tell for sure, for the moment, I’m willing to say that though Obama can shoulder some share of the overall blame.  However, as usual, he is getting more flak than he deserves and for entirely the wrong reasons.

First and foremost, I should point out that both of these guys are extremely intelligent and reasonably willing to try to figure out answers to these questions (that’s why they asked in the first place), an attitude that stands in stark contrast to the vast majority of Americans.  I’ve blogged about this attitude of willful ignorance recently, but unfortunately, this is not a topic that will cease to bear relevant fruit.  Indeed, it is precisely this climate of disengagement that has given rise to the lobbyist-politician complex that dominates the legislative process.

Politicians have stopped worrying about their own electorate’s opinion on substantive issues because the electorate has decided to cast a blind eye; now, the most relevant and watchful “electorate” is the lobbying apparatus that represents various industries, corporations, and collectives, all of which have grown beyond a human scale and into the realm of pure ideas and forces (some of which have become “too big to fail,” socially speaking).  However(!), don’t mistake the reference to “lobbying” as the simple populist’s resentment for “big business buying its votes” or some other form of inherent corruption.  Any kind of speech or political persuasion is a form of lobbying, including small-time public interest firms and even bloggers on some level.  Moreover, lobbying is indispensable in today’s complex and dense legislative world.  Who else would be able to draft the highly technical and detailed legislation modern complexity calls for?  Lobbyists provide more than just one brand of grease in the legislative wheels.

The problem begins with the fact that these single-minded, single-issue lobbyists all have disparate interests that are not subject to compromise or deliberation because their goals are too separate and specific that they can’t compromise.  Political representatives are supposed to be the actors that would feel the pressure to compromise and moderate such disparate public opinion, and seek the best solution for the greatest good in order to get anything done among such conflicting interests.(1)  But now, with a political economy that is built on distinct and disparate benefits, the only consensus ever built revolves around concentrated and specific (pejoratively referred to as “pork-barrel”) spending projects, including the stimulus (which is just the broadest set of concentrated-benefit spending to date).(2)

All this is by way of introduction to get to the point that both the stimulus and bailouts probably had significantly positive choices of how to spend money that was clearly necessary and probably saved us from the brink.  The problem is that these programs fatally suffered from a lack of transparency and public information that would ensure that both the public and the legislators themselves knew what they were getting into.

Since the most relevant political community has been composed of more and more effective groups of lobbyists demanding that they get theirs, the only solution apparent to most congressmen was either to capitulate or obstruct.  The same is true of the state of health care legislation today.  Congress simply gives itself a deferral whenever someone has specific enough interests to deny compromise, and Congress shrugs and gets along with other business.  The real problem by Obama is that he hasn’t wasted enough of his momentum on Congress by pointing out to the public how facile their processes have become.  He’s been too patient with them, giving them time to build their own consensus, which might never come to fruition.

Richard Posner, the public intellectual whose preferences for certain modes of thought I find myself most capable of emulating (minus the actual expertise in economics), is also of the opinion that the problem lies in the failure of the bully pulpit:

It is becoming apparent that the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis has been a public relations disaster. I read somewhere that only 6 percent of the American people believes that the $787 billion stimulus program enacted last February has reduced the unemployment rate. This is almost certainly false, but reflects the administration’s inability to explain the theory behind the stimulus, and its clumsy efforts to quantify the stimulus’s effect. The administration has been unable to explain the bailouts of what it calls “fat cat” bankers, and the president compounded the difficulty recently by gratuitously approving publicly the multimillion dollar bonuses awarded leading bankers for their speculative 2009 profits, including the infamous (in the eyes of the public) CEO of Goldman Sachs.

Obama’s fault was in believing that the old mode of consensus-building, moderation, and deliberation would be possible in the face of these lobbying constituencies that don’t want moderate solutions.  But then, if he opted for the Bush/authoritarian strategy of ramming policy through without attempts at openness and inclusion, Obama simply wouldn’t be Obama.  You might agree with his practical ends, but if you want him to ram policy through, it’s still just as bad a sacrifice to the deliberative process that must be restored as a long-term sustainable governing mechanism.  The problem was that congressmen allowed themselves, individually and as a body, to just “play the game” because the diversity and impatience of American public opinion no longer puts a check on this gamesmanship.  The majority of people participate politically only insofar as they hear isolated and context-less snippets from a single, biased, and interested source.  And then they go respond to an opinion survey.

What happens when public opinion is permanently filtered through lenses of the most extreme factious interests, whichever they may be? The Average American who would want a moderate solution is told to be annoyed, frustrated, and dissatisfied with government.

Believing that the public’s attitude toward government is too “extreme” and its judgments of politicians too “harsh,” [Bok] also calls for the news media to balance their frequent stories of corruption and inefficiency “with accounts of success and accomplishment in order to give an accurate picture of the government’s performance.”  It may be true that Americans are too skeptical of government for their own good. Yet something tells me that such Mugwumpish ways of trying to overcome the problem will only make matters worse. Americans are most certainly misinformed. Dumb they are not.

Indeed, with the only source of information coming from the only people angry enough to be vocal in the first place, things are portending well for Republicans and Oligarchs.  Obstructionism seems an attractive alternative.  Michael Moore gets more and more ridiculous ideas for movies.(3)  We have widespread dissatisfaction, malaise, inertial resistance to new policies, and tax revolts (in their various shades and stripes).  That’s why I have a job.  Hmm, maybe there is something to the whole stimulus thing…



(1) See Madison, Federalist 10.

(2) A list of all stimulus spending reveals that these projects are essentially various forms of narrow benefits meant to flow out to others through subsequent spending.  The problem is that such spending is inherently inefficient or else the market would have provided for it already (or it’s just increasing the price demanded by infusing government funds).  The major exception here is, of course, correcting information asymmetries and making markets more competitive.  In the case of green energy, that might mean putting enough ground-level research on the table for all to share and run with in order to lower the costs sufficiently to desirable levels of market entrances by entrepreneurs who might not have had the capital to reach the technological minimum capabilities required of developing and implementing new products.

(3) As a matter of fact, I never saw Capitalism: A Love Story, but didn’t have to see it to realize that it would be an incoherent examination of economics, given that Michael Moore only knows how to make an emotionally driven pitch, which isn’t enough to overcome the deep-seated assumptions and reliance Americans have built into their faith in “Capitalism.”


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