Monthly Archives: December 2003

finally, campaign coverage with substance

During a campaign, our job as citizens is to decide whom to vote for. Two questions are relevant: What do the candidates propose? And what kind of people are they? The job of the press is to help us answer these two questions. As James Madison wrote, the purpose of the press is “canvassing the merits and measures of public men.”

Instead, we mainly see (even in the best newspapers, and even after 15 years of criticism) a steady stream of stories about campaign tactics, voters’ opinions, the electoral process, and comments that candidates make about one another. I suppose politicians’ tactics and remarks can shed some light on their personal “merits,” but not much. (Even a great potential president could campaign badly or say something inappropriate on the campaign trail). Worse than irrelevant, these stories are harmful, because they suggest that we should not vote for those candidates who currently appear to be doing badly in the horse race. This makes political news a self-fulfilling prophesy; it denies voters the power to choose for themselves. Witness, for example, Elizabeth Rosenthal’s recent front-page story on Senator John Edwards, which is all about how poor his chances are. Rosenthal says nothing that helps us assess Edwards’ “merits” or his “measures.”

Today, at last, the Times runs an article succinctly comparing the economic plans of the nine Democratic presidential contenders.

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varieties of fame

As I’ve remarked before, I’m interested in the desire for fame. It’s the main selfish motivation of academics–and of people who create personal websites and blogs. Christians and ancient Stoics called the desire for fame a vice. Arguably, it is a virtue: specifically, a civic republican virtue that motivates and accompanies participation in public life. But I think its influence on academics is mostly corrupting. If it is a vice, then it’s a worse moral danger for me personally than some others, such as greed for money and desire for power.

I hope to create an extended thread on the topic. For today, I’ll just observe that many people want fame, but they want it in very different forms. So ask yourself:

1. Would you rather be known to millions of people at one instant because of a CNN broadcast, or to one hundred people during your lifetime, plus one hundred people in each generation after your death for the next 500 years?

2. Would you rather be known to half a billion people in India or China, or half the people you pass as you walk around in your own neighborhood?

3. Whom would you prefer to know about you–some of the world’s most powerful people, some of the top experts in a difficult field, or some of the people who themselves have the biggest audiences?

4. Would you rather be known for your name, your ideas and actions, or your face? For instance, would you rather (a) have a daily byline in a major newspaper, or (b) see your own work described once in a news article, or (c) appear in secondary roles in various TV dramas?

5. Would you rather be known by a limited number of cognoscenti for your originality, or would you rather that millions of people associated you with an idea that you did not originate, although you have expressed it articulately?

Burke, Oakeshott, and Iraq

The invasion of Iraq is the most radical project undertaken by our government in generations. It involves the use of coercive state power to redesign a whole society, ostensibly in the name of liberty and political equality. This sounds like a highly “progressive” program. Thus Leftist critics of the occupation resort to charges of duplicity: the aims of the Bush administration, they say, are not what the President now publicly announces them to be. He is not after democratic reconstruction, but rather oil or military bases or avenging a Bush family quarrel. Whether these charges are valid will be clear only after several years, once we can observe the whole course and consequences of the occupation.

I find the conservative critique more interesting and perhaps more compelling. I’ve invoked Edmund Burke’s name against the war, for that great conservative warned that it is always a mistake to try to change societies rapidly and wholesale, especially from afar and without due appreciation of local norms. Similarly, in Saturday’s New York Times column, David Brooks conducts an imaginary dialogue with another major, dead English conservative, Michael Oakeshott. “Be aware of what you do not know,” he imagines Oakeshott warning us. “Do not go charging off to remake a society when you do not understand its moral traditions, when you do not even understand yourself. Do not imagine that if you conquer a nation the results will be in any way predictable. Do not try to administer a country from behind a security bunker.”

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buying reelection?

During the administration of George W. Bush, the Federal government is likely to borrow approximately $642 billion (net, counting the surplus in 2001). That’s $2,287 for every man, woman, and child in the nation, or almost $6,000 per average household–money that we and our children will have to repay with interest. Meanwhile, the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows the president on course for reelection. He has a nice strategy: borrow the equivalent of about $6,000 per household, spend the money on tax cuts, domestic programs, and a quick war against a tinpot dictator. Buy 8 percent GDP growth and a military victory in the year before you’re up for reelection, and coast to another four years. Worry about the debt later.

There are conservatives who believe that deficits are good, because they prevent the government from expanding social programs. They should be careful what they wish for. First of all, my simple analysis of current government spending shows that almost 75% of it goes to currently “untouchable” programs: Social Security, Medicare, the military, veterans benefits, mandatory retirement benefits for other federal employees, and interest. Social Security and interest payments are guaranteed to rise. When the fiscal crunch comes, it’s unlikely that presidents will respond by deeply cutting the remaining portion of the federal budget, the domestic discretionary programs that conservatives detest. A lot of this spending is popular, since it includes education, scientific research, aid to states, and law enforcement. Instead of cutting, future administrations will have to increase taxes or borrow still more money.

Second, if Bush wins reelection with this strategy, it’s hard to imagine the next Democratic president doing what Bill Clinton did, and painfully paying down the deficit he inherits. Instead, I suspect that fiscal discipline will be forgotten for a long time to come. Presidents of both parties will remember Bush’s successful use of a borrow-and-spend reelection strategy: great for incumbents and potentially disatrous for the country.