Friday, February 08, 2008

A comic I live by

I wrote this 700 word column explaining why I on the whole don't believe in voting. This comic says the same thing a lot more succinctly.


Jonny America said...

I'm sorry I missed your column back in 2004, but thankfully your recent post gives a chance to briefly respond. First of all, I certainly sympathize with the emotional content of your argument. Definitely, there are people I overhear on the street and in the subway who I do not trust with the responsibility to choose our elected leaders, and it is easy to despair knowing that makeup of the local and national legislatures and the executive offices are chosen by the people I come into contact with day-to-day.

Nevertheless, I think people should still vote. Why? First of all, I want to refer you to a quote you had at the end of your piece. "In a recent cross-country analysis, two economists, Jones and Olken, found that the policies of democratically elected leaders have no detectable impact on economic growth." You might also note, and it is often pointed out, that the policies of our elected officials' administrations’ rarely reflect the policy decisions that they formulate during their election campaigns. Bill Clinton, after all, became a champion of NAFTA, and George Bush evolved into a poster child for nation building--two administration-defining policies that they opposed during their respective elections. So, candidates never follow their proposed legislative prescriptions, and no matter who we choose, it will have a negligible impact on the functioning of the economy. Am I not just backing up your point that it is hopeless to expect anybody to have the ability to choose the right candidate? On the contrary, I think that you are actually letting people off the hook.

If a candidate’s policy positions bear little resemblance to what they actually do in office, and if what they do has little real impact on what happens with the economy, then who cares whether or not the voting public actually understands policy decisions? I think it is perfectly reasonable to vote for somebody based on vague notions character. Let's take the 2000 election and the Iraq war for example. It is impossible to speculate what Al Gore would have done after the 9-11 attacks. He may have started an Iraq war, who knows? (Bush, not Gore, was the non-interventionalist during the election). What I do know is that in the case of an Iraq invasion, I would much rather have my sketchy impressions of Gore (cold technocrat) in charge than my shallow caricature of Bush (frat boy incompetent). Hey, my shallow impression of Bush turned out to be accurate, and my vote for Gore was in fact "good" despite a relative ignorance of the details of either candidate's policy positions in 2000 (aside from the typical liberal-conservative list of general policy directions).

In short, I think people, despite their ignorance, have the ability to pick out the good candidates. When people choose generally honest-looking candidates (i.e. not Nixon) or knowledgeable candidates (i.e. not W. Bush or Reagan) than America tends to do all right.

HoBs said...

Of course I agree with your point that character matters. That was the point of the column (at least the point I was trying to make), as in this line:

"However, I might argue that maybe the spittle and facial tics during the debate really matter. Maybe since voters are ill-equipped to judge the policies of the candidates, the best they can do is to assess their character."

Of course I would take your point one step further. That Americans as a whole are also better judging character than any one individual, including you. And therefore, I might take the opinion of large majorities of Americans over yours. And therefore, maybe they did quite well picking W. Bush, Reagan or Nixon. History has judged Reagan and Nixon reasonably favorably. I think it may be too early to judge for W. Bush.

Jonny America said...

Well, it seems as if we are somewhat in agreement. That is except for my presidential picks at the end which I lazily threw in and ought to have left out. But seeing we agree that character matters, how much weight would you give to your statement at the end, "psychologists know well that we attribute too much credit to the person and not enough to the situation. The character traits of the person in office matter a lot less than we think"?

On a side note, would you rather vote for a cold-hearted human computer, a standoffish technocrat with an encyclopedic knowledge of policy and history? Or is it better to vote for the "common sense" candidate? Someone who inspires familiarity and trust in his or her fellow citizens, but is unproven in ability to grasp policy decisions.

If you like the former, it seems to align more closely with the ultimate (tongue-in-cheek) point of your article that we shouldn't be trusted to vote (because the appropriate candidate would probably never be chosen). If you like the later one, it seems to work better with the gettin'-to-know-you system of elections you put forward.

HoBs said...

"The character traits of the person in office matter a lot less than we think"

I still stand by that. The traits certainly matter, just not very much.

As for technocrat vs inspiration, that's a tough question.

I was first confronted with it when I joked once to a good and smart friend of mine that I would like to be president. (we were interns in DC at the time)

His reply was that I would be an awful president. He said I am too much of a policy wonk / technocrat (of course he is also a technocrat). Which at the time, I felt was a good attribute in a president. Now, I am not so sure.

I guess your question is the same choice between Hillary and Obama.

In that particular case, I favor Obama a bit, mostly because he used to talk a nice inspiring bipartisan line (before the primary forced him to backtrack on bipartisanship--the worst was the debate with Clinton where they were fighting to backtrack as fast as they can, saying no republican idea could possibly be good). So while he used to be my favorite, not so sure anymore.