Saturday, September 4, 2010

Lie to me or I won't vote for you

A recent Rasmussen report told us that only 16% of those polled believed Congress's performance to be good or excellent. The report helpfully adds that this is the highest approval rating Congress has had over the past 12 months.

What this shows us is that America is cursed with a particular group of incompetent knuckleheads who know as much about governing as do Larry, Moe and Curly. I'm talking, of course, about the American voters.

Let's vote for the cute one!

When you consider that we, the voters, hire these people in Congress, and that we also review their performance every two years, it's astonishing that over the past five or six years we've generally given them approval ratings below 50% and usually closer to 15%. What kind of idiots are we that we don't know how to hire good people to serve us?

Well I'll tell you what kind of idiots we are: the kind of idiots who require our representatives to pay for their campaigns with money from the likes of BP and ExxonMobil, and then imagine that these corporate-bought lawmakers are going to ignore their benefactors and do what we, the voters, ask of them. Duh.

Of course in their campaigns our office-seekers always promise us that they will work for "the American people," and will stick it to "the special interests," but only a bunch of dimwits would believe they will actually keep their word and "stick it to" the very interests that paid for their campaigns. In effect, we require that our politicians lie to us. If they don't, we will refuse to vote for them.

To illustrate the "Lie to me or I won't vote for you," principle, consider my favorite cartoon show, The Simpsons. (Yes, more fun than South Park or Family Guy, though those shows are cool in their own way.)

Let's say Smithers is running for Mayor of Springfield and the conniving plutocrat and nuclear power broker, Montgomery Burns, is funding his campaign. Burns pays for Smithers' campaign because he wants Smithers, once in office, to eliminate all the government regulations that keep nuclear waste out of the local reservoir -- the source of the public's drinking water. This will boost the profits of Mr. Burns' nuclear power plant, but it is not necessarily good for the people who drink the reservoir water. (Burns presumably has his own water flown in from Evian, France.)

Just Go Ahead and Trust Me

Now Smithers is not going to say, "Vote for me and I will let the guy who is paying for this ad poison your water!" That would be honest, but probably not a winning strategy. So, he takes Burns' money and uses it to run ads saying, "Vote for me and I will clean out the special interests who control the Springfield city hall!" People will vote for him because he is telling them just the exact lie they want to hear.

This is why I can guarantee that once the new Congress is in place next year, though it will surely have dozens of newly minted office holders, it will not enjoy an enduring surge in its approval ratings. People will continue to complain about its incompetence and corruption as they have for years.

But don't blame the people we hire to represent us. We are, after all, their bosses. It's just that we haven't designed a campaign system that allows politicians to tell us the truth, one in which they can fund their own elections with adequate public money instead of needing to rely on money acquired from the very interests that are inclined to seek special favors.

So, next time you hear someone whining about how bad Congress is, maybe you should ask them what kind of nincompoops hired that pack of double-talking four-flushers in the first place.


  1. Good piece of edutainment! But seriously, as long as money intersects politics, our government (or any government, for that matter) will continue to be the proxy for the oligarchs. In that case, we should perhaps vote "the cute one" - Larry, Moe, and Curly, or ourselves (I mean you, Vance and me - remember we were once approvingly elevated to "The Three Stooges" in our "Us and Them" class?) ;-)

  2. This is so sad, but so true. I was just having a discussion about the two party system and the way they play people against one another by focusing on sound clip schisms. Did you see they're coming out with a sequel to that movie Wall Street? We need to stop ceding power to the greedy, but how can we when we as a people seem to have taken the slogan "greed is good" to heart...loved the post, always good to illustrate a concept with a clever Simpsons reference : )

  3. I agree with 99% of this essay but I must say that it is somewhat disrespectful to the 3 Stooges that they were compared to American voters. Just as comparing George Bush to Alfred E. Neuman was disrespectful to Mr. Neuman.

  4. Ok, the hypothesis we get. It's not original, but hey, using the Simpsons made the exposition colorful.

    Thing is, it reminds me of HL Mencken's quip that "to every human suffering there is a solution, simple, easy and wrong". It is easy to look at the political class as a group and say that if they don't produce the results that (I, we, a majority) want it must be because they are secretly in collusion with people seeking to harm us.

    A thought exercise -

    If it is true that politicians are mostly practicing clientism, then which clients are actually winning?

    A logical way would be to follow the classic post-modern / Oliver Stone approach: when asking who benefits - follow the money.

    Turns out, not a whole lot of money goes to ExxonMobil or to Solyndra for that matter. 60% of Federal outlays go to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, all of which (according to Bill Clinton's convention speech) disproportionately go to people over 62. That is only a part of the story, because spending at the local level is even more tilted in favor of old people and that is before we start considering age discrimination in tax preferences (like the extra personal exemptions for people 65 and over, and the property tax rebats for retirees). These tax expenditures mean that government overwhelmingly exists to transfer money to retirees. Now, they are certainly a special interest, but they are not a large corporation.

    They do have lobbyists, and spend quite alot of time lobbying personally. They also tend to vote. All of which you might consider holding politicians "accountable" - indeed you might even say that a big transfer state is exactly what "the people" want. Not sure it is good for them, but still.

    Perhaps the real reason we are so disappointed with our politicians is that government is poorly suited to the functions for which we try to use it. Much as a hammer is great at pounding nails but makes a lousy spoon, maybe we shouldn't try and have government do all the things we expect it to do.

    Of course, politicians who say, sorry, we don't fix those kinds of problems, tend not not get elected. People want "problem solvers" which is to say, they don't want deep strategy, they want people who respond to their concerns. Telling them they are on their own doesn't fit the bill. In short, maybe the goal should be to have fewer clients and less scope, rather than to suggest that the solution is to change the clients.

    Final thought exercise - postmodernist critique also argues that observations say at least as much about the observer as the observed. If lefties slavish devotion to clients every time they look across the aisle, how likely is it that this is because that is how they themselves behave?

  5. On the accusation of lack of originality, I plead guilty.

    But I'm going to disagree with much of the rest of what you say. As the Simpsons analogy suggests, the benefits that come from the government and go to those with money (corporations and individuals), do not amount to a simple monetary transfer of wealth. If government policy opposes or undermines unions, if it opposes the raising of the minimum wage, if it facilitates rip-offs of customers (like those many of us have experienced from banks), if it allows for reckless pollution of the environment as a profit-boosting strategy (which may then only be remedied by taxpayer-funded cleanups), etc., then government policy is facilitating the transfer wealth into the hands of those whose money manages to buy influence. This is the tip of the iceberg. There are subsidies to agribusiness, oil companies, and so on that continue the same story.

    I should add that I am not fundamentally anti-business. I come from a family of businessmen whose work and honesty I greatly admire. If only the oil, banking and other corporate interests were as honest and publicly spirited as my Dear Dad (for example) always was, we wouldn't have seen the massive transfer of wealth to the super-rich that America has experienced since 1980. Those super-rich are the clients that government policy has been benefiting.