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How to Not Talk About Policy

Matt Yglesias says that his years in D.C. have made him more respectful of the deep and authentic ideological differences between people, but more shocked at "the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics."

Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. But it’s impossible to imagine these same senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark D.C. alley to steal his shoes. And what’s more, the entire political class would be (rightly!) shocked and appalled by the specter of a senator murdering someone for personal gain. Yet it’s actually taken for granted that “my selfish desires dictate that I do x” constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation.

I'd add to this: I'm consistently surprised by the resistance to admitting the human impact of policy changes. It would be, for instance, very uncouth to say that a coal-state senator who opposed climate change legislation was literally consigning thousands of people to death in order to protect hometown interests. That's a very mean thing to say. Senator so-and-so doesn't want to kill people, he just wants to be reelected. But that's what he's doing. He has constituents and polls and pressures. Similarly, a lot of the congressmen who are opposing health-care reform are, again, ensuring that tens of thousands of people will die from inadequate access to health care. But you're not supposed to say that.

It's a bit weird. Obviously, you can make the argument that a philosophical opposition to the public option is more important than 100,000-plus lives over a 10-year period, or you can say that a cost-benefit analysis suggests that the expense of saving those people is too great, or you can try and make an argument that more lives will actually be expended because the health-care system will sharply deteriorate.

But no one ever has to make those arguments directly because these debates take place at a high level of abstraction. That's how you get weird situations wherein a congressman who has spent two decades enriching industry and voting to cut Medicaid and welfare can be run out of office because he crossed an ethical line and had an affair or took a kickback. The moral dimension is entirely absent in discussions of policy, as if we've all signed some agreement admitting that the cost to civility would be too great if we took the implications of each vote seriously. This also has the side impact of making policy seem much more boring than it is, because what's interesting and immediate about policy is what it does, but we tend to focus on how it works, and whether it can pass.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 20, 2009; 12:48 PM ET
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Boy, is that ever a fact.

I have no problem with the counterargument that, for example, in the long-term a fully private healthcare system might preserve more lives than a public one would. I'd vigorously disagree with it, and don't think such an argument would hold water. But people who oppose health care reform have a right -- even a responsibility -- to make that case.

But the willingness to pretend there's no ethical component to public policies like this clearly tips the scales against doing what's right -- whatever it may be. This is a very important insight.

Posted by: bcamarda2 | August 20, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Would it be uncouth to point out that effective climate change legislation would consign thousands of people in coal-producing regions to unemployment and poverty?

Posted by: tl_houston | August 20, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

well you can't say that sort of stuff about everyone, but it's OK to say about communists, democrats and other fellow travelers. Or I am misinterpreting the whole death panel, they want to kill your grandmother stuff?

Posted by: williamcross1 | August 20, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Well, it's not just that the debates are highly abstract; part of the reason they are so abstract is because it is so hard to evaluate the consequences of the various decisions -- especially given how often well-intended legislation leads to unintended and unforeseen consequences (who really thought that the new mandate for independent appraisals would have led to higher prices and reliance on less-experienced appraisers?).

Carseats are a great example of that. What's not to love about mandatory carseats? They protect kids, so isn't it an unmitigated good that we've extended the requirements from babies to toddlers to 4-yr-olds and now even 8-yr-olds?

Well, two issues. First, if I recall correctly from the Freakonomics guys, there wasn't any data demonstrating that 4-yr-olds were actually safer in booster seats (much less 8-yr-olds). So you may be presuming a "good" that won't actually happen.

And second, even if there is a "good," what are the tradeoffs? Those carseats cost $50-200+. When you make people spend that money on carseats, that means they'll have that much less to spend somewhere else. Is spending $80 on a booster for a 60-lb child really the most protective use of that money? Or would that kid have been better off if mom spent that money on flu shots or the dentist? In reality, you're probably trading one set of kids for another.

Just to be clear, I happily use boosters, but I do get annoyed by the presumed simplicity of the debate. The problem is, the "good" is usually fairly well-defined (what's not to love about saving kids' lives?) -- but the possible tradeoffs are much harder to identify and quantify, because they are so much more theoretical and seemingly removed from the decision at hand.

Posted by: laura33 | August 20, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I think there is a defense to be made of certain politicians here.

Certainly it's disgusting when the primary motive, as is depressingly often the case, for such a vote is merely to keep one's job, but at other times it can be part of a bargaining process - in other words, if I decide not to screw myself electorally and and vote 'no' on this climate change bill, and therefore risk doing all this damage to the planet, people abroad etc., it means that I can be the one voting when we're deciding what to do on health care, the economy, foreign policy etc.

Posted by: benjp | August 20, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Statesmanship? We don't need no stinkin' statesmanship.

Posted by: scott1959 | August 20, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

"in the long-term a fully private healthcare system might preserve more lives than a public one would."

Allow me to provide some support for this position.

Breast cancer patients sue over radiotherapy wait times

The government says it has hit its target for operation waiting times even though a small number of people are still waiting longer than six months.

But an Observer investigation reveals that cancer services often don't get the money central government has promised, and that patients are on average waiting longer for treatment than when Labour was elected. Many are not getting promised drugs, and thousands die for lack of treatment. So Britons are less likely to survive almost any form of cancer than citizens of any other country in Western Europe.,4273,4367132,00.html

I don't need to invent "death panel" nonsense or say Obama is going to kill my Grandma...there is plenty of evidence of the failure of national health care. You want to debate real health care reform…let’s talk about the market based Singapore system.

Posted by: kingstu01 | August 20, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, doesn't it worry you a little that politicians put their own self interest (i.e. re-election) ahead of their core beliefs? Yet, you think those who support your position are acting in the best interests of society as a whole in the case of health care.

Posted by: kingstu01 | August 20, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

This is probably an exaggeration, but while it’s more stark for policymakers, I think you could extend this argument to all of our daily actions, including our decisions as consumers and voters. Our self-interested decisions, even ones we see as inconsequential, may have very bad consequences for other people, especially collectively (if also sometimes individually). Is it worse for lawmakers because they’re explicitly making these decisions for other people, supposedly on behalf of their constituents? I think so. But there are plenty of ethical tradeoffs that we may or may not perceive in our daily lives and in the process that empowers these people to be making our decisions in the first place. I don’t think anyone’s blameless here. One person’s cynicism and immorality is another person’s representative democracy? Or something. I guess all I’m saying is, the abstraction of the consequences of our actions for other people is a broader problem, especially if you buy that increasing political polarization is at least partly driven by growing socioeconomic inequality and increasing geographic and social segregation of people by income and other demographic factors - which would make it and any effects it has on public policy worse.

Posted by: bean3 | August 20, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

The really bad thing is that it's not always actual self-interest, but more accurately perceived self-interest. Either way, I think you nailed this one, as gauged by how guilty I felt after reading it. I link to you here:

Posted by: bradwright1 | August 20, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Isn't that because it would involve saying that the electorate is selfish, or wrong? Which is a kind of blasphemy in democratic politics. Your coal state senator is supposed to represent the interests of the people in his state: it so happens that (they think) their interests involve killing a load of people a long way away.

In general, whenever something really nasty goes down, it's a safe assumption that 'We the people' are at fault.

Posted by: vagueofgodalming | August 20, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

The idea that regulation will kill the coal industry precisely the same claim coal companies made about unions. And about PA's laws restricting strip mining. And about laws requiring companies to provide compensation to workers stricken with black lung. And about laws requiring accidental death benefits...

You get the idea.

PA still has plenty of working mines, and working miners. But mine collapses are rarer. You can actually drink the water in town most of the time. There are adult males over the age of 50, and it's not unusual for men to live past retirement age now. The child death rate is way down too... used to be kids would go to work in the mines as early as 6 or 8 years old.

For some industrial uses, there really and truly is no substitute for coal. Cap and trade laws would not outlaw the use of coal... but they would increase the price of coal's pollution so that we think long and hard about whether anthracite should be "wasted" on something as trivial as a power plant, when there's no substitute for it in making steel and there's dozens of substitutes for it in electricity generation.

Posted by: elacartier | August 20, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

benjp is right. Not only do politicians feel that their compromised voting pattern is justified from the social welfare perspective by the occasional principled stand they take on other issues, but they are also aware that another politician selected in their place would likely demagogue some issues. Thus, they can perform at a lower level and still be better than the alternatives.

So a substantial level of demagoguery can still be explained as an attempt by the politician to maximize social welfare. But it's hard to see how beating up a homeless person would do so.

Posted by: davestickler | August 20, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

How not to talk about policy:

Don't disdain the will of the people by writing it off as the "self-interest" of their elected representatives. Public opinion matters in major policy discussions; that's the nature of democracy. If you can't make the case adequately to win people over, then you're the one killing 100,000 people.

If in fact those 100,000 deaths were real, and not make-believe. Another way not to talk about policy is not to fabricate scary lies by pretending you can aggregate a large number of small statistical effects into "100,000 lives" and treat that figure like it has any meaning in the real world.

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 20, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

One side doesn't shy away from these knids of moral arguments--they make them all the time. "Health care reform will kill Grandma!" "Vote to gut FISA or we'll all die."

It is onl;y the propenents of reform, of constitutional, sensible measures, Dems, in a word, who shy away from these arguments.

Corporate connections have to play a role here. It's one thing to say the ACLU wants us all to die, and another to say that Exxon Mobil thinks its fine for tens or humdreds of thousands or millions to die. Too many Dems won't offend thsoe powers.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 20, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Come on, Ezra. These kinds of arguments aren't usually made because the causal link between policy and outcome is usually debatable and, in fact, hotly debated.

Do you have any doubt that a conservative website could write the same post about people they deem cynical liberals?

Posted by: Sophomore | August 20, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

The personal is the political, yet we cannot live our lives as praxis.

Posted by: Senescent | August 20, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

You wrote:
"Similarly, a lot of the congressmen who are opposing health-care reform are, again, ensuring that tens of thousands of people will die from inadequate access to health care."

How about congressMEMBERS instead of congressMEN? It's just one extra syllable and 4 extra letters, but it goes a long way toward accomplishing two important goals:
1. Being more precise and accurate (as a writer, I know that it must be important to you to use the language as precisely as possible)
2. Being more inclusive (as a progressive, I would hope that's important to you as well)


Posted by: acridrabbit | August 24, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

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