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May 06, 2010

Britain Votes; Brown May Cling to Shared Power

The interesting, and alarming, thing here is that the outsized advantage the conservatives once enjoyed has largely evaporated.

With the result too close to call, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's ruling Labor Party retains a chance of staying in power, perhaps in coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats.

Whoever wins will have to deal with a record budget deficit running in excess of 11 percent of national output, and demands for political reform following a parliamentary expenses scandal last year which left Britons disgusted with lawmakers.

"This election has been more exciting, more than I expected," said lawyer Lorraine Mullins, voting at a busy polling station in central London.

The center-right Conservatives, led by former public relations executive David Cameron, have seen a commanding poll lead dwindle since the turn of the year, with voters seemingly reluctant to embrace the change they say they offer after 13 years of Labor rule.

I had written off this Gallup poll showing an 11 point decline in (American) conservative voter enthusiasm over the last month as a likely fluke outlier, but the British situation gives me new pause.

People lie about what they want out of politics. Not everyone. I think partisans like us are pretty clear about what we want and what we expect. But the soft middle crucial for electoral success often lies about what it wants.

Often, I think they behave like people who need to lose weight. Oh, they say they want to lose weight. And, to some extent, they really do want to lose weight. But do they really want to take the arduous steps necessary to lose that weight? More often than not, no they don't, but if you polled them, they could honestly say, with 75% support, they're in favor of losing weight.

But if you took them at their word and signed them up for Fat Camp, they'd hate you forever.

The Conservative leader is probably going to win Britain’s election Thursday—and will be forced to make the kind of unpopular fiscal moves that could doom his party for a generation. Plus, Peter Stothard on Tony Blair's surprising political afterlife.

As Britons trudge to the polls on Thursday, they do so knowing that none of the men who aspire to be the next prime minister have been fully honest with the electorate about the horrors of Britain's looming fiscal crisis. The country may have decided that the country needs change, but it's also afraid of that change and the austerity it will demand. Unless the polls are wrong, it seems that David Cameron will be asked to clean up the mess. It is not an enviable task.

Britons said, at one point, they really, really wanted to get their fiscal house in order -- cut welfare, cut NHS, stop borrowing themselves into oblivion -- but it seems as that day of reckoning approached, they decided maybe they wanted to keep spending and borrowing after all.

Americans are hardly any better. We have outsized deficits because we never have an actual majority for cutting popular social programs. What we actually have a temporary majorities in favor of politicians who say they'd like to cut spending, and then, when it's time to actually cut spending, that majority evaporates as a bunch of people decide they'd comfortable with financial ruin after all.

Because they are really seeking the Miracle Solution that I keep going on about, the Miracle Solution that doesn't require them to make a choice because it's basically choosing everything. Increase social spending and cut it (hey, just cut out that "waste and fraud," that's gotta be worth $8 trillion right there), and do that while cutting taxes and also cutting the deficit.

Sure! I'd be all in favor of that, too, except that it's strictly impossible.

This point has consequences for political messaging, obviously. There are some in the conservative camp -- well-represented in the comment section here -- who believe the right thing to do is to be honest about the choices which must be made and to simply be strong and convincing in arguing for those choices.

This approach has the advantage that 1, it's honest, and 2, assuming you won on such a platform, you'd have a mandate to execute precisely what you campaigned on, and we wouldn't see as much RINO backpedalling and walking-back of tough choices, because, hey, the party would have secured an outright majority for the tough medicine.

The disadvantage is that you probably won't get elected saying any of that, because the moment you go up there and say, "There's going to be a lot of pain in my cuts," Joe Democrat comes along and (for the six billionth time) proposes the Miracle Solution in which we increase social spending and also cut the deficit, while only raising taxes a smidge on the ultra-rich.

And then he wins.

He always wins. In politics, they often term strict truth-tellers as "gloomy" -- Paul Tsongas got that tag, for example. And the guys who say "You can have it all without making tough choices" get termed "optimistic" and "sunny." Like Clinton. And then like Obama. And, famously, it's the latter guys who win.


I know people will point out Reagan-- welllll... yeah. Reagan said we could do all the stuff he wanted and still get the deficit cut; of course, the deficit grew. One can argue that his hands were tied by a Democratic Congress, as they were, but still -- he proposed that deficit cutting would occur, and it did not in fact occur.

Not saying that that makes him a bad guy, but it was foreseeable that Congress, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, would not be in the mood for big cuts in social spending, and, lacking such cuts, the deficit would not be cut.

I guess what I'm saying is that you have to bullshit the public a lot in politics.

The past-master of bullshit-- our dear leader, who I called "Captain Bullshit" for a year -- doesn't seem to have been penalized much for his lies. Even now, even with the economy in the tank and big tax hikes (which he vowed he'd never impose) on the near horizon, he still has something like a 46% approval rate.

I'd also note that while Chris Christie promised getting spending under control, I don't think he actually ever made it clear how seriously he'd have to cut stuff. A knock on him during the election was that he wasn't being straight with the public, and his proposed cuts would not significantly reduce the deficit, and so, people guessed, he'd wind up raising taxes, too.

How wrong they guessed -- instead of doing the typical thing and raising taxes and borrowing, he cut more severely than he vowed. But still, that wasn't actually doing what he said he'd do. He, too, bullshitted the voters a bit. He just didn't bullshit them in the way they were accustomed to being bullshitted. They probably expected that the gap between his proposed cuts and the necessary cuts would be made up for with taxes and borrowing, instead of even deeper cuts.

I doubt this post is going to change any minds -- minds almost never change -- but this is why I do not in fact mind Republicans fudging up their positions a bit, or claiming they'd do most of the stuff liberals would do, only more cheaply. Few politicians win on a no-bullshit platform.

As a general rule, bullshit works. It works like hell.

And if you're the guy out there doing some Truth Telling, well, you're going to get tagged as gloomy and dour and pessimistic and the optimistic guy, full of swagger and idealism and weapons-grade bullshit, is going to tell everyone they can have it all, and that guy's going to win 9 out of 10 times.

Epistemic Closure: Julian Sanchez doesn't know what "epistemic closure" means, but he read it once and it sounded nice and intellectual so he made up a new meaning and began branding conservatives as suffering from "epistemic closure," by which he meant, with great pretension, that conservatives only get their news from a limited universe of sources and so become closed-minded to some ideas (like gay marriage) and far too open minded about other ideas (various conspiracy theories).

I didn't really comment on that because, well, it's stupid.

But Megan McArdle addressed it a bit differently, and castigated conservatives for not having a realistic plan to close the enormous hole in our budget. She complained that we were still speaking of tax cuts, and fairly minor cuts in discretionary spending, and suchlike small-bore initiatives, when in fact our financial situation is so dire that we need more powerful medicine than that.

This, she decided, was an example of the "epistemic closure" that Julian Sanchez had pretentiously, and ignorantly, mis-named. That the movement was so hidebound by cant and rhetoric we could not face squarely the dimensions of the problems before us, and this was, in her telling, a great defect in the movement's thinking.

To which I say, "And the Democrats' plan is...?"

And I don't offer that just as tu quoque. She is, obviously, employing a serious double standard when she demands of the Republican Party a position of pure honesty and serious-mindedness and gloomy choices that she would never require of her favored Democratic Party. For the Republicans, she urges a suicidal burst of truth-telling -- or else be branded guilty of "epistemic closure" -- while making no similar demands on the Democrats. The Democrats, it seems, can continue vastly expanding the size of government while never confessing to the almost-not-even-a-secret secret that only a massive imposition of new taxes on the middle class could possibly pay for all this. (And that increase in taxes would have baleful secondary effects, of course, such as depressing the growth rate in the country, stealing further dollars out of taxpayers' wallets.)

My response to her is a sort of "After you, Alphonse." Because the Democrats are not confessing their Open Secret plan of jacking up taxes on the middle class for the same reason Republicans aren't confessing that the only way to get social spending under control is to get social spending under control, by which mean: Raising the retirement age for Social Security and means-testing it for many and increasing the taxes on Social Security benefits.

And that, by the way, is termed "low-hanging fruit" by most -- that is the easy part. That stuff firms up Social Security relatively quickly and relatively easily -- and even for that, no one in public office can yet actually propose such a thing at all. (Well, okay, Paul Ryan did, but he's in the minority and therefore can say crazy things without the public becoming alarmed. The public likes notions like this, so long as they remain strictly notional, proposals only, not policies.)

The high-hanging fruit is Medicare, which is going to require serious cutting -- cutting of the sort generally thought impossible, because it will have broad impacts on almost all seniors -- or a hefty escalation in payroll taxes.

So, as proof that Republicans don't suffer from "epistemic closure," Megan McArdle merely demands we go into the 2010 and 2012 elections with that message. Hey, it's honest. And it sure proves we're serious thinkers.

I don't think Megan McArdle minds, too much, the secondary effect of Republicans offering that message -- that Democrats get reelected in a walk. So, it seems to me, it's a relatively easy position for her to take, isn't it?

It's even easier than my proposal that, to demonstrate a lack of "epistemic closure," Democrats stop pretending they oppose gay marriage and admit they favor it, and campaign on that platform, vigorously.

And easier than my proposal that the Democrats, in order to prove they lack "epistemic closure," begin campaigning on platform of taxing the middle class by an additional 10% (as a start).

It's pretty damn easy to insist your opponents run on a platform of suicidal honesty and dooming virtue, isn't it?

After you, Alphonse.

Megan McArdle can term me "epistemically closed" or whatever until the cows come home but until she begins demanding a policy of strict financial honesty from the Democrats, I'll just keep in mind Sun Tzu's suggestion about taking advice from your enemies:

Don't.

(He didn't say that, I made it up. But I like that line.)


But That's Not What I Was Talking About: Megan McArdle might respond (not to me, she never responds to me, but to someone else arguing this point), "But you're confusing my position. I wasn't talking about politicians, which is what you're talking about. I'm talking about the intellectual side of the party -- there, Democrats do urge higher taxes and so on. Of course politicians lie and you can't get a serious debate with them. I'm knocking the conservatives for its intellectual side -- it's quasi-academic side -- also being compromised by spin."

Welllll... who knows. I do know that various public-options shills, supposedly members of the serious-minded intellectual left, used to brag all the time that the public option was intended to displace and destroy the private insurance system, and then, when their remarks about that started being publicized to prove that was in fact the intent of the public option, they ran away from that claim and insisted they meant nothing of the sort.

Rahm Emmanuel's brother -- a public intellectual of this kind as regards health care-- argued for a rationalized method of rationing health care -- deciding who would get what treatment based upon some sort of cost/benefit and net-effective-healthy-years analysis -- until the moment those thoughts were publicized. At that moment, we were assured by the entire left intellectual class he'd meant nothing of the sort.

And he was just spitballin', anyway. Meant nothing. Just tossin' out some ideas.

So it seems to me the "intellectual left's" ideation is open and free-wheeling and serious-minded about tough choice and untainted by political bullshit, until the point comes when the public starts reading their positions, at which point they disclaim them and fold up neatly into the protective arms of Democratic talking points.


Further, I think the left suffers from "epistemic closure" in not realizing that there are seriously controversial ideas debated on the right all the time -- many on the right, in the intellectual/academic/philosophical end of things -- urge such controversial ideas as abolishing the Department of Education altogether.

Or, yes, cutting Medicare severely.

True, most of the politically-minded right doesn't take such arguments seriously -- we might agree, in theory, with such arguments, but we know it would be suicidal to propose them -- but then, the politically-minded left doesn't take Glenn Greenwald's various shrieks very seriously, either.

The intellectual left is absolutely, universally not only opposed to measures restricting gay marriage, but affirmatively (and rather passionately) in favor of it. But few in the political left take that position seriously at all.

So, sure, the intellectual left gets to say a lot of controversial things that scare the straights, and they can pat themselves on the back for being "open minded" about such heretical thoughts, but in practice, either no one pays any attention to them or, the moment people do start paying attention to them, they walk back their claims into the dishonest safe-harbor mainstream political-side Democratic talking points.

What has been gained, exactly?

This is akin to the question, "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is near enough to hear it, does it make a sound?" Well, if the The Brave and the Bold of the academic left are allowed to write whatever they like for their own private consumption, but then, when their ideas escape to the general public, they are forced to repudiate them -- well, what's the point of those ideas, then? They're like the precious family jewels, never actually worn or displayed, only shown off in secret to the closest members of the family.


There are disagreements on the right about whether the Voting Rights Act enforcement regime should be ended. (That is, the former states of the Confederacy have to pre-clear all rules affecting voting with the Justice Department, which examines possible disparate racial impact and can overrule them with a simple vote in some executive-branch subcommittee.) There are columns about this. Papers written.

It's a controversial position -- because it sounds so bad, and would be demagogued as Jim Crow Returns -- and so the political end of the right never really pushes this idea at all.

Yet this debate, and debates just like it, occur all the time on the academic/philosphical/intellectual right.

It's just that Julian Sanchez apparently never reads the debates.

So who's epistemically closed?

And what, by the way, the hell does that even mean?

Oh: And on Julian Sanchez's own epistemic closure--

Ticking off a series of ideas he deems conspiracy-theory wack-a-doodle stuff, he casually tosses out, oh, these conservatives think ClimateGate actually undermines the substantive case for global warming.

Yeah... we actually think that.

Too bad we're not "epistemically open" to new evidence and willing to reevaluate old assumptions like you are!


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posted by Ace at 02:54 PM

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