Thursday, September 11, 2008

Judging Politicians

Listening to the back and forth on earmarks, ideology, and much else, it occurs to me that there are really two different ways in which voters try to evaluate politicians: the record and the person. Judging a politician by his past voting record seems the obvious policy—what he does, not what he says. But it isn't all that clear that it is the right policy.

The voting record, after all, reflects not only, perhaps not mainly, the policy preferences the politician actually holds. Politicians have to get elected and reelected, and that means that, to a considerable extent, they have to take the positions that will get people to vote for them, and donate money to their campaigns, and work for their campaigns. I suspect the result is that two politicians who are, say, governors of Alaska, will in many respects have similar policies, even if they are from different parties and different ideological backgrounds. So will two politicians who are state senators from the south side of Chicago.

If an ex-state senator from the south side is running against a governor of Alaska, they will have very different records in terms of what they supported and what they voted for. Gun control is a lot more popular in Chicago than in Alaska, hunting a lot more popular in Alaska than in Chicago. But whichever one wins the election—I am ignoring the minor distinction between a presidential and vice-presidential candidate—will have the same job, depend on the same electorate to get reelected. The differences that in large part explain their past record will have mostly disappeared.

So perhaps there really is something to be said for judging character rather than voting record. Doing so makes both candidates look better, at least to me. Obama's voting record is that of a very liberal Democrat. But what I can judge of his actual views, in part from the people around him, in part from his own statements, suggests that he is much less of an ideologue than that record suggests, that he might, for instance, make a serious effort to pull libertarians out of the Republican party, which has not given them much in recent years, and into the Democratic, something I suggested several years ago. He might even try to rebuild the Democratic party around something a little more up to date and relevant than the New Deal.

Similarly for Sarah Palin. As critics have pointed out, her much publicized opposition to earmarks and government spending stopped well short of declining federal money for Alaska when she, as governor, had a chance to get it. But then, that is what one would expect of a governor. Her actions with regard to Alaskan money are perhaps a better measure of how she would act with regard to federal spending if she got promoted out of her present job. And her general style suggests the sort of politician who would be willing to fight, perhaps able to win, against a variety of entrenched interest groups.

Now if I could just forget about those other two... .


Anonymous said...

ISTM you're taking advantage of lack of knowledge of how Obama and Palin will act on the national stage to hold more optimistic views of them than of McCain and Biden, two guys who've been on the national stage (but as senators, so still focused on their respective states--would Biden have voted as he did on the bankruptcy bill if he'd been from a different state?)

Unknown said...

uhh....but as you say, one is running for president and one is running for squat.

Donald Pretari said...

I am following up on your suggestion about reaching out to libertarians in the Democratic Party with a blog dedicated to the libertarian Democratic Point Of View. It might not work, but I think it's worth a shot. By the way, I agree with you about Sen. Obama.

Anonymous said...

Obama's actual voting record belies the economically moderate statements made in his book. And Palin's actions as Mayor and Governor bely the economic idealogy that Republicans allegedly proclaim.

When it comes to Democrat and Republicans personnel though, one party seems to be more hypocritical and suspectible to the corrupting influence of government than the other. For example, it is rather an oxymoron to be fiscally conservative in an institutionalized elitist system which is all about getting back to the revenues the Federal coerced from the State's citizens. You just can't win and you're very smart to not even join up and try (no disrespect to Libertarians intended). What does this say about the quality of character of those that do? It reminds me of research about the reality of medical schools: 99% of the idealists eventually drop out and the rest stay in just because of the money.

So if it becomes a question of character integrity, Palin is the most sorely lacking on a number of fronts relative to the three other candidates. Perhaps being a non-progressive blinds one to internal corruption? Or perhaps one only goes into politics solely for Machiavellian purposes.

Nonetheless, I don't believe voters vote for character, they vote for proclaimed shared values because that is what they want to see fostered on everyone else. Survivng torture may be character, but it is not a shared value on a political scale. A dying father once had to think long and hard over what advice he could give his daughter (when she would be older) about men and he came up with: Ignore everything they say and judge them solely by their actions.

Anonymous said...

David, are you suggesting that you would consider voting for a ticket based on the character of its VP nominee?

David Friedman said...

Anonymous asks if I would consider voting for a ticket based on the VP nominee. I suppose in principle the answer is yes--that could be a tie breaker if the presidential nominees were both equally bad.

But in this particular case, I'm not planning to vote for either--indeed for any--ticket. I'm merely discussing the question of how one does, and how one should, evaluate candidates.

Anonymous said...

Earlier I asked if you would consider voting on the basis of a VP nominee. You answered that you were not planning to vote at all, but that in principle the VP might be a tie-breaker.

Yet in your post you claim that the VP is nearly as important as the Prez. You call it a "minor distinction." Is that an accurate characterization, and if so, why?

David Friedman said...

"You call it a 'minor distinction.'"

It was supposed to be obvious that that was a joke.

Anonymous said...

A Confusing Dichotomy?

You propose an interesting contrast between "the record" and the "person." You go on to suggest that the record is what a person does, whereas the person is what a person says.

But most people don't identify a person with his words. They look at more substantial qualities like integrity, character, and authenticity.

These qualities, however, bridge your proposed distinction. They are about the relationship, or fit, between words and actions.

Further confusing matters, you throw in style and reputation as aspects of "person." Style sort of makes sense when you identify a person with his words -- what he says, rather than what he does.

But what does reputation -- e.g., the opinions of those close to Obama, or the popularity of Gov. Palin in Alaska -- have to do with words as opposed to actions?

Anonymous said...

-- "You call it a 'minor distinction.'" It was supposed to be obvious that that was a joke.

It is obvious now that you point it out.

I actually thought you might have some novel theory backing that up.

Andrew Hallman said...

6:09 anonymous said:

"But most people don't identify a person with his words. They look at more substantial qualities like integrity, character, and authenticity."

It's funny you should say that, because I would have said the opposite. It seems like a greater scandal is created when a politician has a slip of the tongue than when they vote for a dumb bill.

We've just seen recently how Palin's comments about doing God's will (something we've already discussed on this forum) and Obama's comments about putting lipstick on a pig qualify as front page news.

Friedman went through the trouble of analyzing the effects of Obama's tax proposal, but I think he is a rare bird in doing so (something he should take as a complement).

Anonymous said...

You can judge Obama by his record or by what he says. Either way, he loses. If his true character is totally different from what he has said and done, then it means he's a liar, and you don't want him as president.

Obama has sponsored legislation for "Card Check", which would eliminate the secret ballot in union elections -- opening the way for union intimidation. You'll muck up America if you unionize a lot of companies. When you introduce collective bargaining, the union will get above-market wages for the workers. Where does this extra money come from? Looking at this from the point of view of the company income statement, the main possibilities are raising prices or taking money out of profits. Raising prices may be possible if the entire industry is unionized (e.g., Hawaiian stevedores). You get a de facto monopoly (no stevedores, no food shipments, and Hawaii starves). So a union may benefit by gaining monopoly power and raising prices. This imposes penalties on a bunch of people chosen at random, in order to benefit another group of people chosen at random. Presumably, it worked this way in the Dark Ages. The other possible source of money is from profits. When a union reduces profits, it reduces the return on investment, causing investment to flee the company. The final result in this case is that workers are worse off than before unionization. Despite the fact that collective bargaining is a loser in the ways mentioned above, Obama likes it and wants to impose it by intimidation on companies throughout America.

Trade protectionism: Obama wants to create an economic wall around America so that we are prevented from enjoying the beneficial effects of comparative advantage. Obama thus pleases his union supporters.

Windfall profits tax: Obama doesn't like the Rule of Law, wherein you set up a tax system, and everyone then plays by known rules. Instead, he will change the rules as we go along, to reward some people and punish others, on the basis of popular sentiment. The mob will be empowered to steal whatever it wants.

School vouchers: Despite claiming he stands for "Change", Obama likes to keep things the same. Vouchers would introduce an on-going system of competition wherein new ideas could take hold if they are successful in the marketplace. Obama can't deal with this.

Self-description as a "Democrat": This is somewhat hypocritical, given that Obama favors "Card Check" intimidation over the secret ballot. Many tyrannical organizations are secretly ashamed of what they do, and try to pretend that they are synonymous with "The People". Thus, our "Card Check Democrats". Same goes for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Significantly, when a popular vote didn't give the "Democrats" what they wanted, they were very ready to abandon the popular vote.

Obama's positions, as outlined above, totally disqualify him from the presidency, in my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

The Person versus the Policy

When choosing a candidate, if we're not looking at the person, we're analyzing his policy proposals. Unfortunately, this distinction is blurred by the rubric of 'person' in Friedman's formulation.

Andrew (see above) says people choose a candidate based on his words more often than his personal characteristics. He gaves a few examples, but omits flip-flopping, an issue the media loves, but that isn't just about words.

Flip-flopping is about integrity - the relationship between the record and the words. Sarah Palin says she's against earmarks, yet she sought them out. Joe Biden joins Obama's ticket, yet he said Obama isn't ready to lead.

With respect to God and lipstick and taxes: First of all, in Friedman's analysis of Palin's comments, he focused on the technique of taking words out of context so as to deceive, arguing that Palin's words were given a meaning inconsistent with what she said. Where's the verbal gaffe?

Second, Obama's lipstick-on-a-pig comment raised not only issues of character, but of sexism and the tension between the use of personal attacks versus policy proposals in an election. I'm also curious, how does Andrew know this was a slip of the tongue?

Finally, Friedman's analysis of Obama's tax plan is his policy proposal, not his voting record. So how does this support Andrew's argument that words are more important to people than character in choosing a candidate?

I'm merely suggesting that there is a choice that divides voting behavior more clearly than the one Friedman proposes: Is this to be a contest of character, or policy?

[BTW, the last "anonymous" entry is by a new contributor to these comments, not the person who wrote "A Confusing Dichotomy."]

David Friedman said...

On judging the person ... .

I don't think it's as simple as what the person says, and certainly not the specific policy proposals. Under our system, a candidate for President pretty much has to tell two different and inconsistent sets of lies in order to get elected, one set targeted at his own party members for the nomination, another targeted at the complete electorate to get elected.

One forms an opinion of the politician as a person by a lot of things, including what he says, how he says it, what he has done as a politician, what he has done in his private life, what the people around him are like, ... . It's a very different process from saying "he voted for X in the past when he was a senator from Illinois, so he will support X if he is President."

And in some cases, part of it may be "he reminds me a lot of someone I know, and I have some idea of how that person would act if he were President."

Anonymous said...

I think you are making such an effort to like Obama that you are forgetting his actual record to judge him solely on the basis of "the people around him" during the campaign.

Now, when should we trust politicians more, during their actual life and acts or during a campaign?

Anonymous said...

Is Friedman Being Unfair to McCain?

I did not notice a pro-Obama bias. I have, however, noticed a bit of disdain for McCain: "if only I could forget about those other two guys" and no discussions about McCain or his proposals.

What's up with that? McCain has some real leadership qualities. He's also been running a pretty effective campaign considering the odds against him. That might say something good about those he surrounds himself with. He might not know much about the economy but maybe his advisors do.

I think Friedman discussed one of Obama's economic advisors, but I haven't heard him discuss any of McCain's advisors. What's up with that? Here are two links to articles discussing McCain's tax plans. The first is co-written by two of McCain's economic advisors. The second is by Greg Mankiw.



I'd love to hear David Friedman jump in the mix. In fact, he as an obligation to do just that. He has, after all, stepped into the arena by talking about Obama's tax plan. So he should be fair and talk about McCain's as well.

Anonymous said...

Lies, Lies, and Anti-Christianity

David, you've been a tad quick to accuse people of lying lately. You called the misinterpretation of Palin's comments a lie; and now you are saying that politicians basically have to tell two sets of lies in order to be elected.

The misinterpretation of Palin's quote may have been a lie or not depending on who was circulating it. If they knew that what they were saying wasn't true but they said it anyway because they wanted to discredit Palin, then they lied.

But some of the purveyors may have genuinely misunderstood what she was saying, and if so, then they got it wrong but they didn't lie. It wasn't exactly the most clear and concise sentence.

Furthermore, many people may have been simply too blinded by prejudice to understand what Palin was saying. Anti-christian views are pervasive and are not taboo.

In support of these alternatives, think about Charlie Gibson's interview with Sarah Palin. He has a job and reputation to protect, yet he interpreted the statement in just the way that you (and I) believe is false.

Plus, he juxtaposed his take on her statement with the actual video of her speech, potentially exposing his lie to everyone. Do you think he would do that if he believed that what he was saying was false?

Andrew Hallman said...

"I'm also curious, how does Andrew know this was a slip of the tongue?"

Actually, I never said it was. I talked about slips of the tongue in one paragraph and then in another mentioned a few comments that got a lot of ink and even though they were not about policy proposals.

This happened a lot to Dan Quayle. Quayle made many gaffes, some about where American cities are located or how words are spelled, and he was laughed at because of it.

"Finally, Friedman's analysis of Obama's tax plan is his policy proposal, not his voting record. So how does this support Andrew's argument that words are more important to people than character in choosing a candidate?"

I would say voters use these gaffes to judge the politicians' character, so I don't see it as the difference between weighing words and weighing character but rather between weighing embarrassing remarks made by the candidate and weighing their more thought out political ideas.

I can't give you any surveys to support this (although I'd bet some exist). I'm basing my argument on discussions I have had with people in my town and university.

Anonymous said...

Team Voting

Here's an interesting blog entry on the question of why people vote:

This suggests that we evaluate the candidate based how well he or she represents the party (like-minded people). That means people not only vote based on the person, his record, and his policies, but also the people who endorse him and the people he associates with.