The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Running Against Scarecrows

Ryan mentioned the old "Bush/Republicans lied" idea below, which always gets me in a bit of a snit, which is strange considering I don't really feel the need to defend the President. But for all of his true faults I am amazed that the idea that Bush lied about Iraq still manages to creep its way into civil discourse. This got me to thinking about a trap that all politicians set for themselves. Let's call it the "Strawman Trap."

Any given politician will usually offer several justifications for a given policy. One justification will usually be a "sound bite." This justification is in the form of an advertisement. Ideally, it captures the essence of the argument while at the same time lodging itself in the unsuspecting populace's brain. One of the problems with sound bites, however, is that because they are simple, they are also vague, open to misinterpretation, and occasionally false. They always start out as strawman arguments on the politicians behalf, but because they are simple, the strawman can quickly become mutinous.

The second justification is the "complicated reason" and it is intended for policy wonks. This is the real explanation, but explaining it would take a long time, and hearing it would bore most people. Usually the justifications are somewhat related, but sometimes they are not. When the sound bite and complicated reason don't match, that politician is in for a long couple of months.

Iraq was certainly an example of this. WMDs were one of many justifications for the war in Iraq, and they quickly became the sound bite. I always believed that the true justification was the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Liberal pundits seized on the WMD meme, driving it harder and harder as it became clear that none would be found. They claim that "Bush lied" (which is silly. All domestic and foreign intelligence, and Bill Clinton before Bush, believed the same thing). However, this was and is a straw man argument. The belief that WMDs existed in Iraq was only one of many many reasons for the war. It made a good sound bite, and it seemed likely that they would be found at the outset, but eventually Bush lost control of this strawman and he paid for it.

Other strawmen soon joined the ranks of a quickly swelling straw army. Some claimed that the President insisted that Iraq had a hand in 9/11. He never did, as doing so would have been incredibly stupid. They were and still are connected to terrorism (especially in Israel), but not 9/11. However, the facts could not stop this strawman from joining the fray as well.

But this is old news. A brand new strawman trap is gaining strength right now, and it deals with the privatization of Social Security. There are few sure things in life. There are death and taxes. There is the fact that Pokemon was invented to teach children the joys of cockfighting. And then there are Paul Krugman's Tuesday and Friday New York Times columns in which he will bash the idea of Social Security privatization.

Krugman has seized on the sound bite argument that Social Security is in crisis. Bush has pushed this idea himself as it plays to a lot of voters. Every election Democrats push the idea that Republicans will cut Social Security in a sad attempt to pander to old people. If Republicans can convince everyone that Social Security is in dire straits their attempts to change it (for good or for ill) will not encounter the same kind of resistance. This is the sound bite argument.

Krugman has a point that calling the problems with Social Security a "crisis" is overstating things a bit, but it's not the true "complicated" argument, and he knows it. The true argument is as follows.

Right now, current workers pay old people. There are currently a lot more workers than there are old people. This makes the arrangement tolerable. In fifteen years or so the number of workers to old people will be about 2/1. That is not a very big margin. While we will still be able to fund Social Security with those numbers, either taxes will have to go up, or benefits will have to be cut. (See Arnold Kling's articles on the subject.)

Krugman appears to advocate maintaining the status quo. At some point the status quo will either fail or impose a much more serious burden on workers. I would like to know Krugman's take on the actual complicated problem, and not just the sound bite. While I'm quite sure I will disagree with it, at least we will have something to discuss. Until then, he's just taking up valuable NYT real estate.


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