August 2, 2010

A Guide for Candidates for Engaging the Issues

Carroll Andrew Morse

Based on five years of observing the patterns of discussion associated with public policy issues of concern to Rhode Islanders, I'd like to offer a short list of principles that candidates and activists, first-timers and others, may find useful when bringing their ideas to the public...

1. No issue is as complex as someone whose objective is to prevent you from offering reasonable input will try to make you -- and the voters -- think that it is.

2. Statistics and rankings are not the final word on a subject, but meaningful numbers change for a reason. So make sure the numbers you choose to explain yourself with are the meaningful ones.

2A. There is no fundamental law of the universe that says Rhode Island has to be near the bottom of a list of state rankings. That Rhode Island is so often at the bottom of such lists is an indication of things that need to be changed, not that Rhode Island is doomed for all time.

3. Advocating "raise taxes and expand bureaucracy" is no more or less nuanced a solution to a policy issue than is advocating cutting taxes and cutting back bureaucracy; you are not required to "prove" that we don't need a tax increase or a new spending program any more than a tax-increase or spending advocate is required to "prove" that we do.

3A. But you entered your political race to win, not to tie, so make sure you can explain why your position is superior to that of your opponent's, and not just a reflexive mirror image.

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"is no more or less nuanced a solution to a policy issue than is advocating cutting taxes and cutting back bureaucracy"

The fact that the goal of shrinking government is not a nuanced stance does not make it wrong.

(Very good list, Andrew.)

Posted by: Monique at August 2, 2010 2:40 PM

I agree with your sentiment, but am thinking in terms of how stories about policy choices are often reported, where bigger government advocates get to take as their starting point the assumption that bigger government makes things better, and the burden of proof is placed on the rest of the world to "disprove" it. Smaller government advocates, on the other hand, are expected to explain how their specific policies will lead to better outcomes.

An obvious example of this dynamic would be healthcare. In many cases (think of a typical Froma Harrop column, for example), if you support Obamacare and its tax increases and multiplication of bureaucracies, you don't even have to know what's in the law -- an increase in the size of government is just assumed to correlate with improved healthcare outcomes for everyone(?). On the other hand, if you support policies that don't explicitly make government bigger, i.e. reforming the tax code, allowing insurance to be sold across state lines, etc., then you are expected to "prove", policy-by-policy, that what you you support actually make things better.

Even though we're dealing with a double standard that is not rational or fair, candidates still need to be thinking in terms of advancing arguments that will win in the civic enviornment that actually exists -- hence point 3A. Speicfically, with regards to subjects that they discuss, candidates need to be ready on two separate fronts: 1) being ready to explain how smaller-government proposals won't lead to destruction of human civilization as we know it and 2) forcing their opponents to explain why more spending, more taxes, and more regulation should be expected to legitimately improve things, when all of the big-government efforts we have now leave some serious deficiencies. Candidates ready on both fronts will find themselves on matters of substance in a superior position compared to opponents who have bought into the idea that big-government is always better and who say in effect let's just raise your taxes and trust everything else to take care of itself, with no subtantial changes necessary.

Point 3 from the main post is an attempt at a pithy summation of this dynamic (as opposed to the pith-free exposition of this comment!)

Posted by: Andrew at August 2, 2010 4:00 PM
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