This article was originally published in The New York Times
It has become common wisdom that the battle for the presidency is all about the economy. Voters are being told that the country’s economic health depends on pulling the right lever in the polling booth.
This election is certainly important. But based on the historical record, it isn’t likely to result in a major swing in economic policy. Fundamentally, democracy is not a finely tuned mechanism that can be used to direct economic policy as a lever might lift a pulley. The connection between what voters want, or think they want, and what ultimately happens in the economy, is far less direct.
Voters may be concerned about the economy, but there is little evidence that the electorate, as a whole, really wants to engage in close consideration of economics. The current campaign season is a case in point.
On the Democratic side, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama arguably represent the best thinking in their party. Yet voters seem to be making their judgment on the basis of image and style, not substance. Mrs. Clinton has won some state primaries by pulling in votes from Latinos, Asians and single women, while Mr. Obama does better among well-educated voters, the young and African-Americans. Former Senator John Edwards, perhaps the biggest “policy wonk” among the original Democratic candidates, never generated much voter support. He was often viewed as the guy with the $400 haircut, rather than as a leading advocate of the redistribution of economic wealth. If we look at opinion polls and actual voting patterns, the Democratic electorate has not been giving very definite economic instructions or making very specific demands.
On the Republican side, the situation is no better. The candidates have generally sought to cloak themselves in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, emphasizing his conservative principles, particularly his disdain for big government. But they might have stressed how President Reagan improved funding for the Social Security system or how he engineered what was then the largest tax increase in American history. In fact, the economic policies of his administration and that of Bill Clinton were marked by more continuity than change — and it is no accident that both administrations were happy to work with Alan Greenspan.
The economic debate is likely to be even less useful in the general election than in the primaries; general election campaigns tend to rely more heavily on the tactics of attack and misrepresentation. And for all the talk about the rising influence of independent voters, independents tend not to be as well informed as the partisans. Many studies have shown that voters who enter the election campaign with very particular views tend to be the ones who take the time and trouble to become well informed.
The classic response to such worries is simply to exhort voters to do better and to care more. No one can oppose such calls, but we would be wiser to recognize the limits of elections.
To put it simply, the public this year will probably not vote itself into a much better or even much different economic policy. To be sure, the next president — whoever he or she may be — may well extend health care coverage to more Americans. But most of the country’s economic problems won’t be solved at the voting booth. It is already too late to stop an economic downturn. Health care costs will keep rising, no matter who becomes president or which party controls Congress. China is now a bigger carbon polluter than the United States, so don’t expect a tax or cap-and-trade rules to solve global warming, even if American measures are very stringent — and they probably won’t be, because higher home heating bills are not a vote winner. A Democratic president may propose more spending on social services, but most of the federal budget is on automatic pilot. Furthermore, even if a Republican president wanted to cut back on such mandates, the bulk of them are here to stay.
Yes, the election does matter. Even small differences on economic issues affect millions of Americans. But the record of the Bush administration should prove sobering to all those who expect the American political economy to turn around in the next four years.
Many conservative and libertarian economists supported President Bush, thinking they would be getting policy drawn from the work of Milton Friedman and Martin Feldstein, two respected market-oriented economists. Instead, in economics, the Bush years have brought an increase in domestic government spending, and some poorly-thought-out privatization plans. For all the talk of an extreme right-wing revolution, government transfer programs like Social Security and Medicare have continued to grow. And despite big mistakes involving the Iraq war, Mr. Bush wasn’t punished by voters in 2004.
Of course, an administration can make big economic changes. The New Deal brought about a revolution in economic policy — but those were special circumstances. The United States was in a very deep depression, and the concept of economic planning was sweeping the world. That period is an exception; it does not reflect the general tendency of the American political system, which usually operates by checks and balances. Shifts in economic policy are usually quite moderate.
The reality is that democracy is a very blunt instrument, and in today’s environment we are choosing between ways of muddling through. We may hear that the election is about different visions for America’s future, but the pitches may be more akin to selling different brands of soap.
We hear so many superficial messages precisely because most American voters have neither the knowledge nor the commitment to evaluate the pronouncements of politicians on economic issues. It is no accident that the most influential political science book of the last year has been “The Myth of the Rational Voter,” by Bryan Caplan. The book shows that many voters are ill-informed or even irrational; many economic issues are complex, and each voter knows that he or she will not determine the final outcome.
Rather than being cynics, we should be realists. Democracy is reasonably good at some things: pushing scoundrels out of office, checking their worst excesses by requiring openness, and simply giving large numbers of people the feeling of having a voice. Democracy is not nearly as good at others: holding politicians accountable for their economic promises or translating the preferences of intellectuals into public policy.
That might sound pessimistic, but it’s not. Many Americans will be living longer, finding new sources of learning and recreation, creating more rewarding jobs, striking up new loves and friendships, and, yes, earning more money. Just don’t expect most of these gains to come out of the voting booth or, for that matter, Washington.
And if you’re still worrying about how to vote, I have two pieces of advice. First, spend your time studying foreign policy, where the president has more direct power, and the choice of a candidate makes a much bigger difference. Second, stop worrying and get back to work.