Honest Politics

Robert Samuelson in today’s Post:

There’s a vast gap between the country’s problems and the candidates’ agendas and rhetoric. The candidates dissemble because they believe that Americans don’t want the truth. It would be too upsetting.  They’re probably right. Let’s imagine what a candidate inoculated with truth serum might say. …

"I know you worry about the economy. So do I. But, frankly, if you elect me, I won’t do much about it. … We must also cut spending … cuts should focus on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. … raising eligibility ages … ‘Energy independence’ is a fraud. … All we can do is limit our dependence by shifting to more-efficient vehicles and increasing domestic production. … Without major technological breakthroughs, making big cuts in greenhouse gases will be impossible. … Unless we stop poor people from coming across our Southern border … we won’t reduce [USA] poverty."

Of course, our hapless candidate would be dismissed as misinformed, offensive, possibly racist and, of course, unelectable. People say they value candor, but in practice they don’t. … Politics is mostly … about offering up convenient scapegoats and instant solutions for voters’ complaints, even if the villains and promises are often false.  We in the media bless this process by treating much of the self-serving rhetoric with undeserved seriousness.  Is it any wonder that our genuine problems persist year after year and, in the end, foster public cynicism?

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  • josh

    Ron Paul’s experience pre-racist newsletter is a good data point. A vocal minority appreciates his candor, but he was nevertheless “dismissed as misinformed, offensive, possibly racist and, of course, unelectable.” Of course, he was more misinformed and possibly racist that the candidate Samuelson describes.

    One quibble: “Unless we stop poor people from coming across our Southern border … we won’t reduce poverty.”

    I thought people coming across our southern border is EXACTLY how we reduce poverty.

  • “Politics won’t allow for the truth. And we can’t blame the politicians for that. Imagine what even a little truth would sound like on today’s campaign trail:
    “No, I can’t fix public education. The problem isn’t the teachers unions or a lack of funding for salaries, vouchers or more computer equipment The problem is your kids!””

    Pj O’Rourke on Fairness, idealism and other atrocities at

  • I thought people coming across our southern border is EXACTLY how we reduce poverty.

    It’s how we reduce global poverty, but it increases the number of poor people in the US. But he’s wrong that we should only allow highly skilled immigrants. Highly skilled people don’t need our help. The global poor do.

  • I have been saying for years the US has a shortage of poor people. How do I know? Because we must important them. Imagine, we can’t grow enough of our own so must import them. What a country.

  • We want our politicians to be candid, but we also want them to agree with us and to win. Because we all disagree with each other, no candidate can do all three of those things. So what politicians do is speak in platitudes which nobody takes seriously — and kind of wink at everybody suggesting that he agrees with you but just can’t come out and say so because of politics. Ideally (for the politician) both voter A and voter B believe that candidate C secretly agrees with them even though they disagree with each other.

  • poke

    That’s democracy. You trade the ability to implement any kind of long-term solution to your problems for some sort of elusive advantage that nobody has actually been able to quantify yet but we’re all sure exists.

  • ad

    Assume a candidate was being truthful. How would the average voter know he was being truthful? How can the voters reward truthfulness when they cannot even recognise it?

    I think this is an argument for prediction markets. A candidate would be able to say “You can believe that my policies would be better than my opponents, because the smart money thinks so”.

  • ad

    poke: the advantage of democracy is that if the rulers act in a manner obviously bad for most of their people, it is possible to get rid of the rulers.

    There is a reason there have never been any communist democracies.

  • anonymous

    “Without major technological breakthroughs, making big cuts in greenhouse gases will be impossible”
    Negative, major emission cuts have happened in Europe(atleast in my country) thanks mostly to new technology. Keep living in your make-believe world and nothing will ever be done.

  • Unnamed

    Of course he’s right the politicians aren’t perfectly truthful because some cases of honesty would keep them from getting elected, but much of what he calls “the truth” is just what Robert Samuelson believes. Others have already raised the immigration and global warming issues, so here’s one other point where what he says is, at best, debatable: spending cuts should focus on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. … raising eligibility ages for baby boomers and cutting some benefits …

    Take a look at the projections of the growth of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid through 2050. Social Security is expected to grow somewhat as a percentage of US GDP over the next 25-30 years and then stabilize at a little over one and a half times its current cost. Medicare and Medicaid are projected to keep growing much more steeply – doubling in cost every 25 years or so. And private healthcare spending is projected to grow just about as fast as Medicare and Medicaid. So the long-term problem with growing “Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid” costs is really a problem with growing healthcare costs. We’re not going to solve it by cutting Social Security – even if we completely eliminated Social Security the combined costs of “Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid” (as a percent of GDP) would return to current levels within about two decades. And I doubt that fiddling around with the details of Medicare and Medicaid will do the trick either. If we want to keep entitlement spending down then we’re going to need some bigger changes in the healthcare system (perhaps something Hanson-style or perhaps something to make our healthcare system more similar to those in other countries).

  • Grant

    Ron Paul seemed to be very candid, so here is my question: If other candidates were equally candid, would they seem equally crazy? How often would a completely honest person from a different economic and cultural background seem sane to us?

  • Mother Teresa

    Elect me, and I will no longer allow tax exempt status for any religions that can not prove the empirical existance of god.

    Is that enough truth for you? Will they vote for me in West Virginia?

  • Didn’t we have an honest candidate a while back? Paul Tsongas, or maybe Bruce Babbitt? Didn’t get far. Of course lots of people like McCain because they think he’s a straight-talker. *cough*

    But yeah, that list of things doesn’t seem like the empirical truth to me, if not in fact empirically false, though it might be what a lot of Republicans believe.

  • Lord

    Yes, the problem is his ‘truth’ is only a reflection of his own biases. It is probably the reason Republicans are so unsuccessful. They don’t believe anything they say.

  • josh


    Robin Hanson, Paul Krugman, Bryan Caplan, and Brad Delong all seem perfectly sane to me. However, if they were running for office I think at least two would be considered crazy.

  • part of me thinks there’s an aspirational element to politicians rhetoric, that it’s bad when someone tells the truth because people interpret that not just as a positive statement but something with normative content, so saying things in a realistic way sort of signals to people you think that we can’t do much about things, but believing you can do things about situations probably correlates with better results, i would guess, so someone who promises the moon maybe is seen (perhaps legitimately) as someone who will do better than someone who doesn’t promise much. maybe the same logic holds for bosses who prefer people who make promises that are over the top to people who give accurate estimates of what they can do.

    a person who makes a public promise might sort of commit himself and so the bigger the promise maybe the harder a person will work towards those aims.

    i can see a person who makes big promises being energizing to a group and more likely to accomplish great things compared to someone who is more realistic (possibly a sign of depression and hence lethargic leadership!) in a tribal environment, and maybe it is the case on a grander scale too. who were realists in rhetoric and who were unrealistic in rhetoric? i think of carter on one end and regan on the other as examples.

    i suppose a happy medium might be to focus on what can be done with some energy and enthusiasm and reasonable optimism. “we probably can’t completely reverse x negative trend, but we’ve done great things in the past, and it’s not unreasonable that we can do great things regarding this problem too.”

  • Grant


    Bryan Caplan is an anarchist, and Robin Hanson believes people should (gasp!) bet on terrorism! I’m quite certain both would be considered completely bonkers by the voting public and media 😉 Paul Krugman is already pretty politicized, so I don’t think it would be very hard for him to appear sane.

    I haven’t read Brad Delong’s blog much, so I can’t really comment. But I’d bet a lot that anyone who blogs regularly could easily be portrayed as nuts by the media by selectively reporting their posts.

  • Floccina

    He might also say:

    Things are very good here in the USA.
    We are very rich on average and we keep getting richer
    Our problem of being fat is result of the affordability of food and so is a good problem to have. It is wonderful to live in a place even the poor can be fat.
    Life expectancy is higher than it has ever been and will get higher.
    Global warming so far have been net good. And we got solutions like biochar waiting in the wings should it get bad.
    Our schools are real not significantly worse than schools anywhere
    We won the war in Iraq. It only lasted 2 weeks. We can bring the troops home with little danger to US citizens.
    There is no reason to fear the radical Islamists; compared to us they are increadible weak.
    We humans can make plenty of energy. The long term price is down.
    The crime rate is falling.

    These are good times.

  • Frank Hirsch

    [ad:] the advantage of democracy is that if the rulers act in a manner obviously bad for most of their people, it is possible to get rid of the rulers.

    Yo, but (1) in all but the rarest circumstances acts which are bad for the majority are easily made palatable using secrecy, obfuscation and false pretences; and (2) getting rid of the rules is only easy if you believe that the political stage actors are also the genuine writers and directors of the show.

  • Alan

    Which fantasy world do you want to inhabit? The phenomenon described may be lifted from from politics and taken into an even broader context. People generally don’t want to hear the unvarnished truth if it contradicts or may be perceived to challenge their preconceived notions. As a professional, you’d better be pretty careful to let the individual reach his or her own conclusions. Otherwise, telling it like you see it is an invitation to being scapegoated. I used to think that “shoot the messenger” was only a medieval practice turned colorful metaphor. But blaming the messenger seems to be a hard-wired tendency of the human psyche.

  • The thing is – contrary to popular cynicism politics does matter, and most of the things you call “impossible” work quite well in Europe. If politics didn’t matter everything would be the same in every country, but it’s not – some countries like USA became a lot more unequal in the last 25 years, while others like most of Europe managed to keep their high equality without sacrifice of economic growth.

  • Caledonian

    The western European countries rebuilt in the wake of the destruction of their material and societal infrastructure, and they had far less internal diversity of identity and belief to contend with. They are also currently dying, slowly, in part because of their systems of artificial ‘equality’.

  • Phillip Huggan

    Er, Robin, everything Samuelsson’s truth serum candidate said was false. Every single point. About the only economic platform R.Paul is right about is marijuana decriminalization (since your country spends more on prisons than universities).

    The main reason politicans (outside of Northern Europe) don’t speak the truth is that in addition to helping their citizens, they must also serve their political base. And these objectives often conflict. Another reason is that often politicans don’t know economically successful policies. When all three of the above synch up, you get things like corn ethanol subsidies instead of the opposite: wind turbine (an existing technology) subsidies.

    An honest American politican would identify a few million big salaried people that he must serve as “superdelegates” ahead of the American people. And when presented with a list of spending and employment alternatives, would mention where he has insufficient knowledge. The former would lose his parties nomination and the latter would be used to destroy him/her in a general election.

    It is funny watching G.Soros collapse economies and spend the proceeds on progressive things like strengthening democracies and internet penetration. Likewise for W.Buffett donating his money to B.Gates’s excellent charitibale trust after making the money funding the Neoconservative Washington Post and buttressing sub-prime mortgage actors. I stopped wanting to be a hedge fund manager after learning of this and learning the best business blueprint is to stymie innovation by being a patent leech (ie. Buffett’s investment strategy would fund insulin but not a diabetes cure).

  • Mayson Lancaster


    “If you must tell the truth, be sure to leave them laughing.” [look what happened to Jesus]

    “There once was a man who did one thing right, and one thing wrong: he told a fool that he was a fool, and he forgot not to be standing next to a deep well at the time.”

  • Phillip

    I was just watching the Replicans speaking in Iowa. They were telling people that we must slash health care and every other program that helps them, and force women to have children even if they were raped, and everyone who isn’t a straight, union-bashing, preferably white, bible-thumping god-fearing christian isn’t worthwhile. And wealthy corporatings should not pay taxes and have no regulations. And they get standing ovations. The democrats insist that we must increase our deficit, increase tax only on the wealthy, and expand failing programs and have government control everything. Their policies pressure companies to move overseas and drive the debt even higher and destry unions that they pretend to support. And the base supports them. The problem is that all politicians care about is getting elected, and they believe to do that, they must placate their base. In 1984, Fritz Mondale was honest to the American people and was soundly defeated. Both sides want sacrifices, but only from the other side. A truly honest candidate cannot win. A few brave politicians over the years have been honest. They have all lost. Like Jack Nicholson once said, “You can’t handle the truth.”