Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 November 2010

Occam’s Razor and the Midterms


The phrase “Occam’s Razor” is shorthand for a central truth: the simplest and most direct explanation of anything is usually the right one. So it is with the midterm elections.

The GOP and Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Lies would have you believe that the same public that enthusiastically endorsed the Democrats generally in 2006 and Barack Obama specifically in 2008 suddenly got conservative religion in 2010 and moved decisively to the right. Like the mythical liberal who converts instantly to rabid conservatism after being mugged, its story goes, our whole populace decisively switched sides in a mere two years, after taking the President for a fraud, a “Manchurian candidate,” who won the White House on false pretenses and morphed into a socialist monster.

A related explanation, equally cynical, is the property of disappointed progressives. This one holds that the Empire of Lies managed to convince the vast bulk of independent voters of its unlikely story and they, brainwashed zombies, voted accordingly. The Empire, this story goes, enjoyed a complete propaganda victory.

Either explanation is of course plausible. As one wag observed, it is impossible to go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

But a far more plausible explanation is the simplest one. The mass of “independent” voters in the center decided this election. They are not only uncommitted to any strong ideology. They are also uninterested and untutored in politics. They gave no more credence to the highly abstract inventions of the Empire of Lies than they did to the massive ad campaigns on which rich amateurs spent tens of millions of dollars (and in Meg Whitman’s case, well over $ 120 million) of their own money.

Not only didn’t these voters know why things got bad. They didn’t particularly care. They’re not theorists. They’re victims of theory. All they knew was the intense pain of suffering job loss or underemployment, foreclosure, and a stark downward turn in their personal economic fortunes. So they lashed out in 2010 in the same crude and simple way that they did in 2008 and 2006. They voted the bastards in power out, whoever those bastards happened to be.

A slightly more complex but equally plausible explanation is what I call the “spoiled child” model of the electorate. Over a decade of credit-fueled irrational exuberance, a certain segment of the public had become accustomed to an easy life, including new cars on credit and McMansions for mortgages too good to be true. In many cases, they also had learned to rely on jobs too easy to be real, such as redundant middle management or writing mortgages without having to extract any evidence of the borrower’s ability to repay.

Now, like spoiled children throwing a tantrum, they expected their indulgent parents to meet their every whim and correct thirty years of bad policy in twenty-one months. It didn’t help their mood that their “parents,” aka Congress, ignored their greatest need (for “jobs, jobs, jobs”) by “wasting” a lot of time and energy on health-insurance and financial reform. It also didn’t help that Congress accomplished these rather modest reforms with two-thousand-page monstrosities that many members admitted they didn’t even read, and that the children sensed instinctively (and probably rightly) were full of lobbyists’ tricks.

All these things, plus Congress’ incessant over-the-top partisanship and steadfast refusal to work together for obvious and reasonable goals, left these children feeling like neglected and traumatized victims of a messy divorce.

In my last post, I hinted at this Occam’s Razor explanation for the Democrats’ rout in the House, but in less detail. Seldom has the world of news so quickly provided evidence of my understanding. Exhibit A is the 153 readers’ comments to a Wall Street Journal story appearing Thursday, headlined “McConnell: No Mood for Compromise.”

For at least the last six months, the WSJ comments I have read provoked feelings of anxiety and despair. Almost any story about economics or politics, however remote from the presidency, produced a flood of comments castigating the President and his administration, as well as “liberals.” These comments used the most virulent and hateful language. Many of them were little more than name calling. So numerous, spiteful and rabid were they that I began to suspect many had been written by the Empire’s own propagandists, or by testosterone-fueled teenage sons of subscribers, full of adolescent certitude and sarcasm.

So when I turned to the comments in the story about Mitch McConnell’s post-victory intransigence, I expected more of the same. I expected reams of triumphalist chest-beating and figurative stomping on the prone corpses of “liberals.”

What I got was nothing of the kind. Among the 153 comments, only a few were triumphalist, and only a handful even mentioned the President. The vast majority said, in essence, pretty much the same thing: “We didn’t switch horses in mid-stream to have the new horse throw off our reins and run off in the opposite direction, again perpendicular to our real needs. We want jobs, jobs, jobs. We don’t want political posturing, intransigence, blind ideology or effort wasted in bashing the other political party, however misguided it may be. And we don’t want any more energy and time wasted on repealing health-insurance reform than we wanted on passing it in the first place.”

Comment after comment made these points, in varying degrees of coherence and articulation. The tone was suspicious, cynical and angry. One or two even called McConnell a “zombie” (which his habitual lifeless and deadpan delivery so accurately mimics). You could already see buyers’ remorse setting in among independents, a mere two days after the historic GOP victory in the House.

If you doubt the correctness of the Occam’s Razor or spoiled-child theory, I invite you to peruse the comments. Even without comparing them to the previous torrent of over-the-top animosity against the President, you can see a testament to the American people’s common sense and the political center’s lack of strong ideological leanings in any direction. Already―two days after the election― these comments showed timorous hope souring into cynicism and anger at anyone who so much as hints at a goal besides restoring gainful and dignified employment to our middle class.

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