Policy and Politics

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Planet Money, one of my favorite NPR productions, is a weekly podcast which looks at some of today’s economic issues. In one episode, they decided to figure out some of the policies on which economists from across the political spectrum tend to agree. Here’s the link to the blog post about it:¬†http://www.npr.org/2012/10/17/163104599/planet-moneys-fake-presidential-candidate They even made a fake candidate to advocate these ideas, and a fake political ad. We do not see many of the positions that they advocate in mainstream politics, from either the Democrats or the Republicans, because they tend to be highly unpopular. Yet, they are the solutions on which economic experts agree.

In Brown’s “Epilogue,” he asks several important questions, which center around the issue of an educated population, informed enough to make important policy decisions to guide the nation. The most interesting question, centers around “the democratic idea that citizens informed on the merits of a particular issue should organize to elect officials to do their bidding, not to serve as guides and guardians” (206). Though I believe that idea to be a great ideal for society to aim for–the governance by bureaucrats who only do the bidding of the electorate–I also believe it to be an implausible goal. Elected officials often have to make decisions that they were not elected to make; not only that, but those officials rely on experts who spend their careers studying the issues in question. Can we really expect the citizenry of this nation to be educated and informed enough to make the decision, in aggregate, for the official? Are not they swayed, as the official is, by the testimony of experts?

Furthermore, I agree with Brown that talk radio, television and the hegemony of the commercial sector obfuscate the decisions from which the electorate chooses. Middle and working classes tend to use elites as heuristics for their decision making, agreeing with those who resonate with them most deeply, often on an instinctual level. As much as they might claim that they believe in certain policy decisions, they are most likely regurgitating an opinion foisted upon them by their favorite self-described comedian (read Rush Limbaugh). The Planet Money policy proposals will mostly never be achieved, because right and left wing ideologues are too busy criticizing and nit picking speeches, or trying to decide who won a presidential debate. The media is part of the commercial sector, and they are, as Brown argues, both serving and shaping consumer desires. Most politically conscious citizens do not want to discuss policy, they just want to be upset about what the other side did.

In the end, 300 million people informed well enough to make good policy decisions is not a feasible goal. Elites have always made and will always continue to control policy. As Brown concludes, and I agree, people must look for those “sterling qualities” of “learning, judgment and integrity” in their public officials, and hope that those officials can discern the best policy choices.

Alex argues that the media limits the electorate’s ability to become educated and informed on political issues. Unfortunately, I believe that this influence is an inevitable outcome of the commercial sector’s desire to influence and control the populace. Yet, we would likely fare no better under a more socialist system, since state controlled media doesn’t seem to work any better at informing people. Perhaps NPR is the model for the future, an entity funded mostly by the donations of the people. In the spirit of our nation, media by the people, for the people.