Thursday, August 26, 2010

Politics: On Anger

TORONTO, ONTARIO - North America seems to be a hotbed of anger this year, at least politically. The TEA party in the United States has famously risen from voter anger at government, and here locally in Toronto, the candidate who has made anger the main theme of his campaign, Rob Ford, is leading in mayoral polls. The problem with anger is the candidates who ride waves of anger rarely have effective policies and almost never solve the problems that created the voter anger.

The TEA party's main solution is to all problems seems to be paring the size of government, and, in many cases, lowering taxes. With effective tax rates at historical lows, the faction of the TEA party favoring that idea really has no precedent to cite that this will actually lead to balanced budgets, the main driving goal of the organization. For those members of the TEA party who simply want to cut government to balance the budget, not necessarily lowering taxes, they may have a fiscal point, but cutting government means cutting government jobs. Economist Dean Baker on Sunday put it best, "I fail to see how eliminating government jobs is going to help the economy at this time."

The bottom line for most economists is that there is no simple solution to the current economic malaise and deficit problems. Solutions need to be very nuanced, with strategic tax increases, strategic cuts, and even strategic stimulus combined with a clear long-term plan to balance the budget all elements of working our way out of the problem without making it much worse in the interim. If we actually follow the TEA party prescription instead, in all likelihood things will get worse in the short term as the unemployment rates goes up, and people will only become more angry.

Locally, Rob Ford talks about reducing the size of Toronto's government, but it's quite unclear exactly what he can get through city council to actually eliminate. Even left-leaning mayor David Miller ended up with a civic worker's strike--does Ford not anticipate the same sort of thing happening if he tries to change the fundamentals of the game? In Ford's case, it is less flaws in his anger-driven policies--it's his ability to actually implement anything if elected.

I tried to go back through past politicians and find one who was elected based on angry backlash who proved to be effective in government. I couldn't find one. Arguably, the most successful proponent of the same fiscal policies that the TEA party supports was Ronald Reagan, and he wasn't about anger, but "morning in America."

Ronald Reagan--and Barack Obama, for that matter--provided a template for how to ride a wave of discontentment: Turn it into hope instead of anger. Maybe Obama monopolized that theme in the last cycle, but I'm having trouble finding any candidates trying to provide a hopeful vision on the left or the right, at any level, in this year's elections. I'm convinced it's possible even in a down economy to be hopeful and realistic. Candidates seem to be so afraid of voter anger that they can't channel it into anything positive.

There's still time before the fall elections. If any candidates finally do strike hopeful themes, I suspect they'll do well come election day.

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