A Paul Krugman column is usually a carefully constructed memetic trap. If you accept his terms and assumptions, he will nab you.
Krugman’s Monday column is a fine case in point. He is trying to shill for Hillary Clinton, again, and he is doing so, this time, by attempting to dissuade youngsters from voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson. As I start typing, I have only read the first paragraph and the title. Still, I can already say what one often can say about this “economist’s” columns: he is not thinking like an economist.
First, the title. Normally, one should not blame a writer for a published title. Magazine and newspaper editors usually reserve titling for themselves. But Krugman is a Nobel Laureate. He surely has control, here. He is one of the New York Times’s true “stars” . . . which says a lot about the state of the New York Times. But I digress.
The title is “Vote as if It Matters.” Now, whenever you see, in print, a command — particularly a command to you, the reader — ask why. Challenge it.
This applies to my command, above. You, the reader should question my authority. And certainly Krugman’s.
“As if” constructions imply pretense. In football we were screamed at, by coaches, “hit as if your mean it!” I did not mean it, I can tell you. So I pretended to pretend I meant it.
The title gives you a clue: your vote doesn’t matter . . . in the way you might be inclined to think. Indeed, it does not matter in the way the author, Krugman, assumes. You can tell by the terms used: do x “as if” y matters. But what if y — contrary to assumptions — doesn’t matter? You are not supposed to think that.
But: think that.
One of the most important contributions economists have made to the theory of democracy is the realization that votes are not valued for their ostensible utility in producing an outcome, not like spending one’s dollars. You spend a dollar, you get what you pay for. You vote, and . . . you get what a plurality or majority of voters at large voted for, not necessarily, or in any way causally, what you voted for.
When you spend money, your money is productive of the goods received. Votes do not have that same instrumental value . . . to the voter. (Votes en masse of course have value to politicians and partisans and ideologues. But that is very different.) A single vote does not decide an election. Therefore, its value has to derive from something else. An expression of one’s preference, a signal to other voters, a rite that one goes through to feel at one with a movement outside oneself? All plausible. But the value of a vote, in terms of its direct economic benefit, is well nigh zero.
So when Krugman tells you to “vote as it if matters,” he is telling you to treat your vote in an unrealistic way, to vote in a manner in which efficiency and productivity can mean nothing to you directly.
Why does he want you to vote unrealistically? Because he wants you to over-value your vote, to make you feel responsible for an outcome you did not cause.
Keep this in mind as you consider his argument, set out clearly in the first paragraph:
Does it make sense to vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president? Sure, as long as you believe two things. First, you have to believe that it makes no difference at all whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump moves into the White House — because one of them will. Second, you have to believe that America will be better off in the long run if we eliminate environmental regulation, abolish the income tax, do away with public schools, and dismantle Social Security and Medicare — which is what the Libertarian platform calls for.
Now, I do believe that there would be a difference between a Hillary and a Donald presidency. Most people do. But what that difference is, I have only a few clues.
With Hillary you get a corrupt warmonger in dubious health and mentality, and with Trump you get a shoot-from-the-hip mudslinger with goofy protectionist ideas. Whether their administrations would be light years apart in policy and tenor, or just a few inches, we cannot know. My suspicion that Donald Trump is in reality a mere centrist Democrat, perhaps as far left as Jimmy Carter, has not been falsified by much. His rhetoric sounds different, but remember: Trump is mostly pretense. He is the former star of a TV reality show. He has put on an act. And run with it. For reasons saddening to me, American men, especially, have fallen for it. Hillary, on the other hand, is not a good actor, but she is a liar. A known liar. A proven liar. But then, she is a politician, and while it is not true that all politicians, like Cretans, always lie, all politicians do lie. And she has learned how to get away with it. Partly she has gotten away with it because so many women of the professional and educated classes want to see a woman in the Top Banana seat, to the exclusion of all sensible standards.
But the crucial thing is, regarding voting: no vote you cast, for Hillary, for Trump, for Gary Johnson, for Marvin the Martian, will give the election to either Trump or Clinton. The assumption that Krugman’s first point rests upon is that you, the voter, are somehow responsible for the outcome of an election, and that to prevent something bad from happening, you must do something about it.
Nonsense. And Krugman, being an economist, knows it. He has laid a trap. You, the reader, are supposed to walk into it, and do as he says.
Krugman’s second point is even more absurd. Not only does he hold a voter responsible for the outcome of choosing a candidate, to guilt or shame or spook the voter to voting in a certain way, in his second point he not only does that, but holds a candidate responsible for his party’s complete platform. Since Gary Johnson has publicly repudiated some elements of the Libertarian Party platform — he has reassured us that he has no interest in getting rid of the safety net, Medicare and Social Security especially, that we just have to keep the welfare state intact — Krugman’s second point is hardly plausible at all.
Consider: if it had been discovered, in 2008 or 2012, that Obama was at heart a communist, should non-commie Democrats have not voted for Obama? Maybe they liked a halfway measure like Obamacare, but not full single-payer healthcare. Would Krugman have discouraged those Democrats from voting for Obama? No. He would have argued with them that, even if Obama had wanted to turn most of the economy over to the State, he could not get away with it, there being checks and balances in American governance, after all — so, well, don’t worry!
Most Americans are not libertarians. So why should a young non-libertarian vote for Johnson and Weld?
Well, that is a good question. Why should any non-warmonger vote for Hillary Warmonger Clinton? Why should any free trader vote for Donald Protectionist Trump?
And yet many of each type do.
Krugman is not asking deep questions of motives and democratic systemics. He is trying to persuade his younger readers not to look behind the curtain. For, it turns out, that title was his, no doubt. For he reiterates its instructions:
So I’d like to make a plea to young Americans: your vote matters, so please take it seriously.
The truth is, your individual vote does not matter. What matters is what vast hordes of voters do. So politicians on the stump and ideologues in the newspapers want as many people as possible to vote their way, not necessarily your way, and will use bad arguments to get you to jump into one voting pool rather than another.
I could use economic jargon to explain this, but I think by this time, there is no need. What people thinking about voting have to ask themselves is: why are they voting?
It is not to determine the outcome of an election. If it is, they are fools, dupes. Democracy is nothing like a supermarket. Your “votes” at the Piggly Wiggly yield you positive results, and you can hone your next purchase based on your evaluation of this purchase, just as this purchase was based on your evaluation of the last. But your votes, not determining what you get, become weird signals the precise meaning of which cannot be determined by ballot counters, statisticians, or . . . anyone, including perhaps even yourself, with any precision.
But still, many of us do vote. We engage in a pretense that what we do, individually, counts. In some way. On some level.
When it comes to voting on an initiative and referendum, I vote for the outcome I prefer. But if I neglect to vote in an election, my conscience is clear. I know that my vote has never decided an election. And never will.
Indeed, a few years ago it almost did! I voted for a county commissioner, and the vote count was a tie! Had it been, say, 481-480, with the one extra vote going to my candidate, I could have ascribed some utility to my vote. (How to do that math is, ahem, tricky.) But it was a tie, and the election was decided by a coin toss! My guy picked the reverse, not the obverse. I had voted one way, and got the opposite.
Do you see how much the system is set against any single vote deciding anything?
When it comes to candidates, anyone with a brain in their heads realizes that no one can perfectly represent even one other person, much less all who vote for that other candidate — and no way for all the voters. But the conceit of democracy is that representation does happen.
Since no one represents all of my ideas, I choose the candidate who comes closest, at least on the most important issues to me, offsetting this against a very different criterion, that of who embarrasses me, or offends me, or frightens me least.
For my part, foreign policy and trade policy are the big issues. I believe that a bad foreign policy makes where I live unsafe, and can harm the rest of the world the most, and cause the most moral horror, so I rank that highest. And free trade makes those around me the wealthiest, overall, and leads to greater peace, globally, and greater wealth, globally. That is second.
So, I would never vote for a protectionist, like Trump, or a warmonger like Clinton. The Libertarians represent a move towards peaceful globalism, and that is a distinct good, in my book. So I tend to overlook Johnson’s and Weld’s obvious flaws, on these issues and others, simply because they are generally anti-war and pro-trade.
Krugman is really appealing to this kind of attitude when he talks about, say, privatizing Social Security. He assumes that most of his readers will look at the mere mention of getting rid of (or even reforming) Social Security as crossing a clear taboo boundary.
Amusingly, it was Social Security that really grabbed my attention when I contemplated my first Libertarian candidate, years ago. For Social Security, I saw, was a raw deal: with each generation it increased the burden of paying into it, thus increasing the amount of sheer servility in society, while also increasing the lust to live at others’ expense. But most folks do not understand how Ponzi schemes work, or how a modified tontine might work. And what happens when the government enforces such schemes on everybody. So, Krugman is out to scare youngsters. Whereas I see the Libertarian case against Social Security as just good common sense.
My big advice to young voters is to forget writers like Krugman, who are out to manipulate you with specious arguments and long-ago falsified paradigm assumptions.
Think for yourself.
And vote for the person you want, for the reasons that make most sense to you.
Just do not get caught in tribalism, into thinking that your vote defines you and your commitment to a group, barring other considerations. Of course, groupthink is the norm in politics. For most of the ardent participants, partisanship overrides nearly everything. But look where all that has led us: Democrats offering up Hillary the Corrupt, Republicans offering up Donald the Dubious, and Krugman offering up anti-economic blather.
Because your vote does not matter to you in the same way it matters to others, take the opportunity this opens up to rethink what you have been taught, and the opinions into which, by nature and circumstance, you fell. In other words, think “seriously about what you want to see happen to America.”
But please, first grasp the reality of what is happening, without the prejudicial nonsense from prevaricators and base rhetoricians like Paul Krugman.