A popular narrative of the recent election is that Americans are fed up with the federal government’s inability to “live within its means.” Real American people have to; state governments have to (more or less); the federal government should as well. I could write for days about the ways in which the analogy from personal finance to government finance fails, but who has the time? My concern in this post is with the media coverage of this narrative on and shortly after the mid-term elections.
On election night, and in the days following, Ollie and I watched quite a bit of coverage, spread between four stations: NBC, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC. When interviewing newly elected members of Congress (usually Republicans), the TV people asked two perfectly legitimate questions:
- How were you able to win?
- What are your legislation priorities?
The Republicans interviewed all presented a nearly identical response:
- The people want a limited government that lives within its means.
- (A) Extend the Bush tax cuts, (B) Repeal Obamacare.
I am not going to debate the value of limited government as a political philosophy (or ask questions about what it means in practice for a given public official). I simply want to point out that, according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, extending the Bush tax cuts on those making over $250,000 a year would cost the federal government an estimated $680 Billion over the next ten years. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, “Obamacare” will save the Federal Government $1 Trillion Dollars over the next ten years. The long-term budget impact of these policies is even more substantial.
I want to point this out because not a single “television journalist” did. Nor did they ask a simple follow up question as to whether the interviewee’s policy priorities might be in conflict with the voters’ wishes. It is at least theoretically possible that each of the recently elected members of Congress is ready to propose a series of initiatives to combat their massive debt-generating policy priorities (Cut the defense budget in half? Raise the Medicare eligibility age to 70?) Nonetheless, I never, even once, saw this follow up question asked.
Why not? Two answers spring to mind. First (perhaps inspired by my recent participation in a panel discussion of Noam Chomsky’s political economy), all of these stations are part of large multinational corporations whose principle owners stand to benefit from the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Second, the cultural and personal narratives of elections that make for easy and popular copy (the political equivalent of a baseball pennant race) crowd out any discussion of substantive policy matters. Americans like to follow pennant races, root for their favorite team, make knowledgeable observations based on statistics, etc. We simply have no time for or interest in considering, you know, what governments actually do. Just which of these explanations is more accurate, or more disturbing, I leave it to you to decide.