Lake Wobegon Politics
by Gary North: Rev.
Jobs Brings His Sermon to a Close
". . .
and all the children are above average."
has made this phrase famous among the literati who listen to National
Public Radio. In the mythical city of Lake Wobegon, the statistically
impossible happens every day.
If it were
not for the Federal Communications Commission's decision to grant
non-profit FM radio stations a legal monopoly over the lower FM
frequencies, hardly anyone would have heard of Lake Wobegon. If
the free market reigned, there would be a one-time sale of FM radio
spectrum to the highest bidders by the Federal government. There
would soon be no NPR. There would be no "All Things Considered."
There would be more country music stations.
the FCC do this? Because the very suggestion of such a move would
bring enormous political pressure on Congress from the listeners
of NPR, who are highly literate and well-connected politically.
The fans of country music are not equally well organized or equally
literate. Also, they have lots of country music stations to listen
to already. NPR listeners don't. NPR listeners would be warned by
NPR broadcasters to contact their political representatives in Washington,
and to send letters of protest to the FCC.
country music fans would never hear about the proposed sale of radio
spectrum. Furthermore, most of them have never heard of the FCC.
NPR listeners have. Also, country music fans do not wonder why it
is that NPR and Christian pop music stations can afford to pay for
radio spectrum. They know nothing about how radio spectrum is allocated.
Would the country
be better off if the money raised by the sale were used to pay down
the national debt? Of course it would: marginally. But this debt
reduction would not be noticed by anyone, so large is the national
debt in relation to the value of FM radio spectrum.
fans would barely notice the benefit of a few extra radio stations
or the imperceptible benefit of a reduced national debt. In contrast,
NPR's listeners would surely notice the demise of NPR.
FM radio is
dying. Fewer people listen to it every year. They prefer satellite
radio or Internet stations or Pandora. The aging Left has NPR, and
it has little else.
There is one
thing that the children in Lake Wobegon never do: listen to NPR.
So, what do
we find? NPR stays on the air, despite the fact that most taxpayers
would be a little better off if the FCC sold the spectrum. The loss
sustained by a tiny special-interest group liberals who listen
to NPR would be great. The vast majority of voters do not
get their way, because they are not focused on FM radio spectrum
issues. NPR listeners get their way, because they are highly interested
in NPR. They get a subsidy from the government. The rest of the
voters do not notice and would not care if they did notice.
We all have
heard the old joke:
"The problem with America is most voters are ignorant and apathetic."
#1 to listener #2: "Do you think he's right?"
#2 to listener #1: "I don't know, and I don't care."
LAKE WOBEGON POLITICS IS DOMINANT
When it comes
to any one of the tens of thousands (low-ball guess) of Federal
government programs subsidies no one knows and no
one cares. There is no personal payoff for knowing, and great frustration
for caring. There is no way that anyone can keep track of all of
these programs. There is also no incentive for the government to
publicize all of these programs to the general public in one place.
Congressmen let local voters know about programs in their districts.
No one else cares.
When I served
as Ron Paul's staff economist in 1976, I learned of a policy in
Washington. When a new law was passed that meant money being spent
in a district, the agency would contact the local media to announce
it. The district would perceive that the Congressman was behind
this windfall. Sometimes, the agency would send the press release
as if the Congressman had sent it. Congressman Paul officially told
them not to do this in his district.
This is part
of Lake Wobegon politics, where every district gets more money in
subsidies from Washington than it pays in taxes to Washington.
why the system works the way it does. Let's assume that the Federal
government issues a credit card to each Senator (100) and each voting
House member (435). There is a note attached to the credit card.
You may use
the enclosed card to spend as much money as you want for benefits
for your district. At the end of the fiscal year, every district
will be assessed one-535th of the bill.
be the response of every member of Congress except Ron Paul and
Rand Paul? To spend as much as he or she could. Why? Because the
name of this game is spending, not saving. The savers will still
pay the same as the spenders. So, the politician's goal is to maximize
the amount of money brought into his district. The bill gets larger
To this, we
must add another twist: there is no ceiling on the credit card balance.
Every time the ceiling is hit, Congress votes to raise it.
system has favored governments that tax people in order to spend
money on special-interest voting blocs, minus 50% for handling.
The Federal government extracts a considerable percentage for handling.
The voters pay more in taxes than they receive back.
always campaign in terms of Lake Wobegon promises: every voter in
his district will get back more money than whatever voters outside
the district will receive.
of money that gets absorbed by the bureaucrats who administer any
spending program is always substantial. The administration of a
program absorbs an ever-larger percentage of the budget over time.
The people administering it benefit from this transfer of funds
from the official beneficiaries to the unofficial beneficiaries:
At long last,
this has created a taxpayer revolt. Enough Republicans in the House
opposed the increase in the debt ceiling in fiscal 2011 to force
President Obama to accept a compromise: a super-committee that will
act on behalf of Congress to cut spending in calendar year 2012.
Beginning in January, automatic cuts will begin if the committee
cannot come to any agreement over what spending to cut before then.
That will be
a moment of truth for Congress. We will see whether Congress will
accept automatic cuts. We will see how much clout special-interest
voters have voters who have been on the dole from the Federal
government. Will they be able to persuade Congress to relent, vote
to reverse the cuts, and accept a higher deficit?
In a Presidential
election year, special-interest groups are especially powerful.
They become swing voters. Their votes at the margin can make or
break a political campaign.
If the spending
cuts required by the 2011 debt ceiling law are allowed to be imposed
in 2012, either by the committee or by the automatic cutting process,
this will mark a turning point in American national politics. I
hope the cuts stand. This would mark a major reversal of Lake Wobegon
politics. It would reverse a century of budget deficits.
advertising, the copywriter seeks the hottest hot button of a proposed
audience, such as a mailing list of previous buyers. A hot button
is something that a person finds irresistible. It is the focus of
his concern. He is more interested in it than any other problem
he faces or goal he has adopted.
the button, the smaller the audience. There are very few hot buttons
that appeal to most voters. If one exists, all candidates say they
favor it. Example: Medicare.
Let's say that
you decide to run for Congress next year. You are fed up with out-of-control
spending. You are fed up with endless budget deficits. You want
to campaign on this platform:
2. Cut spending.
3. Cut taxes (say to 4-4-4).
You would get
my vote, but how many others would vote for you?
media would pounce. "So, you propose to cut spending. Exactly what
programs would you cut? By how much?"
Why will they
do this? Because they want to see you lose. Also, because they understand
the hot-button phenomenon.
Let's say that
there are five major programs that you want to cut. Let's say that
they are so prominent that they all are cabinet-level programs.
Let's say that you are really hard core. You propose a 100% reduction.
You propose to eliminate all five cabinets. You make this part of
your campaign. At this point, your opponent has what every politician
dreams of: a gift list.
It is easy
to campaign on increasing spending on special projects. The politician
broadcasts this only in speeches to the organizations that will
benefit from the increased flow of money after handling costs (never
mentioned). The voters in general never hear about these specifics.
Even if they do hear about one of them, the politician says "this
is too important not to adopt."
cuts are a horse of a different color. Here, the opposition candidate
can do mailings to members of the special-interest groups. "My opponent
says he will cut all funding for [your boondoggle]. I vow to fight
him on this with everything I've got. Elect me this November."
This is a reverse
hot button. The cost-cutter has handed five reverse hot buttons
to his opponent, which his opponent will use in his mailings.
Here are fundamental
strategies of political campaigns:
1. The incumbent's
staff searches for incriminating quotations from something the
challenger wrote years ago or (even better) said at a meeting
that was videotaped.
2. The challenger's
staff searches for controversial votes made by the incumbent that
the incumbent has successfully concealed from local special-interest
One of the
reasons why Congressional bills are written in ways to conceal their
meaning is because the Good Old Boys in Congress seek to keep this
knowledge away from voters.
One way to
do this is to write a bill to announce that it is changing specific
words in a previous law. It does not quote the law only specific
words in part of the law's text. The context is missing. In the
days before the Internet, it was difficult to track down the law
and find what the law specified. Only a handful of researchers would
a light-hearted remark by Congressman Phil Crane, who replaced Donald
Rumsfeld in a special election in 1969, when Rumsfeld resigned to
take a job with the Nixon Administration. Crane served until his
defeat in 2002. Here is what he said in a speech at a conference
a constituent asks me at a town hall meeting, "Why did you vote
against the bill to do this or that?" I always say, "Because of
Section 17B. I could never vote for anything like that." Of course,
I have no idea what was in Section 17B.
I don't know
if Crane really did this, but he got the point across. In a bill
running 1,000 to 2,000 pages, no one remembers what was in Section
BILL RICHARDSON'S STRATEGY
State Senator H. L. "Bill" Richardson served for decades. He was
the founder of Gun Owners of America, a lobbying organization opposing
gun control. He was the author of the classic little book, What
Makes You Think We Read the Bills? He developed a strategy
for getting liberals to stop promoting gun control.
He would identify
a state politician who was voting for gun control. The guy was not
a major promoter of gun control, but he was a reliable vote. Voters
in his district favored gun control.
had been in advertising before he went into politics. He understood
direct mail. So, he would look for a vote the guy made on a law
that a lot of people in his district opposed. Of course, the guy
had kept this vote quiet in his district. It might even be something
that Richardson had supported. Anyway, it was something peripheral
to gun control. Richardson would write a direct-mail ad exposing
the guy's vote. He would rent lists from special-interest groups
in the guy's district that were furious with his vote. He would
start the mailing campaign in an election year. He made sure word
got out in Sacramento that he was behind the mailing. The guy would
come to him and beg him to stop. Richardson said he would, but only
if the guy switched sides on gun control. The guy, not being a fanatic
on gun control, would agree.
Here is Richardson's
law of political pressure: "Politicians respond to pain." Senator
Everett Dirksen offered this version: "When we feel the heat, we
see the light."
This is a variation
of the reverse hot-button strategy. Incumbents conceal certain votes
from their constituents. They do this in order not to get organized
groups in their districts to mobilize and go to the polls to vote
for their opponents.
We can hope
and pray that the spending cuts will begin next year, so as to bring
down the Federal deficit. Balancing the budget is for soft-core
Tea Party voters. The budget needs to be in surplus, so as to allow
the reduction of the debt to zero over the next decade, if not sooner.
I do not expect
to see any politician campaign on a platform to reduce the debt
to zero. That has not happened since 1836, and it had never happened
before 1836. For anyone to campaign on such a platform, he would
face more reverse hot-button voters than any politician has ever
faced. I do not think it likely that he would be elected.
for an aspiring politician is to find votes that the incumbent prefers
to conceal from the voters back home, and to design direct-mail
campaigns warning special-interest groups of what the incumbent
did. This could be done as a negative campaign funded by some other
group. The letter or TV ad would not say to vote for the challenger.
It would say only that the incumbent has betrayed the particular
special-interest group and deserves to be defeated in November.
politics, there are winners and losers. Democracy rewards politicians
who buy the support of special-interest groups by promising to vote
for bills favoring their interests. This is hot-button politics.
The best way for budget-cutters to implement hot-button politics
is to use a reverse hot-button strategy. Enrage special-interest
voters with the message that the incumbent has betrayed them.
favor candidates who favor limited government.
more attack ads, more negative campaigns, and more scapegoats. There
is nothing as good as an after-election meal of roast scapegoat.
North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible.
2011 Gary North
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