Thursday, September 17, 2015

Don't Vote. It Just Encourages the Bastards. (Part II)

I have never voted for anyone in my life. Well, I have cast votes for class presidents when I was in school. But when it comes to electing public officials, I have never cast a single vote for anyone.

There is a good reason for this. For one thing, I was not the citizen of the country of my birth, Brunei. Even if I had been, I would not have been able to vote as the country is run by an absolute monarchy. Monarchs don't tend to look kindly upon voting. And of course I was excluded from the voting process while I was in the US as I am a Korean citizen. When I came to Korea in 2011, that was when I finally had the right to vote for the first time in my life.

However, I did not vote in the 2011 mayoral election or in the 2012 presidential election or in the 2014 by-elections. Also, I do NOT plan to vote in the foreseeable future. There are two reasons.

Firstly, I find those politicians who actually make it through the system far enough to have a serious shot at getting elected to their desired positions, particularly executive positions, repulsive. Secondly, my single vote does not matter. No election has ever been decided by a single vote. Even close elections are not determined by actual votes but rather by the courts a la Bush v. Gore. So, I find the act of voting to be a waste of time and would much rather spend that time with my family.

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Going back to the process itself, seeing how they have to pander to the lowest common denominator, politicians often have to spout things that are unintelligent, indecent, and nonsensical. Even if they are not positions that they actually hold, by the time they become “viable” candidates, I simply cannot identify with any of them. If I were an economics professor, whether we are talking about Park Geun-hye or Moon Jae-in or Jeb Bush or Bernie Sanders or anyone else in between, I would give them Fs in the class.

However, it is a mistake to assume that politicians are stupid or incompetent. Politicians are NOT stupid or incompetent. They are good at their jobs, which is telling voters what they want to hear. After all, it was H.L. Mencken who said “If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”

And the reason this problem exists is that many people seem to believe that if something is popular, then it must be a good idea. This is problematic because, regardless of our personal biases, what is true is that very few people are actually evil. The vast majority of people in the world, to some degree or another, believe in tikkun olam.

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That's the problem!

So why is it bad that people have good intentions? It's particularly bad for democratic societies because when people have good intentions, it becomes easy to create consensus. However, the problem is that many people lack knowledge or understanding to know what is actually a good idea. After all, economics, which so many electoral promises boil down to, can be quite counter-intuitive. Combine good intentions, consensus, and a lack of knowledge and what we end up with are things that are either ineffective or, worse, counterproductive.

For example, ask any average person in the street whether it is a good idea to assure more welfare to the poor and the elderly and most people will say that it is a good thing. However, ask that same person whether he or she would be willing to pay more taxes to support welfare for others and there is a good chance that he or she will not want to do so. And that's how we get ridiculous promises like the ones President Park made about increasing welfare benefits without increasing tax rates.

Or here's another one that politicians love to talk about – affordable higher education. While campaigning, President Park tried to woo younger voters by promising them that she would slash college tuition fees in half. Unsurprisingly, this campaign promise has not been kept. On the other side of the ocean, Bernie Sanders likes to claim that if elected president, he will make every public university tuition-free. Sure.

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Let's put aside the fact that these kinds of promises are made to be broken from the start. Even if it were possible for politicians to keep these kinds of promises, would it be a good idea to make college so affordable to so many people? Most people's gut reaction would be to shout “YES!” And I am sure that some will even post news articles that support how a well-educated population will increase a society's wealth.

The problem, however, is that many of these people do not consider marginal students – those who attend college for one or two years before dropping out and those who take a lot more than the traditional four years to graduate with a degree in Independent Studies – in their equation.

Recently, it was reported that Koreans rank first among OECD nations in terms of doctor visits and hospital stays. This is what happens when prices are artificially set below market price – the creation of excessive demand aka a shortage of goods, which is a direct result of government failure. If the cost of attending college is lowered, or even made free, something similar would happen. So it would seem quite likely that making college more affordable will encourage a lot of marginal students to waste a lot of time and energy and get very little (jobs that pay) to show for it.

Will the effect on marginal students overshadow the overall benefits to society? I do not know. What I do know is that people don't usually talk about marginal students when they talk about affordable higher education.

But which politician, aside from those who plan to retire, would dare to be honest with voters? There's a reason Eisenhower only talked about the military-industrial complex in his farewell address.

Public Choice theory assumes that everyone, even those politicians whom we vote into office to look out for the interests of the public, acts on self-interest. So, in the case of a politician, it's in his self-interest to get voted into office. Even if the politician does have the best of intentions, he/she wouldn't be able to do much if they were not in office. Therefore, to be successful, politicians cannot afford to actually pinpoint real problems and try to fix them. They need to find out what people want to hear and then tell it to them. Repeatedly.

The fact that the majority of voters do not actually understand economics or public policy or national security issues is a given. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and it is impossible for us to be experts at everything. What is disgusting about politicians is that they know better, or at least ought to know better.

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