If Clueless People Shouldn’t Vote, Then Should Damon Linker?

Damon Linker has a piece at The Week arguing against compulsory voting. If you’ve ever read a college newspaper, there is no reason to read Linker’s take on the matter because you’ve already seen it before. Nonetheless, I found this bit pretty funny in light of Linker’s own failings:

We all know that some people are more capable than others of recognizing excellence, even if we also recognize, once again, that there’s no uncontentious way to definitively determine who the more capable people are. The closest we can get to making such a determination may be using the decision to vote as a proxy for relative political wisdom.

If you can’t be bothered to vote, you probably aren’t paying attention; and if you aren’t paying attention, we’ll probably all be better off if you keep not bothering.

What I find so amusing about this quote is that Linker regularly writes things that reveal him to be totally clueless about basic fiscal policy matters. His ignorance is especially fascinating to watch because he is deep into his 40s, has been closely following and writing about politics for decades, and the economic policy topics he bungles have been the most written about economic topics for seven consecutive years. Yet, even he doesn’t understand them.

Public Finance 101

The latest example of his incomprehension came in the first week of February. He wrote a column claiming Krugman’s continued call for fiscal and monetary stimulus was contradictory:

For years Krugman justified massive spending with no concern for its long-term fiscal impact as an emergency measure demanded by high unemployment, anemic growth, and other after-effects of a “once-in-three-generations financial crisis.” We needed to do whatever it took to get the economy moving again, he argued; the fiscal mess could be cleaned up later, once we regained our economic footing. Until then, it would be “craven and irresponsible,” a sign of “intellectual laziness and a lack of moral courage,” to place concern for long-term problems like the budget deficit and national debt ahead of spending our way out of an economic sinkhole that was hurting tens of millions of Americans.

But what about now?

The unemployment rate is firmly below 6 percent. Growth is humming along at a decent clip. Based on the logic of Krugman’s arguments — which have always conceded that the deficit and debt, and our ability to fund entitlements, are genuine problems, just ones that couldn’t be addressed during the current crisis — one might conclude that now is the time to back off on the deficit spending, to try to bring the budget into balance, in part to assure that we’ll be well placed to spend liberally when the next recession hits.

Of course, wise people know that Linker’s argument is not only wrong, but also misses the entire argumentative terrain. Krugman’s view, whether you agree with it or not, is pretty basic. He thinks that the federal government should engage in stimulus (and certainly avoid austerity) until the economy is operating at capacity. Right now, most economists (right and left) do not believe the economy is operating at capacity. Indicators of labor market slack abound. Thus, Krugman continues his pro-stimulus position.

You could disagree with Krugman on all sorts of fronts. You could say that fiscal stimulus doesn’t work. You could argue that we are already at capacity, that pushing unemployment down further would set off accelerating inflation. You could argue that, although fiscal policy would work and we are not at capacity, deficit-financed stimulus would be net harmful, especially in the medium-run and long-run, because it would push our already-high debt level over a growth-destroying tipping point. These are all arguments out there in the world. But Linker doesn’t reach for any of these and gives no indicator that he even understands that they exist or what their relative strengths and weaknesses are.

So, not only does Linker wrongly accuse Krugman of inconsistency, but his overall post shows that he is flying blind on the entire topic, which again has been the biggest economic policy topic for seven straight years.

What’s more, when I confronted Linker about his mistakes on Twitter, he revealed even deeper confusions about the basics of public finance. Apparently fresh off of reading a Washington Post editorial, he confidently proclaimed that the US can’t run deficits forever. Those who have ever paid an iota of attention to this subject knows that it absolutely can run deficits forever, provided the deficits increase the debt level at a rate equal to or less than the rate of GDP growth. In fact, debt levels themselves are broadly irrelevant: what people care about (investors, economists, etc.) is the debt-to-GDP ratio. This is not an exotic view. It’s absolutely standard. Yet, when I informed him of it, he confidently reasserted his wrong understanding.

Should Linker Vote?

By Linker’s account, it seems he should be disqualified from voting. Outside of rehashing the texts he read in his undergraduate Letters program, it’s actually not clear what wisdom he has about any part of the US political system. He certainly fashions himself a learned man of politics, and in the uncompetitive and cloistered world of 1990s magazine writing he was even able to convince others of it at one point. But he simply isn’t. He has no subject-matter expertise on a lot of the things he thinks he does and his opinions are often so bad that they border on funny.

Although Linker would disqualify himself from voting on account of his widespread ignorance, I personally would not. And this really gets at the meat of where Linker goes so wrong.

You see, it doesn’t matter that Linker doesn’t know anything about very basic policy topics. What matters is that he can broadly identify the party that will push the things he’s interested in and then identify whoever happens to be running under that party on the ballot and pull the lever. From there, that party has its own system of experts and wonks that should allow them to deliver, provided they wind up in a position to do so.

Are you big into economic policies that deliver for the poor and working classes? In much of Europe, that means you vote for the party that says “labor,” “social democratic,” or “socialist” in the name. In the US, that usually means you have no real option, but you vote for the Democrats because at least they aren’t the Republicans. Are you big into ethno-nationalism? Vote for the party that’s always going on about how immigration is super bad. You got options in nearly every European country, and they appear to be getting more popular by the day. In the US, that’s the Republicans. Are you super into environmental stuff? Look for “green” in the name. You mostly mad about gay marriage and abortion and whatnot? Usually, you can’t go wrong with a Christian Democratic party, or in the US stick with the Republicans.

You see how easy that is? You just need to sort of know what you are into and be able to figure out which party is also into that, and then you vote for them. Even if you’re like Linker and kind of stupid, you can still often pick the team that’s on your side of things. And so just as it doesn’t harm the body politic when Linker votes, it won’t harm it if everyone else votes too.