Remember: Every policy promise includes a trade-off.
Many of us have had the experience of really trying to listen to a politician give a speech and yet walk away feeling they may not actually have anything.
It's too bad, especially in this election cycle, when so much seems to ride on choosing between candidates. How can we make informed decisions when we don't understand positions?
The answer: Start thinking a little more like economists – and not just on budget issues.
Economics emphasizes thinking at the margin, focusing on the trade-offs – made necessary by scarcity – that individuals are willing to make between relevant alternatives. Unfortunately, political campaigns blur trade-offs and undermine clear thinking with their language.
Take a recent comment by Hillary Rodham Clinton, "You don't spend what you don't have on what you don't need," she said. The use of the word "need" is a prime example of failing to think at the margin.
Not only do people disagree about what they consider needs, but since many choices are between different needs, merely calling something "a need" diverts attention away from the actual choices.
The word is an example of categorical language misrepresenting marginal choices.
For instance, when pushing food programs, politicians paint food as the most important thing (at other times, they might do the same for housing, education). However, to say that food (or any other good) is categorically more valuable than other things, such as sleep, is a red herring. The relative values of things actually depend greatly on circumstance – as most of us notice when our alarm sounds in the morning.
Such misleading language makes confusion inevitable.
Barack Obama's "yes, we can" theme faces a similar problem. Not only does it fail to specify what is to be done, the word "we" generates confusion. can do ? Which part of "we" gets benefits and which part will be forced to bear the costs, is hidden.
Given America's highly disproportionate tax burdens, when "we" provide certain goods, it is usually "not me" paying for it. Without knowing who will be forced to pay how much, we cannot fully see the real trade-offs involved.