The Best-Laid Plans

Many voters see presidential elections as a contest of ideas. The media showers attention on the most dramatic policy proposals. As a result, some candidates tether themselves to impressive-sounding signature initiatives. “I will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it!” was a much pithier way for Trump to signal to voters that immigration would be his top priority than any white paper.

But ideas unveiled on the campaign trail usually aren’t very well thought-out. Voters would do well to ask: If your idea is so good, why hasn’t it already been enacted into law by Congress? And if the reason is that it wouldn’t get through, then how the heck would making you president change that? Some voters imagine that the president can push anything through with sheer force of will. One president after another has disproved that notion.

“I don’t think we should measure the bigness of an idea by how many trillions of dollars it costs,” said Pete Buttigieg. This may seem like an obvious point, but it gets at a subtle problem with the incentives of the campaign trail. Imagine that Candidate A says, “I propose Policy X, which will cost taxpayers $0.1 trillion and create $2 trillion in value.” Candidate B says, “I propose Policy Y, which will cost taxpayers $10 trillion and create $11 trillion in value.” Candidate A’s policy creates more net value ($1.9 trillion vs. $1 trillion), but Candidate B’s policy is 100x more expensive. Who will get more attention for their idea? Candidate B, of course! Headlines will tout the $10 trillion number, even though that’s a measure of cost, not of benefit.

Of course, rational cost-benefit analysis is too much to expect from voters. Trump promised to cut taxes, raise spending, and balance the budget. The contradiction cost him nothing. Responsible tradeoffs are the domain of the elected, not the electorate. Which is why it’s so important to choose politicians who are capable of seeing and making those tradeoffs.

I have no way of knowing that Mayor Pete is the right person to elevate to that position. Certainly, he’s made his fair share of unrealistic campaign promises to Democratic primary voters. (Only Biden has kept the malarkey to a minimum.) But his even-keeled temperament gives him the benefit of the doubt in my book.


This is Part 5 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

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