03 October 2012

Every Way You Look at It, You Lose

That "debate" was entirely unsurprising: Romney rushed toward the center for the purposes of the general election, to meet the guy who was already in the center... and then it was just chance and soundbites. It exemplifies the problems that those of us who believe in nuance have with time-limited, prime-time organized question-and-answer periods masquerading as debates:

  • There's no place for the considered opinion. The time limits and artifacts of television require candidates to rely upon soundbites and oversimplification. Admittedly, there is always going to be some simplification, particularly when one approaches anything resembling a national security question (there's this little problem with all too often needing to using classified information to demonstrate that one has a warrant for one's position...). This, however, was ridiculous.

    Here's an example, concerning PBS. Mister Entitlement claimed that although he loves Big Bird, he'd get rid of PBS. Leaving aside that the President can't do that — PBS has a Congressional charter; the Executive Branch can, at most, refuse to allocate funds for PBS, which still leaves a lot of alternatives (as demonstrated by the Post Office) — the implication that PBS can be entirely and satisfactorily replaced by something in the (not-so-) free market is what was entirely at issue. I'm not a big fan of government funding in the arts (even for very loose definitions of "the arts")... but a pure market approach is worse. That's how entire, significant niches get neglected; the former distributor of this becomes the host of this and a range of near-clones. I can take the time in a blawg entry to at least imply that there isn't a simple and obvious answer on this quasi-question, because (as the "moderator") I have the power to ban certains kinds of jingoism and salesmanship and soundbitery from my forum. In a "debate" that is nothing more than a question-and-answer session... not so much.

  • There's no place for drawing links between issues. This is guaranteed by the question-and-answer format (and indirectly by the kinds of people who are selected as the questioners, but that's fopr another time). It's very much a Heisenbergian problem: If the questioner explicitly draws attention to the link between Candidate X's answer on a question overtly concerning Issue Y and unmentioned Issue Z, we really don't get a sense of Candidate X's own thinking (or, more properly, his staff's... and that's the subject of the next objection), because the questioner has already provided it. Conversely, if Candidate X raises that connection him/herself, it takes away limited time from a "real", "direct" answer on Y, which may be merely a way for Candidate X to avoid answering on Y at all.
  • The staffs are not grilled equally. And this is the real flaw of the "debate process." In a modern representative democracy, we don't elect experts. Perhaps that's a good thing, perhaps it's not. American law is unusually aggressive in trying to proclaim that the guy on the ticket is the only one we need to worry about, due to our prohition on "shadow cabinets" and the like — it's actually unlawful for a US candidate for President to proclaim who he would appoint to any given office (except that of the Vice Presidency). In reality, the world is far too complex for a single person to know enough to function in virtually any elective office; instead officeholders all have extensive staffs. As a specific example, consider this: Would some at-the-margins voters in the 2000 elections have failed to vote for Candidate R if they had known he was going to appoint a black man as the Secretary of State... or, worse yet, that that black man was virtually guaranteed to be bypassed by a passel of privileged white men? And might their opinions have been influenced if that black man had been present at debates against the (never named, because it would have been illegal) prospective counterpart on Candidate G's team?

    As a clarification, I'm not saying that the US prohibition on "shadow cabinets" is on balance bad; I'm only saying that it makes the illusory "debate" process even more deceptive. That prohibition, on balance, probably prevents a lot more ills than it creates... and in any event it's a close-enough question that we're back into nuance land, just like my first objection above, and the problems with linkages between issues, just like my second objection above.

OK, enough of that. Back to dealing with disgruntled former employees, idiot publishers, and other problems...