Should I pay attention to the Democratic Presidential candidates on TV (or anywhere)?

Flip on the television these days and instead of an entertaining comedy one will often find news coverage of the Democratic Presidential primaries.  Should we pay attention to the speeches and commentary?  Must we read the newspaper?  Perhaps the Web Age has relieved us of the need to sit and watch these men in real time, month after month after boring month.

Here is a chronicle of a personal look at, for example.  Let me know if I would have developed a deeper appreciation for Howard Dean had I watched him on TV or read the newspaper…

His “job creation plan” (under “economy”) proposes to make sure that broadband Internet access is “available” in rural areas.  I thought that, at least for the last several years, it was possible to get two-way high-speed satellite Internet at a reasonable cost ($70/month, a touch more than the $50/month that urbanites pay for cable modems) anywhere in the Lower 48.  I’m in favor of the government funding things that private enterprise won’t, e.g., a wireless Internet that covers the entire U.S. and that is free for low volume usage (helps poor kids in ghettos, rich people with fancy Internet-enabled cars, etc.).  I guess I’d be in favor of the government subsidizing high-speed wired Internet or encouraging competition in high-speed wireless Internet in order to cut prices enough that everyone had it.  But basically Dean’s proposal sounds like a plan to shift money from people who live in cities to people who live on farms… just like every other American politician.  Already I’m beginning to doubt his claim that he is somehow different from Business as Usual in Washington.

Dean has an extensive section on K-12 education.  Whenever a federal politician talks about what he is going to do for America’s schools I immediately think that he is lying.  The federal government pays only about 7% of the cost of K-12 education in this country and therefore has almost no control over what happens in our classrooms.  I pity the poor teacher in her classroom.  She has to answer to the vice-principals and principal of her school.  She has to answer to the superintendent of her city or county.  She has to answer to a skyscraper full of bureaucrats in her state’s central education administration.  And then all of them have to answer to the federal U.S. Department of Education, all of whose employees answer in turn to their Secretary who answers in his or her turn to the President.  There are more layers of management above a K-12 teacher than above an assembly-line worker at GM or Toyota, which makes sense until you reflect that it takes $billions in capital investment to build a car whereas the best education is usually one-to-one or done at small private schools that aren’t beholden to larger bureaucracies.  Honest politicians that I’ve seen over the decades generally start from the position that the federal Department of Education should be abolished.  Then they show up in Washington and find that this isn’t political acceptable so they try to curb its growth.  The dishonest ones make a lot of promises about what they are personally going to do, sitting at their desk in the White House, for a kid in a classroom in Peoria, whose school is almost entirely funded by local taxpayers.  Here again Dean seems a lot like the average political hacks whom he proposes to replace.

On foreign policy Howard Dean complains that the Bush Administration has “disengaged” from meddling in the 55-year-old war between the Arab nations and Israel.  His proposed solution?  “The Israeli government will have to work to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian people”.  The U.S. meanwhile will “have to take responsibility with its international partners for helping the Palestinians establish a middle-class democratic society in which women fully participate in economic and political decision-making.”  I feel that Israel and the U.S. are being set up for failure.  On the “improved living conditions” front, a peoples’ living conditions are only going to improve, in the long run, if economic growth exceeds population growth.  The Palestinians have a 5% annual population growth rate, one of the highest in the world.  Unless they all decide to learn to read, learn English, and study semiconductor fabrication, it is tough to see how the living condition of the average Palestinian is going to improve.  So the Israelis will fail to achieve Dean’s goal for them (in fact the U.S. is unable to achieve a 5% annual economic growth rate for itself).  As for the U.S. “taking responsibility” for installing democracy and women’s rights, that sounds vaguely like what we’re trying to do in Iraq and the locals aren’t reported to be happy about it.  One of the readers of this blog posted a comment referencing , which gives some insight into the status of women in present-day Palestinian society.  After reading that article and Dean’s Web site I can’t see Dean as a realist when it comes to the situation in Israel.

Under Energy/Clean Air, Dean says “To reduce oil consumption and global warming emissions, Governor Dean believes we should increase the average fuel economy standard to approximately 40 miles per gallon for all automobiles, including SUVs and minivans.”  This makes me think that we might see some effect on the environment circa 2020 but I don’t see how it would encourage people to buy and drive Toyota Priuses right now and/or ride a bike instead of taking their monster SUV to the 7-11.  Career politicians love elaborate regulations and Dean seems to be one of these folks.  Economists like to address the problem of externalities (pollution, congestion, funding Arab terrorism with every turn of the key) with taxes, then let the market sort out the response.  The Europeans don’t have too many monster SUVs; they have expensive gas and efficient cars.  I’d rather see a $10/barrel tax on oil, a $20/barrel tax on imported oil, and some sort of tax on pollution.

Okay… after less than 30 minutes at his Web site I wrote off Howard Dean as a non-entity.  I wouldn’t bother to leave the house to vote for him and it is inconceivable to me that a majority of Americans would vote for Dean over George W.  Perhaps this process can be repeated for the other candidates, thus freeing up several days of time between now and November.  Are there any Dean supporters who would care to use the comments section to note brilliant ideas from the Howard Dean campaign that I’ve overlooked?  And would I have been more likely to discover these ideas watching Dean on TV or reading newspapers and magazines rather than looking at his Web site?

[Note:  I revised this fairly heavily on January 23 so I’m going to delete the comments that were responsive only to the old version.  Hmm…. it looks like Manila recorded many of the comments as a response to a response and deleting one left the others as orphans.  So now all of the comments are gone 🙁 ]

31 thoughts on “Should I pay attention to the Democratic Presidential candidates on TV (or anywhere)?

  1. The site uses HTML Frames, which makes it impossible to email an individual article URL to a friend or to view the site on a mobile device. This shows that Dean is 8 years behind on the technology curve and yearning for the early Clinton years.

    You can be such a troll sometimes Philip. Dean has built nearly his entire organization from internet donors, and has made use of the rss feeds of friendly blogs as a promotion technique.

    You might not like his politics but attacking Dean for not using the internet right is like attacking Bush for raising taxes; technically correct but in the end a subtle point that will be overwhelmed by the glaring contrary example the public knows about.

  2. Fast access to the internet is becoming a huge dividing line in our society. Philip, your entry begins by pointing out that television is nearly replaceable by the web (surely you are on a high-speed connection yourself) but then you slam Dean for wanting to make sure high speed internet is available in all areas. Outside of Cambridge and other metropolitan areas, high-speed access is actually not so readily available. The effect is the creation of two information classes — one which has information, and one that doesn’t (or only gets it from FOX news). When dialup costs range from free to $10 per month, a $70/month satellite connection becomes an extravagant expense for most American households. And I promise not many dial-up users are using the internet for extensive research or the vetting of political candidates. My parents live in an area where there was no high speed internet until just recently, and at the moment there is just one provider and no competition. They still use dialup, and to use their computer while visiting is a sobering experience. For those of us that believe in the web, we should definitely be pushing for ubiquitous availability of broadband internet. Once everyone has usable internet, then we can start worrying about ubiquitous wireless.

  3. (This message ignores your invitation to suggest brilliant ideas from Dean, but alas.) You fail to grasp the fundamental fact of todays politics. Sure, Dean sucks, but we are choosing among a lousy group of candidates. (Lousy because that’s what works politically, as you point out.) So Dean has said crazy things about trade agreements, or whatever. He has also said 1) He would be more modest in throwing around American military might. and 2) He would attempt do undo the recent changes shifting the tax burden towards wages. To a lot of people, that’s enough.

  4. The Greenspun Guide to Middle East Debate: Can’t say anything good about Israel? Don’t worry, just say bad things about the Palestinians!

  5. Very interesting. Just because Dean is the ‘internet darling’ doesn’t mean we should ignore all of his (glaring?) downsides. We should be striving to use the internet to provide better coverage of the issues, not to push the politician who grasps it first.

  6. Thanks, Aaron, for that correction. It always amazes me how far ahead of me you are. I’ve edited the posting to point to the official URL and removed the observation about the use of Frames.

    Chak: If your parents can see the southern sky they could have gotten high-speed satellite Internet any time in the last few years, for about $15/month more than the price we Cantabrigians are privileges to pay to Comcast. I would be very happy to see a political candidate propose a free public wireless Internet infrastructure that, for example, poor kids in metropolitan areas could use for email and that rich peoples’ cars could use along highways. If we want to subsidize farmers we could just send them checks every year. Instead we artificially raise the price of agricultural products with quotas or other supports, thus irritating our trade partners and necessitating programs such as Food Stamps (so that poor people in cities can afford the inflated-above-market prices).

  7. It would appear that a thoughtful voter could easily write off Howard Dean as a non-entity after spending 30 minutes at his Web site

    By “thoughtful” voters, I suppose you mean those voters who agree with you? 🙂 I think your own ideas leave a lot of be desired (though I commend you on your bravery for putting them out in public view).

    Deleting Dept of Education: Oh wait, I actually agree with you on this issue. Moving on…

    Middle East Mess: Someone you make a correlation between improving Palestinian living conditions and generating a GDP growth equal to population growth. This kind of correlation seems somewhat contrived to me. It seems like their are lots of other ways to increase living conditions besides economic growth.

    Reducing oil consumption: I’m not convinced driving up taxes on oil will result in reduced consumption in this country. I’m not sure how your taxes correlate to real world gas prices, but when gas was up to $3 per barrel, I didn’t see the lines getting any shorter.

    Perhaps you’re introducing the taxes to encourage people to get rid of their gas guzzling SUVs. I’m not convinced that driving up gas prices is enough to convince (enough) people to chuck their still new SUVs and drop 10K+ on another car to replace it. And is the damage being done to the environment so irreparable and imminent that the phasing in of environment friendly vehicles over the next decade and a half too slow a process? I doubt it.

  8. The reason why Dean, like every other candidate, wants to subsidize rural America at the expense of the coasts is simple. Many of America’s legacy political systems are geared towards “one acre, one vote” rather than “one man, one vote”. The Senate and Electoral College spring to mind. After all, it worked for Bush…

  9. I suppose that a ‘thoughtful voter’ can read whatever they want into the message that is posted on the Dean we site.

    As an example, the main message that I got from the agriculture section was that increasing unemployment in rural areas is related to large corporate farms, absentee ownership and a general disregard for the current (and former) small farmers in the area. Although I am not from that area (and my family stopped ranching in the early 1900’s), the Dean message seems to be that support for small farmers, increased rural education and improved health care will benefit the rural poor. I did not read anything regarding increasing farm subsidiesto support higher prices. The central themes seemed to be grants for small farmers, identification of foreign foodstuffs and support for soil conservation measures.

    As far as rural internet availability goes, satellite cable does provide for increased download speed (still only 1/4th what I get from my cable provider), but it offers only 50kbs upload. While this may give us more data consumers, it does not allow rural inhabitants to post their own information. I do not think that mute consumers are what we are looking for.

    On education, I am a strong believer in centralized planning. A capable and determined department of education can set policy on funding guidelines that provide adequate education for the poor, which I believe to be a key element in bringing more educated and qualified americans into the workforce. Where I live, there are many small districts and funding is pooled by district. If the district is in a poor area, then they receive little funding. Just a short distance away, another metropolitan area has a centralized school system that pools all monies and evenly distributes funding. As a result, nearly 90% of student that enter kindergarten graduate highschool. In my city, many districts do not graduate more than 40% of the students that enter kindergarten. I see this as a distinct advantage of centralized education planning.

    Fwiw, you’ve offered up a lot of asumptions about the Dean web site that are not born out by what I have seen posted there. Your central theme is based on an even greater assumption. Most of america still does not have (or make use of) internet access. In order for any politician to win a nationwide election they will have to present an adequate message over the dominant media. That media still is television. Sure, TV is a vacuous wasteland, but for most of america, it still provides the bulk of information that they will base decisions on.

    Sure, I am something of a Dean supporter, but I would probably support any democratic candidate at this point. Dang it all, _why_ can’t Bill Clinton run again?

  10. The bottom line is that Dean’s via his site is putting forth half-baked policy proposals. Dean wants to run for president – is half-baked good enough?

    If want half-baked is good enough, then why switch leaders?

    The electorate deserves better than they get, but so few are willing to do any work to see that happen.

    Watching CNN or FOX newsfeeds does not count as work…

  11. Personally, I think you should get back to your plan of getting people to help you with using the Windows file system as a photo database. This is just the kind of plan one might expect from a professor of computer science who has run short on ideas.

    Well, at least you post something every day.

    I can hardly wait to see your critique of — I guess I should really say ‘comments on’ — what is posted on Mr. George W. Bush’s website

  12. The following sentence:
    “An economist would chuck all of Dean’s complex proposals in favor of a $10/barrel tax on oil, a $20/barrel tax on imported oil, and some sort of tax on pollution.”
    should read:
    “A Soviet economist would chuck …”

  13. I dont think you can expect to learn much from a campaign website. Its mostly fluff meant to make people feel good about themselves. If you are tempted to try and make a genuinely informed decision, then you should poor over the long history of the candidates previous political experience– When Dean was governor, how did he handle this problem? Did he make decisions on specific policy issues that would be positive on a national level?

    Of course for the average person to sit through literally pages and pages of previous bills sponsored, voted on, vetoed, ect.ect., would take far too long.

    Thus we have political parties to broadly define our candidates: if you are an upper income scum sucking yuppie, vote republican. If you like prtending to help people while pandering to special interests, vote democrat. If you are a pot toting hippie vote green.

  14. As a follow up to my suggestion that you look at the record of a candidate, its possible to let special itnerest groups do the grunt work and research of particular bills. Here are some listings of several “Congressional Scorecards”. Each scorecard should have an explanation of what each bill they are basing a rating on, and how a particular candidate voted for that bill.

  15. Ian,
    Nice classification system, keep everything limited to three choices and the world is a happier place 🙂

    A- Television – Widespread distribution of empty fluff

    B- Candidate website – Limited distribution of “mostly fluff meant to make people feel good about themselves”

    C- Actual Record – A gold mine of information that must be, um, mined…

    I also like your suggestion of ‘PACS’, and I still rely on the print media to some extent. So it reads more like, ‘Amongst our tools are…. and a fanatical devotion to the Pope’.

    I think that when we look at a political candidate through (any) media or an ‘opinion’ group (PAC) we are going to get a distorted image. I believe that as a voter, I need to gather as much information from many different sources as I can stand. I have to filter out a lot of garbage (I can’t believe how many crappy arguments get passed on as facts these days) and develop an opinion that I feel comfortable with(and can even possibly defend).

    But then that is why america supports an informed voting populace through education 😉

    As to another of your great groupings of three:

    A – if you are an upper income scum sucking yuppie, vote republican.
    B – If you like prtending to help people while pandering to special interests, vote democrat.
    C – If you are a pot toting hippie vote green.

    Like I told many of my friends inthe last national election, ‘America does not operate on a parlimentary system. If you vote third party, then you are not participating. Third party voting just throws your vote away and lets the least progressive candidate win’ (Yeah, I’m usually pretty accurate in hindsight)

    So all you pot totin hippie greens, come vote democrat this year, at least we won’t toss you in prison for life, ship you to guantanamo or use you for mad-cow feed .


  16. Yes, Palastinians should extend honor killings to include men as well as women, just like the Israelis are indisciminate about who they kill in the name of religious pride.

    If there is one message any candidate as well as anyone in the world should be sending to them is: “Just because some peasant boy that ended up on a stick managed to fool anyone that his father created this world and you should come to some random mountain to worship him, and someone wrote down this and his other dilused ramblings in a book doesn’t give you ownership rights to anything under any international law. Leave them alone and stay in your own country or we’ll come and take you out of there.”

  17. I see your points Philip. It’s hard to find a candidate will openly say he’s for abolishing federal education support and for educating children at the kitchen table. Or for doubling the price of oil. Or for blaming definitively one side in the Israel/Palestine crisis. Or against alleviating the symptoms of rural poverty, with actual subsidies. Why bother voting, I say? It’s not like we could do better than George Bush.

  18. Hmmm… I had hoped that the comments section would fill up with people saying “I heard Dean speak in person and he had the following inspiring ideas…” or “I watched Dean on TV and he said the following interesting things…” or “I read a newspaper article on Dean and learned X, Y, and Z.”

    But it seems that Dean is actually LESS than the sum of the parts of his Web site. If that is true of the rest of the candidates one could probably spend less than 2 hours evaluating these guys. (Not that it matters if you live in Massachusetts, of course, because we almost always end up voting for whoever the Democratic candidate happens to be, so an individual voter here is worthless.)

  19. Philip,

    Instead of venting spleen about the coddled rural folk and their subsidies, I have two simple prescriptions for you:

    Method #1
    Check average income levels in Massachussetts. Check average income levels in Nebraska (or Kansas, North Dakota, Iowa…take your pick). Check population (both absolute and density) in both locations. The simple fact is that there is less capital in play in a rural state than in a state like Massachussetts. Factor in the higher costs per consumer in the rural state for basic infrastructure utilities like electricity, water, etc. These costs are passed on to the state residents by the utilities. Rural economies have lower incomes, yet the basic infrastructural costs of living are higher. If this makes any sense, you may begin to understand that $70/month for broadband does not fit into any discretionary spending category for rural folk.

    Method #2
    Get out of Cambridge and go to South Boston or Lowell. Note the relative dearth of residents with broadband access, for either infrastructure or economic reasons. Explain to the unwashed that they too can experience true enlightenment through broadband for $50/month. Try to get out of town alive.

    Your gasoline-and-match style of sparking conversation only points out the differences between yourself and the main body of the American politic. That difference being that the majority have a clue about the larger economic realities of America, and you don’t.

  20. Another comment: the count-the-flaws analysis makes it easy to write off every candidate – or anything. Take a look at the US constitution. The first amendment says nothing about the undesirability of pornographers, the second amendment ensures that the rights of psychotic snipers to bear arms shall not be infringed, and the fourth amendment clearly obstructs law and order. One can only conclude that, however well intentioned, it’s fatally flawed.

  21. On two-way satellite internet access: no. I tried Starband ($70/mo) and it was so egregiously bad I switched back to dialup. Character-based work is impossible as each char must travel to outerspace and back, so you have to “type blind” over ssh and such. Starband as a company is abominable, so even had I been satisfied with the service I would have cancelled as a matter of principle. They hacked tcp/ip to eliminate handshake steps, and try to add caching to get over the latency, so MS got involved and now demands that you run windows to use the service. In fairness it’s fine for downloading big things, but certainly a challenge for the techno unsavvy.

    I reserve judgment on Dean, but I do think free wireless internet access would be the single greatest step towards regaining democracy, so I think you are being overly critical.

  22. My main reason for supporting Dean is that he has successfully attracted supporters with a rabble-rousing style, even though the substance of his policy proposals and his record are pretty moderate. This gives me hope that if he pulls out of his current poll slump and wins the Democratic nomination, he can adjust his style and run on his record as Governor of Vermont (balanced budgets! health care! warm fuzzies!) in a way that attracts swing voters without alienating his base. (If he doesn’t get the nomination, well, I hope the nominee does a better job at getting good press coverage.)

    If I could wave a magic wand and choose a philosopher-king of America, then Dean, Kerry, Clark, and Edwards would all fit the job equally well equally poorly. Alas, in the real world I can only cast a vote for a politician, and I’m not ashamed to look for the best politician, rather than the one person who has the most sensible policy proposals for everything.

  23. On your original subject – should we watch the candidates on TV or read theire positison on the Internet? Well, what you don’t get from a few pages of policy statement is a sense of what is Dean’s major attraction – he has charisma. But you do get this sense when you see and hear him speak. He will need it not only to win the election, but also to be an effective. It matters more than policy – because without it you can’t get anything done. Ask Al Gore.

    So score one for TV (or streaming-media files, if you like).

  24. Dean’s web site has decent proposals, in my opinion. However, Dean’s statements in debates are so vague that he could keep them the same if he switched to the Republican party. It leads me to believe that the web site has nothing to do with the person we see on TV.

    The living conditions of Palestinians are kept at terribly low levels by destroying their houses, blowing up infrastracture, denying access to water, by isolating them and stifling economy. The conditions can be vastly improved by not investing a single cent, and by discontinuing these policies.

    Compare 2001 and 2003 Human Rights Watch reports excerpts on water:

    “[Bedouin schools] are mostly housed in tin, wooden, or concrete buildings with insufficient classroom and office space. In general, they are not supplied with running water and electricity, although some are found next to water pipes or electric lines.”

    IDF [Israel Defense Forces] operations caused extensive, and often repeated damage to civilian buildings and infrastructure in PA areas, including the partial or complete destruction of roads, sewage networks, water supplies, and electrical grids.

  25. I’d refer W., who suggests that only a Soviet economist would recommend raising prices to cut gasoline use, to this article in BusinessWeek by Gary S. Becker, 1992’s (non-Soviet) Nobel laureate in economics.

  26. Having spent a large part of the last 4 years photographing Palestine/Israel, I’m geuessing you’re not someone who has spent a great deal of time there, or who has won any awards for the quality of your coverage. Ah, the joys of armchiar blogging.

    Firstly, Hebrew is spoken widely by Palestinians – which is kind of ironic as there are only about 20,000 people now allowed to work in Israel. English is also widely spoken amongst Palestinians, and is taught in school. Illiteracy is lower than China or Syria – though that may no longer be true as the IDF destroyed the statistics bureau. I met a guy who used to work as an engineer for an Israeli/US chemicals company. They had a security review, which said that no Palestinains should work in chemicals. The company offered him a job in the US, but due to family commitments, he couldn’t take it up. So now he’s a taxi driver in Jeruaslem. I have a friend here in London who spent a year in prison during his teenage years, initially for refusing to give information about his dodgy relatives to the Israeli security services, though of course there was never a charge leveled at him, they just took him. Unlike the rest of his brothers and sisters, he never made it to university and worked as a chef in Tel Aviv for many years. Then, being unable to get to and from work during the intifada, he got a job at the Paradise Hotel in Bethlehem, which was subsequently shelled by the IDF. So that job went too.

    Secondly, the position of women in Palestine is generally pretty good compared to other Arab countires. Hanan Aswari is in the cabinet of the (pretty much destroyed) PA, women can drive cars, go wherever they want, study at university, work etc. My London friend’s mother learnt to read recently (aged in her 50s), having never been taught in the refugee camps of the 1950s, at the local university.

Comments are closed.