Murky Plans

So here’s the skinny, Michael Scherer writes a much maligned article for Time basically complaining that politicians try to muddy the waters around policy, and so it’s really hard to figure out what they’re saying and/or proposing, even though there are a lot of different think tanks and policy centers who…parse out the plans and figure out exactly what the candidates are saying. After a back and forth with Ezra, the latter comes to this:

That said, I sympathize with Mike’s predicament, because it’s mine, too: There’s no perfect information in a campaign. None of us know how to access the black box at the center of the process: The candidate’s mind. So we have various substitutes: Character and gaffes and policies and advisers and voting histories. Reading Mike’s article, what you is the sense that policy documents are “fuzzy” and full of “obfuscation,” and shouldn’t be used to understand the directions the candidates mean to take. The Time reader leaves with higher knowledge: All these proposals are bullshit, and we should ignore them. But that doesn’t appear true. The policy proposals are clearly articulated statements of intent. They can be distilled, and used to hold politicians to account. Prejudging them as obfuscation actually degrades their usefulness: If we in the media decide they aren’t real, then why should anyone else treat them as real?

Which is a shame, because, for now, they’re arguably the best guide we have towards the likely priorities of the candidates: Better than the guide offered by gaffes, than the relationship McCain has with the traveling press, than the three-pointers Obama can sink in Kuwait, better than anything, in fact, than past legislative performance. Campaigns have, by definition, a lot of complexity, uncertainty, and fuzzyness. And we apply a lot of sketchy techniques to try to decode them. But to slag the policy plans as unreadable while McCain’s maverickyness remains a core analytical touchstone is a bit weird.

I sort of think this misses the meta media-policy reality. The problem here is that Scherer’s fundamental point in the article is, to steal Ezra’s word, bullshit. It’s not hard to parse out candidates’ plans, or to determine their cost/impact. There are all kinds of experts and wonks at think tanks and in the blogosphere who do that literally every day. The problem is that big media isn’t willing to admit that, because the dissemination of such information is their turf, so they aren’t about to tell you that you could get straight forward, informative, and easy to understand explanations of, say, John McCain’s healthcare policy from the Center for American Progress or Hilzoy. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in and of itself, if journalists weren’t so damn ignorant when it comes to matters of policy.

And that’s the real rub here. The reason Michael Scherer thinks the candidates tax plans are murky and hard to understand is, simply, that Michael Scherer doesn’t really understand tax policy himself. So whereas a blogger or someone at CAP with a background in or simple working knowledge of fiscal policy might be able to sort out the bullshit from the fundamentals of the policy, a journalist who has never really done anything but journalism as a career, and has never taken the time to develop a working understanding of the issues that come up in politics, isn’t in that position. It’s like telling a 3 year old that 2+3=6. Someone who has learned basic addition knows it’s not true, but a 3 year old who hasn’t gotten there yet has no way to know they’re being fed bullshit.

The solution to this is simple, journalists should make it a point to learn the fundamentals of the issues they cover, or should accept the fact that their ignorance makes them unqualified to be the charge of information, and should become, as a rule, increasingly deferential to other sources of information who can flesh these things out.