Tyrion Lannister

Substance Abuse

Filed By Tyrion Lannister | August 26, 2008 11:35 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics

One of the criticisms I most frequently hear about Barack Obama is that he is all flowery rhetoric and lacks "substance" and "details." This is sort of half-true, though only the silly half. Yes, Obama, like most politicians, tends not to pack his speeches with endless policy proposals -- an approach that would likely have the media labeling him "wooden" and "boring". That isn't unusual and, as best I can tell, he isn't any less "substantive" than John McCain: McCain, like Obama, has some policy talk in most speeches -- including a variety of somewhat vague descriptions of proposals he would push -- and then there's a lot of nice sounding rhetoric. The only difference is that Obama is a much better speaker than McCain, so people tend to remember his rhetorical flairs. McCain isn't condemned as a "flowery orator" because, well, he's a lousy orator. (That and Obama's critics are bad faith.)

But it's not as if people couldn't very easily find out what Obama's policy proposals are. He has, after all, a pretty massive website filled with policy proposals. Many are quite detailed. They're not password protected and you don't have to volunteer or donate to read them. They're right there, publicly available. In fact, Obama frequently tells people to go to his website to read his proposals. He even spends time during his commercials telling them to go there. As best I can tell, people who still complain that Obama lacks substance refuse to educate themselves and demand that Obama provide his policy proposals in a medium -- televised oratory -- they almost certainly won't watch or, if they did, would find extremely boring.

When the media does its job and actually reports on his substantive policy proposals, it actually turns out that Obama actually has lots and lots of fairly innovative ideas. From David Leonhardt's article in the Sunday Times Magazine:

Far more than many other policy advisers, economists believe in the power of markets. What tends to distinguish Democratic economists is that they set out to uncover imperfections of the market and then come up with incremental, market-based solutions to these imperfections. This helps explain the Obama campaign's interest in behavioral economics, a relatively new field that has pointed out many ways in which people make irrational, short-term decisions. To deal with one example of such myopia, Obama would require companies to automatically set aside a portion of their workers' salary in a 401(k) plan. Any worker could override the decision -- and save nothing at all or save even more -- but the default would be to save.

First, let me say that behavioral economics is fucking awesome. Second, let me say that the particular policy proposal they're discussing is a great one and the result of some fairly cutting edge thinking about the relationships between state regulation, economic markets, and individual economic actors.

Cass Sunstein, Obama's former colleague at the University of Chicago Law School and one of the pivotal figures in law and behavioral economics, has been arguing for it for some time. He has a much longer explanation of why 501Ks should be opt-out rather than opt-in in an article, titled, "Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron." The general premise is that by setting the legal default so that individuals must actively "opt-out" to withdraw from the program, most people will stay enrolled out of inertia alone. The change is a fairly unobtrusive one that protects choice -- people can still choose to withdraw from the program if they don't want to save for a 501K -- which manages, at the same time, to very effectively increase retirement savings rates.

The broader point here is that, contrary to some commentators, Obama not only has more than enough substantive proposals, his proposals also happen to be particularly smart and innovative.

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