I’m Endorsing Rationality for President

(And McCain Too, But That’s Less Important)

I’m a positivist. I believe in the power of empirical evidence. I believe that political issues, such as healthcare and education, deserve to be analyzed through the lens of scientific inquiry.

If a candidate claims that Head Start and other early education programs have improved the academic outcomes of children, I don’t think the conversation should end there. What is the evidence of Head Start’s success? What is the theory that explains that evidence? What are the testable hypotheses of that theory?

Believing in the success of Head Start is not some unquestionable first principle — it’s merely a starting point in what should be a long path of scientific discovery. In my ideal world, a leader would be a hybrid of social scientist, decision-maker, and communicator — he would distill the evidence, formulate policy on the basis of that evidence, and then explain his conclusions to the public.

I had great hopes for this election. This was supposed to be the election that broke the mold, shattering the old ways of politics and ushering in a new era of civilized, rational political debate. A seasoned, bipartisan veteran and a young, passionate idealist were going to do away with the bickering and mudslinging and share a campaign that focused on the issues. Instead, this cycle has been dominated by savage personal attacks, popcorn-sized ideological soundbites, and hollow, thought-ending slogans like “Change We Can Believe In.”

One would think that the Democrats, having been on the short end of the stick in 2000, would have been the party most desperate to avoid a repeat of the issues-free elections that brought the likes of Bush to power. Unfortunately, a short conversation with the typical Obama supporter reveals the opposite. Most of the “Obamanauts” I’ve spoken with reference the phrase “social justice” in their arguments without defining it any better than “compassionate conservatism” was defined in 2000.

Nearly all of them invoke stereotypes of their opponents, deriding Republicans as racist, evangelical plutocrats, just as Bush painted liberals as amoral, bureaucracy-loving softies. Down to a man, they each gush over how charismatic Barack is, and as they do so I hear the dulcet echoes of “a guy I’d like to have a beer with.” Behind the stirring themes of hope and change, there’s very little attention paid to what “change” actually translates to in terms of policies, and even less attention paid to the evaluation of those policies. Did we not learn our lesson? After ignoring issue debates and paying the price with eight years of government mismanagement, we’re repeating our sins all over again, putting our guts and hearts before our minds.

Think I’m wrong? Think the focus has been on issues? Then here’s a simple test: Healthcare is the centerpiece of Obama’s domestic policy agenda and likely the first major piece of legislation he’ll push once in office. He’s been campaigning on it since before he was just a twinkle in the Democratic party’s eye, and the issue has received considerable coverage in the national debates. Name three provisions of Barack Obama’s healthcare plan.

Having trouble? If you go to Obama’s website you’ll find a nine-page statement that lists no less than 16 distinct provisions. The problem is not that the details aren’t out there; it’s that no one seems to care about them. Without so much as a half-glance at policy specifics, we’re about to hand the Democratic party both the presidency and a filibuster-proof majority in Congress. If a politician can get elected without ever being asked the question of whether or not his policy positions pass muster, then what holds him accountable to the people?

In lieu of an actual detailed reckoning of the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate on the issues, we’ve come to accept merely a perception of a candidate’s ideology, and take it on faith that something as simplistic and generalized as a political ideology can serve as an accurate guide in the complicated and nuanced decision-making world that our leaders must act in.

I vote on the issues, and I’ve always had a little trouble in deciding between Republicans and Democrats. I think there’s strong evidence suggesting that free markets work, but such evidence supports not only the free movement of goods and capital, but also the free movement of people. Economic theory tells me that Pigouvian taxes are a proper response to carbon emissions, but the reckless subsidization of “green” energy is not.

I support mandates as a way to correct information asymmetries in health insurance markets, but I also stand behind school vouchers, choice, and accountability as a means of reforming our educational system. Unsurprisingly, the simple ideologies that have come to define our political parties are a poor fit to best policies, and as a result, neither party has a monopoly on sound governance.

I find it easier to make my choice this time around. McCain doesn’t resist immigration and carbon controls as would be typical of his party, and Obama, despite McCain’s insistence to the contrary, does not support insurance mandates. Throw in the fact that Obama’s tax plan would raise marginal tax rates across the income spectrum and, to me, it’s a slam dunk for McCain.

I’m not writing to tell you that you should take my word that McCain has the right policies. In fact, the very idea of “taking my word for it” is the diametric opposite of my entire argument. What I am urging you to do is research. Take just one issue you care about, be it energy, healthcare, education, or taxes, and don’t just read a couple of Internet articles about it. Go buy a textbook on it. Study the science behind it, the economics behind it, the values questions behind it. Challenge all your assumptions and check ideology at the door. Formulate a policy position that you support, and could defend with cold, hard fact if called upon. Then, on Nov. 4, vote for the candidate whose position comes closest to your policy.

I don’t humor myself with the idea that at the tender age of 22 I’ve already discovered the “correct” policy positions, and so I’m not urging you to analyze policies out of some faith that the rightness of McCain will shine through and cure you of any Obama leanings. Social science being what it is, there will almost always be room for two people to draw separate conclusions from the same data. It’s not the conclusion that I’m advocating, it’s the process.

Ignore the personal stories and ugly rumors. Don’t buy into fluff themes like “hope” and “change.” Vote on the strength of a candidate’s policies, not the strength of their marketing. Vote rationality in 2008.

Keith Yost is a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division.