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questions from an undecided

Over at Patheos, Tim Dalrymple asked his readers to try to explain why they are voting to their candidate to that rarest of all political animals, a reflective undecided voter. Our society is so partisan and left + right so rarely really talk to each other, to say nothing of the great multitude of opinions and approaches that don’t fit on that either-or paradigm. He had my attention.

I’m a bit skeptical that Americans reasoning together should limit themselves to “convince me to vote for your guy in two weeks.” By the time we are this close to an election, most people, even most undecideds, are shaped enough by their past experiences and interactions that it’s incredibly unlikely they will actually switch sides. I think the real political work comes from community- and relationship-building, where through my life and words I show my more conservative friends (or my more liberal, or libertarian, or whatever) why I find their approach unconvincing and how mine plays out into an ethical, eudaimonistia-filled life. And it works both ways. My friends of different political views stretch me to reconsider my own. Recently, Dwim has given me much food for thought on whether the Democrats really are the lesser of two evils in our two-party system, and Michelle has prompted me to appreciate more how the libertarian’s distrust of large government can appreciate a more locally-driven approach. Granted, the latter point has pushed me more toward Jill Stein than Gary Johnson which may not have been her point. But the thing is, these conversations do have an impact. Even if I still consider myself a progressive who will most likely vote for Obama over Romney (in fact, I already did), I’m a very different type of progressive than I would be without these edifying conversations.

Anywho. Tim posed a series of questions on behalf of his undecided reader, so I thought I’d take them on.

First, from his reader: It seems like this election is focused solely on the economy and getting America back to work. Which candidate will be more effective at accomplishing this goal?

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of this approach because I don’t think it’s the government’s job to control the economy. There are so many factors that control prices and jobs and all that. I do believe it is the government’s job to give people, particularly the working poor and those who are looking for work but can’t find it in the present economy or are disabled so they can’t work, the resources necessary to meet their needs when the market doesn’t do this. Part of the picture is regulating businesses so they provide a decent product at a fair price produced the right way for both the citizenship + the environment. Another part is setting conditions (taxes, trade laws, etc.) that grow the economy so there’s more good stuff to go around. But that’s not the same as saying you should vote for the opposition because gas prices are too high at election time.

Now on to the questions Tim asked his readers:

• Obama’s approach possesses direct concern for all people. His plan seeks to provide immediate relief to people. Romney’s approach provides indirect concern for all people. His plan seeks to provide eventual relief to people. Which approach is more sustainable in the long-run?

I have always been of the “teach a man to fish” approach here. If providing “indirect relief” really will help people support themselves more, I’m all for that. But we should not confuse indirect relief for abandoning the vulnerable. I believe there are dangers that poor- and middle-class people face from corporate America and the nature of life in general, that none of us can fight on our own. Take health care; it is one thing to say we should be getting people off Medicare where possible so they can make health decisions that meet their needs better than a one-size-fits-all approach. But there will always be some people without the economic resources to meet their needs, and as a member of a society that has failed to provide said resources while profiting off their labor, I feel an obligation to provide that help directly. There are also large-scale systemic problems (medical waste, lack of transparency, lack of prevention + education) that I am not in a position to address myself. So while I tend to prefer the conservative model of increased self-reliance (the historical approach, not so much the slash and burn approach I see these days), I don’t think we’ll ever completely erase the need for that direct action.

• Obama’s approach leans more on the government to create (and sustain) jobs. Romney’s approach relies on the free market to create jobs. Should the government be more (or less) involved in creating jobs?

I believe in the free market, for all I sometimes sound like a first-class pinko around here. I don’t believe in the unrestricted free market, and I don’t believe market/utilitarian approaches are good ones when it comes to ethics. But I think that, given a basic good distribution of wealth (which we don’t have at this point, but setting that aside) the market is a good way of motivating people to help others meet their needs. Because of this, I’m skeptical of the government trying to set priorities. So I’m in favor of less government prodding when it comes to job-creation. But I’m also in favor of the government setting up conditions so businesses cannot profit from America without contributing. This involves education + training policies so there are skilled American workers, infrastructure that makes it easier to do businesses, robust tax policies that force rich Americans to help support their neighbors through welfare if the free market isn’t doing it, etc.

• Obama seeks to protect people by regulating the market. Romney seeks to curtail market regulations. Market regulations protect people, but also make the market inefficient.

Market efficiency is overrated, though important. Regulations when done well keep one individual from acting selfishly. They serve a crucial counterweight against the essential moral blindness of markets. So while there’s no question directly stated here, I think on the implied question –which approach do I favor– I definitely favor more regulation. At the same time, I favor being smart about those regulations to streamline them so we end up regulating the market rather than just setting up bureaucratic hoops for people to jump through. I am more supportive of enforcing the regulations we have, including with criminal prosecution where relevant, than I am in adding new regulations that will just lead to loopholes the rich will exploit.

• Romney offers a fiscal plan with (some) details that I can at least agree or disagree with. Obama does not offer much of a fiscal plan except to keep on keeping on with what we are doing. I understand that Romney’s plan has flaws, but what is Obama’s fiscal plan?

I wish I knew! I honestly don’t on this point. (Anyone reading this want to offer some links?) But I think you’re overstating the level of detail we’ve seen out of Romney. While he has offered broad goals like lowering taxes without driving up the deficit, he hasn’t offered much explanation at all on how those broad goals will be accomplished.

• Obama seems to be unable to effectively work with Republicans. Romney seems to have been effective in working with Democrats. Romney’s potential for activity seems more promising than Obama’s likely inactivity.

There’s another side to this. It’s not that Republicans have been reasonable and Obama has simply refused to sit down to the table. On health care, on the deficit, on so many other things Obama has offered up accommodations and compromises that I personally felt went too far. Republicans have refused to compromise, even when the ideas were commonly approved of before Obama offered them as with the health insurance mandate. (Whether that’s actually good policy, I’ll leave for another day.) You don’t get to shoot out the tires and then complain that the driver can’t keep the car on the road. The fact that Romney can work with Democrats but Obama – a centrist pragmatist if ever there was one – can’t work with Romney is a sign that the Democrats are being reasonable while Republicans aren’t. In general, of course; there are exceptions.

• Romney offers some semblance of a plan/direction. Obama fails to provide a clear vision of where he will take us. I want to vote for Obama, but I would like him to give me something to vote for.

Again, this is a tough one. I do find Obama’s lack of policy ideas frustrating and wish he’d give us more details. I do believe he has some ideas that aren’t being talked about, like the Buffett rule and job training programs. But the Romney/Ryan plans are forcing him to make the more fundamental case that the public good (as opposed to each individual’s private benefit) is worth fighting for. It’s not like America has an accepted starting point that the government can do things to help, that we have an obligation or even an interest in doing things like saving the planet, caring for the poor, educating people as more than just corporate technicians, etc. as a people. Without that understanding, it’s really hard to set up specific policies in a way that will be useful. So while I feel your pain, I think the more theoretical politicking is necessary given the fact that Americans no longer speak the same political language.

Doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating, of course! And those policies we have are shameful from a Christian standpoint. (I mention this because Tim’s site is an evangelical one.) The focus on who’s doing what’s best for the middle class is hardly the metric Jesus would use. This is not surprising in American policies, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

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