Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I touched on this a while back when I mentioned the Presidential Debates, and I want to expand on it a little now, partly because I’m angry and need to vent, and partly because maybe if we talk about this enough we can shame ourselves into doing better.

We’re doing it wrong. The way we go about elections, and making these decisions, is deeply flawed by a persistent lack of substance. You probably already know what I mean, there’s all this useless noise, repeating meaningless talking points and blithely stating the obvious and distorting and outright lying and generally just making a big production show out of wasting time. I guess it gets people talking, at least. But it should be better, and really we have no excuse for not making it better.

Here’s an example from the California Voter Information Guide for the upcoming general election. We get one of these every election, and amongst other things they contain a written argument for and against each proposed ballot initiative, with a rebuttal to each. For my example I’ll use Proposition 38 which, in a nutshell, would raise taxes to provide more funding for education in California. I’ll refrain from commenting on the proposed law itself and stick to one tiny part of the arguments for my point.

If you’re in California and would like to read along for yourself, this is page 66 I’m starting from. The argument for Prop 38 includes this bit:

The Legislature can’t touch the money. 38 PROHIBITS the Legislature from diverting or borrowing the money, and it cannot use the new money to replace money schools currently receive.

Meanwhile in the rebuttal we have:

Prop. 38 gives Sacramento politicians $3 billion a year for four years to spend as they choose.

Then in the argument against we find:

The politicians and bureaucrats get billions of dollars in new taxes, with virtually no accountability on how the money is spent and how much actually gets into the classroom.

While its rebuttal contains:

38’s money for schools MUST go per pupil to every local school site. It MUST be spent there – where the students are – and it MUST be used to improve student outcomes. SACRAMENTO POLITICIANS CANNOT TOUCH THE MONEY.

Again, I’m singling out just one tiny bit, whether “Sacramento politicians” can use the money for their own, presumably nefarious, purposes. This is pretty typical of the rhetoric found in these voter guide arguments, capital letters for emphasis, bold declarations without any support, and rebuttals that completely ignore the arguments they propose to rebut in favor of repeating the same empty rhetoric as the other argument says.

Let’s ignore the loaded language and weasel words for a minute. I’d like you to imagine that you’re reading those short excerpts on Wikipedia. Now tell me, how many times would you see “[Citation Needed]” in that case? There’s an awful lot of bald assertions packed into those short sentences that could use some backup, isn’t there?

Well, we could turn to page 113 of the very same booklet and find the entire text of the proposed law itself. So what I want to know is, why don’t these arguments cite the text? It’s right there, we can easily flip the pages and read it. Why is it “38 prohibits the Legislature blah blah blah” instead of “If you read Section X Paragraph Y of the proposed law, you’ll see that it prohibits the Legislature blah blah blah”?

Why don’t they show their work?

I have an awful suspicion that I know, and I really hope I’m wrong. I suspect it’s because they’re trying to court the lazy votes, the people who don’t really consider how they’re voting, but just make a decision based on shallow perceptions, or party loyalty.

(I really do think that “party loyalty” is a concept that has no place in a representative government.)

But this has a nasty side-effect: it makes thoughtful voting much more difficult. Now if you want to really understand the issues, rather than simply vote for who spoke to your biases or said the right buzzwords or had the best hair, you have to dig. You could turn to page 113 of your voter guide and slog through long, boring, ridiculously verbose legal text. You could jump on the internet and search for analysis, if you know a reliable source for clear, unbiased legal analysis that can back up what it says. There are probably other options too, but whatever you try you’re going to have to dig through mountains of bullshit.

In short, it’s much easier to just vote with your preferred party or from a shallow impression of the debate rhetoric than it is to make a thoughtful, informed decision on these things. I’m counting initiatives and politicians here, because the debates are just as bad, perhaps even worse if you consider that at least with the Voter Guide you could read the whole text and check everything, if you had the time.

It’s backwards. We should be making informed voting as easy as possible. We should be encouraging thoughtful discussion rather than shouted buzzwords and pointless noise. The phrase “show, don’t tell” comes to mind, because what we have now is people telling things when they could easily be showing them.

I want the people talking to show their work.

About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on October 13, 2012, in Daily Post and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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