George Will Misses the Point:

George Will critiques the now-ubiquitous election campaign question, "Are you better off" and concludes that it is short-sighted by failing to capture the full human experience as to what it means to be "better off":

In contemporary politics, nothing succeeds like excess, so permutations of Reagan's trope are going to recur. Therefore, it is time to consider its deficiencies, which are symptomatic of a desiccated mentality.

Unfortunately, the phrase "better off" is generally understood as a reference to your salary, your bank balance, your IRA and the like. But wait. Are you better off being four years older? That depends.

If you are young, since 2004 you might have found romance, had children, learned to fly-fish and become a Tampa Bay Rays fan. In which case you emphatically are better off, even if since 2004 there has been only a 0.6 percent increase -- yes, increase -- in the median value of single-family homes.


Suppose in those years you read "Middlemarch," rediscovered Fred Astaire's movies, took up fly-fishing, saw Chartres and acquired grandchildren. Even if the value of your stock portfolio is down since 2004 (the Dow actually is up), are you not decidedly better off?


The people asking and those answering the "better off" question seem to assume that the only facts that matter are those that can be expressed as economic statistics. Statistics are fine as far as they go, but they do not go very far in measuring life as actually lived.

Will is correct, of course, that economic statistics don't capture the elements of life that determine whether we are better off or worse off.

But his column misses the point as the question is asked in the context of a political campaign. There is an obvious unspoken qualifier to the question, which should be understood if read in context, "Are you better off with respect to the things that the government could do to improve your life." The government can't make you read (and gain happiness from) Middlemarch or Fred Astaire movies. The government can help to produce peace, security, and prosperity (sometimes, of course, by doing nothing at all). It is that sense, which I think most everyone understands, that "Are you better off?" is a perfectly reasonable and appropriate question to ask.

Obvious (mail):
Except that no politician is running on the "I'll make you better off by having the government do nothing" platform.

So it IS ironic that pols of both parties ask "Are you better off?" in an effort to get your vote when neither party's platform will make (most) people better off.

Granted, "Are you less poorly off than you would have been had the other guy won 4 years ago?" is a mouthful...
9.7.2008 4:22pm
one of many:
Not fair, Will doesn't miss the point, he dismisses it. He uses it's political meaning to launch a essay encouraging people to look beyond politics.
9.7.2008 4:23pm
Will is simply being silly. If in the course of a political campaign, a politician were to go on at any length about where we stood with respect to those aspects of our lives not much related to governmental functions, say the way we chose to recreate, Will would no doubt savage them for presuming to go there.
9.7.2008 4:28pm
I never much took George Will seriously, but this is almost a parodied defense of Republican failures. Todd, the point you are making is so obvious I am not sure it needs to be made. No one would think the question applies to the romantic or athletic spheres. As much as Yankees fans might want to, I cannot see too many people saying, "You know, our team isn't that old. The problem clearly falls on George Bush's shoulders. Perhaps if he had managed to cut corporate taxes for baseball teams, our pitching staff wouldn't be so awful." Likewise, if you went home alone last night, you probably wouldn't blame Bush unless he was your wing man. On the other hand, maybe Americans do think the way George Will thinks they might. Maybe they do treat their President as some interventionist god who has control over every aspect of their lives. Somehow I doubt it.
9.7.2008 4:32pm
Not fair, Will doesn't miss the point, he dismisses it...
Will wasn't just a neutral bystander when Reagan ran for the presidency, he did what he could to help. I doubt very much that he had any trouble with "Reagan's trope," which is no different now than it was then. And you can bet that Reagan, whom Will so greatly admires, would have hustled Phil Gramm hastily off stage when he chided Americans for being whiners, just as McCain has tried to do, with only partial success.
9.7.2008 4:33pm
theobromophile (www):
If you are young, since 2004 you might have found romance, had children, learned to fly-fish and become a Tampa Bay Rays fan.

Young, but 0-4. Even my beloved Sox broke their losing streak before the election. Maybe I shouldn't have voted for Bush.

In theory, the economic status of the country will determine, for some people, whether or not they have enough money to get married, have children, or buy a house. (For young people, the crash in the housing market can be a huge boon, making previously unaffordable real estate affordable.) While the connection is certainly attenuated, there are arguably connections between the availability of art and politics - whether by outright government funding, or the effect of AMT on people's likelihood to give to charities.

Polls (and questions) like the ones mentioned, however, are simply terrible instruments for teasing any of that out.
9.7.2008 4:40pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
"Are you better off with respect to the things that the government could do to improve your life." The government can't make you read (and gain happiness from) Middlemarch or Fred Astaire movies.
Shhh! Don't give Democrats any ideas!
9.7.2008 4:42pm
I think the other subcontext is that it is asked of a group. Just by variation (leaving aside the aging effects that Will mentions), there will be some people better or worse off. But the question when answered by the polity and their answers summed, gives an impact.
9.7.2008 4:43pm
one of many:
I'm not suggesting that Will in an unbiased observer of politics or anything, he's pretty clear about where his inclinations lie. But for Will to have missed the point he would have had to have, well, missed it instead of bringing it up himself. Despite being introduced in terms of politics this is not an essay about politics, it is about philosophy. It's a restatement of that old adage that there is more to life than money, should we only consider the question "are we better off..." in terms dictated by the political use? The trope has gone too far and infested all of life instead of just the economic sphere, people value their lives through their possessions (although I don't credit this to the trope, it seems to be a coon failure of mankind).
9.7.2008 5:03pm
one of many:
9.7.2008 5:04pm
The fact that since 2000 my government has begun torturing people, including innocent ones, makes me worse off, irrespective of the status of my 401k.
9.7.2008 5:06pm
Alberto Hurtado (mail) (www):
The government can help to produce peace, security, and prosperity (sometimes, of course, by doing nothing at all).

Seriously? The government can produce these good either by doing something or not doing something? That's either a trite truism or an all-encompassing statement that really says nothing at all. Will's unspoken point (I think) is that the politics of change is at its root a politics of envy. We all like to envy. It's a very human thing. But not a very good human thing. And if that's all we're striving for in this election, well then, I'm not sure society is going to be well-off at all.
9.7.2008 5:15pm
Samantha Joy:
In a nutshell: He approved of the question when the answer was, for most people, "no" after four years of a Democratic president. Now that the answer is again "no" after eight years of a Republican president, he thinks the question ought to be retired.

But I am sure that there are no considerations other than the purely philosophical that prompt him to say so. I also think I'm going to buy up the Brooklyn Bridge and start charging a toll on it.
9.7.2008 5:28pm
Tom Morris (mail) (www):
"The government can't make you read (and gain happiness from) Middlemarch or Fred Astaire movies."

Libraries, schools and universities financed from the public purse would suggest that they are.

That said, much as I do not think that one can reduce human experience to economics, Will's argument fails because economic factors can influence whether or not you get to enjoy the less measurable things in life: an economic downturn or a war may mean you can't read Middlemarch because you are working a second job to pay the bills or fighting in Iraq (or, to use the economic arguments of the right: perhaps a heavy tax burden imposed on you to pay for welfare schemes means you can't purchase said novel).

You (perhaps) can't quantify in any meaningful way the benefit gained from a novel or a movie, but you can measure whether or not such preferences are being satisifed.
9.7.2008 5:29pm
loki13 (mail):
Let me try a stab at it:

When the Democrats ruin the economy, "Are you better off" is a fair question because people need jobs, houses, and money.

When the Republicans ruin the economy, "Are you better off" is not a fair question because all of the unemployed presumably have more leisure time to enjoy reading Middlemarch and following the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

I'm not surprised that George Will is making the argument. I'm only surprised that he gets paid to make it.
9.7.2008 5:51pm
The sarcastic comments about Will display the problem that Will has always had: He is actually, really, truly conservative. He got along well with the Reagans, and certainly preferred Reagan to the Democratic alternatives.

But he was not a great admirer of Reagans' ideas. (Angry Will to Reagan: "I always knew you were a liberal!") Because Reagan was a liberal, in the sense that a Burkean like Will uses that term. He is not a libertarian. He doesn't denigrate government per se, although he is not thrilled with many who have governed.

When conservatives (in the American sense) say that they are the real liberals, they are expressing an idea near and dear to Reagan. But Reagan was fond of quoting Tom Paine(!). And especially the line from "Common Sense": We have it in our power to bein the world over again. Now, this is the single least conservative thing that has ever been said. And it is so manifestly untrue that it's hard to believe that Reagan believed it.

But John Patrick Diggins had it right: Reagan was a classical liberal in philosophy, and a Romantic in outlook. Neither is "conservative" in the British sense, which is the meaning of the term that Will employs when he describes himself as conservative.

Reagan was hardly his dream candidate. Nor did he refrain from criticizing what he took to be the narrow economic appeal of some of Reagan's thought.

The tendency to dismiss someone "on the other side" as a hypocrite has infected this lovely blog. Too bad. Like any thinker--and he is a sophisticated guy, like him or not--he needs to be taken on his own terms. But Will is not on the "other side" intellectually. He's off to the side. With me. And perhaps two or three other Burke/Peale/Madison/Oakeshott/Scruton conservatives.

We're very, very lonely over here. Send women.
9.7.2008 5:54pm
loki--Neither Democrats nor Republicans ever "ruin the economy." It's too damned big for that. The Fed can affect short-term trends with monetary policy. But Nixon was basically correct: The president can't do much of anything about the economy. What he can do is affect national security.

McCain knows this, but can't afford to seem like Bush I was portrayed in 1992. Does Obama know this? I don't know. I think you liberal liberals don't agree that guv'mint spending policies don't do all that much to affect the economy.

The federal budget is about $3 trillion. The US GDP is getting toward $14 billion. Sounds like a decent percentage. But the amount over which any administration--Democratic or Gop-- actually has discression is a very small percentage of the total. If the budget were cut, the money wouldn't be taken out of the economy. It would simply be spent or invested by people who don't work on or near the Potomac.

Example: Take FDR. He significantly increased federal spending on relief. But by 1937--the eyar of the "Roosevelt Recession"-- the economy had not recovered in any significant way. It was war in Europe, which brought huge foreign spending in the US, that revived the economy.

Hoover didn't ruin the economy, and FDR didn't revive it. This doesn't mean that FDR wasn't any better than Hoover (though why liberals would criticize Hoover is beyond me). FDR was a far more successful president. But if it hadn't been for the war, he would have left office in 1940 without having done much for the mid-term economy. (His reforms contributed to the long-term strength of the US economy. But that's a very different matter.)

And Venture Brothers still kick ass.
9.7.2008 6:08pm
loki13 (mail):
Venture Borthers may be good, but only Sealab 2021 has the strength of a bear that has the strength of TWO BEARS! I look down upon those who came late to the Adult pool party. *grin*

FYI, my final econometrics paper was on the different lag effects of monetary vs. fiscal policy. Saying that the President does not affect the economy is both true and wrong. Or, in classic lawyer-speak, it depends. To given a ferinstance- the President, through the setting of policies and goals, has the single greatest influence on the (long-term) macro direction of the economy. Does the President have the effect of, say, Congress as a whole? Well, no. But because of preeminent place, and the singular nature of the executive branch, they have a disproportionate impact. Here's an example- The boom of the 1990s was largely a creation of GHWB and Clinton (via his backing of Rubin). Deficits do matter, in the signals they send to the private markets and the question of crowding out private investment. In so many ways, the President affects the long-term direction of the economy. Can the President single-handedly stop a recession or cause a boom? No. But moreso than any other single person (including Chair of the Fed.), the President affects the economy.
9.7.2008 6:17pm
Because George Will doesn't like the way most Americans would answer the question this time around, he wants to criticize the question. Those who say that Will is too conservative to change are wrong. It's pretty obvious that he is desperately trying to "change" the subject.
9.7.2008 6:41pm
one of many:
***Shh, Hoosier don't confuse people's preconceptions, with facts. The idea of George Will being in the tank for McCain is pretty silly if you've followed Will at all, do you get Will's reaction to Palin? If I thought facts would affect the discussion I'd point out to Loki, etc that the Democrats are not running the 'are you better off' trope and it is McCain the Republican who is running it with his variant assertion that "you are better off". I thought I could get away with pointing out that this was not a political piece, but gosh darn it, to some people everything is political.

Sorry about the women perhaps it is a classification error, Ayn Rand is widely considered a philosopher but I cannot recall ever have seen her included in a collection of women philosophers, so maybe one of you few conservatives is really a woman. You high minded philosophical types might have missed it.***
9.7.2008 6:57pm
I agree with Hoosier's general point. Those who say that Will is simply trying to define away the problem for narrow political purposes (i.e., Dems vs. Republicans) are just wrong (and probably just projecting their own limited worldviews). Will has his own independent, idiosyncratic take on things. For example, he's been critical of the Iraq war for a long time now. He's not a Republican apologist. He's more of a curmudgeon (or, a classical conservative).
9.7.2008 7:14pm

"Econometrics paper"?!!! Isn't that like an art history regression analysis?

Two points:
1) I bet I could find a really fancy economist who can show why you are wrong. And another that can show why you are right. And a third who can show that the other two misunderstood the question. Macroeconomics is just about forcefully stating propositions, and shaking your head dismissively when someone disagrees with you.

2) I was able to understand every word you wrote. The implications are clear: You have no future in academic economics.

Not simply a flippant comment. At my institution, we have--I dunno--two dozen faculty who teach into to macro and intro to micro. Two or three get "good" reviews fro students. Many more are rated "average." Some are "below average." None are "very good" or "excellent." Keep in mind that "grade inflation" and "eval inflation" are mutually reinforcing, and you get some idea of why students dread the Econ Department.
9.7.2008 7:20pm
Hey Skipper (mail) (www):
one of many and Hoosier win the thread.
9.7.2008 7:20pm

Have you read Will's columns from the Bush I or Bush II adminsitrations? He is nothing if not intellectually consistent. (His private life is a mess, but then he doesn't write much about "family values" issues.)
9.7.2008 7:24pm
one of many: We consider Rand a radical. Plus she wasn't hot.

Perhaps you could send us some cheerleaders?
9.7.2008 7:25pm
wph (mail):
There is certainly more to life than is touched by government, as shown in the Middlemarch example. The more interesting point that Will could have made, but didn't here, is that many the things that are supposedly under the government's control, like housing prices and gas prices, really are not.
9.7.2008 8:04pm
theobromophile (www):
We're very, very lonely over here. Send women.

So what am I? A turnip?
9.7.2008 8:22pm
Thales (mail) (www):
Hoosier: "Burke/Peale/Madison/Oakeshott/Scruton" I'm not sure Madison can defensibly be put in this company. He is more in the Hume/Smith school, as I read him (but I think it's insulting to put him in this company, and that Thomas Paine largely eviscerates Burke in his passage on "Point No-Point" in the Rights of Man . . . but I wish you luck with the women. I don't have any over here either.
9.7.2008 8:37pm
Benjamin Davis (mail):
I stopped listening to George Will when I found out that he was helping Ronald Reagan prepare for debates and then coming on television after the debates extolling Reagna's performance without disclosing that he had helped Reagan prepare. He was supposed to be some neutral pundit expressing views on the Reagan-Carter debate and I found out later he was a shill for one side. After that he just was more pond scum to me.
9.7.2008 9:53pm

That's, um . . . different.
9.7.2008 10:14pm

I'd be happy to debate Burke vs. Paine, should the thread arise. As a thinker, Plane was a very good pampleteer.

Why can't Madison be put in that august company? We are talking here about process-conservatism, right? In this sense, conservatism is the least ideological political voice. It would have to be the case that an American conservative would come to different conclusions on particular *issues* than would a Brit. But I don't see anything in Madison that leads me to think he wants to impose polcy solutions a priori. His contributions to the "Federalist" were the most focused on process. Right?

But if you like, I'll substitute Jay. Or Henry Adams.
9.7.2008 10:25pm
Randy R. (mail):
"Suppose in those years you read "Middlemarch," rediscovered Fred Astaire's movies, took up fly-fishing, saw Chartres."

Yet, if I did any of these things (and I have done the first two), I would be labeled an 'elitist.' 'cause when liberals do high-falutin things, it's only because we want to flaunt our superiority, unlike Will, that 'man of the people.'

Hoosier: "We're very, very lonely over here. Send women."

And men!
9.7.2008 11:01pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Once your belly's full, you can think of other things.
In this country, most people's bellies are full--or more--and so the opportunity arises to think of other things.
Like how much better off somebody else is.
Envy is a powerful political tool. It's said to be the only one of the Seven Deadly Sins which isn't any fun. IMO, if it weren't fun, nobody would be doing it.
Some useful percentage of the population is either envious of those who have time to read Middlemarch, or of those who have the interest in reading Middlemarch instead of People.
Appeals to envy are odious.
9.7.2008 11:33pm
Mark Field (mail):

I'd be happy to debate Burke vs. Paine, should the thread arise. As a thinker, Plane was a very good pampleteer.

And Burke was a fine orator. :)
9.7.2008 11:50pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
George Will neglects to address a more fundamental public pathology, the Rooster Syndrome: (Metaphorically) giving credit to the crowing of the rooster for the rising of the sun. It is a species of the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Most of the things government can do to improve the economy are investments in new technology, which have a lag time of about 30-40 years until their benefits are realized. While government can make some mistakes that can damage the economy in a shorter time horizon, and it can do things like buy time, such as is being done with the bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, perhaps leading to an even worse result later, it and its incumbent officials have much less to do with the current level of prosperity than most people want to believe. When people vote for or against anyone based on their current economic well-being, they are almost always doing so for a mistaken reason. It is not surprising that they don't get the desired results, and get politicians who deceive them about the results to be expected from their policies. Public leaders don't help by encouraging their error. This is an important area of reform in civic education.
9.7.2008 11:57pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
George Will also missed a point in his article, McCain's Constitution, on which my comment follows:

What is simplistic is the false choice presumed by McCain that the only alternatives are continued corruption and violation of the First Amendment. George Will obviously does not accept this dichotomy, but could have been more explicit that it is false and that he does not accept it.

The problem that the McCain-Feingold Act ostensibly addresses is a real one. But it is also a problem that the legislation does nothing to solve it. Indeed, its net effect, like so much other legislation, is almost precisely the opposite of what was intended. The public choice system is a complex one, with intricate feedback loops that defeat simple, direct approaches to intervention. For more on this general problem see Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems, by Jay Forrester.

Now most members of Congress understood perfectly well that the Act would be counterproductive, even if probably none understood how it would be. That's why they voted for it. They are not going to vote for anything that might actually work to reduce corruption.

About the only thing simple about our predicament is that it is almost never necessary, except in transitory emergencies, to violate any provision of the Constitution to achieve any legitimate purpose, such as reducing the undue influence of money on public policy. There is always a constitutional alternative, and if one restricts oneself to examining constitutional alternatives, one can eventually find one that actually works, and works better than any unconstitutional one. However, it may require some very deep analysis and creativity to find it. Most legislators lack the patience and intellect to do that. And, of course, having surrendered to corruption doesn't inspire the effort.

It is all very well to invoke separation of powers, but that only works if the "same hands", that is, a single faction, don't gain control over all the parts, as they have. And they are not going to easily allow an effective separation to be reattained.

Government (and business and most other institutions) is corrupt because the people are corrupt. When the people become virtuous so will government. They are getting the government they want and deserve. They have to want clean government enough to vote for it.

Political corruption begins with every voter who votes his pocketbook instead of for what's good for the country. There is little difference between the selling of his vote by an elected official and the selling of his vote by a voter, to whatever candidate promises him some benefit.
— Jon Roland, speech during his campaign for Congress, 1974

Most politicians soon give up on the people becoming virtuous. They don't see any way to reform them. They abandon any idealism they once had and try to make the best of a bad situation. But, of course, they just make it worse.

Moral philosopher William James once observed the problem and found that the only thing that seemed to induce people to become virtuous was war. He didn't approve of starting wars to make people virtuous, so he sought The Moral Equivalent of War, William James (1906). But his proposed alternatives were rather weak.

Of course, there have been many religious or semi-religious movements to reform public and private virtue. Perhaps most notably the four "great awakening" movements. Evangelicals are a manifestation of that. The civil rights movement was also part of that, since the objective was not just to change laws but to change hearts. The constitutionalist and libertarian movements also grow out of such movements (even though most of their activists would be loathe to admit it).

Public choice theory and the problem of rent-seeking behavior is well understood, as are the solutions, by a few. The understanding is not, however, widely distributed or deeply impressed into the thinking of most people, especially people in government. We can work on changing that.
9.8.2008 12:09am
Pr. Zywicki,

I believe your post misses George Will's point. George Will believes that the role of government is not limited to the economy, it involves other elements of life as well. For this reason, he believes that considering only the economy in the context of a political campaign (just as in other contexts) misses important parts of the relevant picture. He believes government can indeed improve your life in other aspects.

This view of course is one with which you have strongly disagreed. But George Will is asking a reasonable question for his own point of view. You would do better explaining why you think his point of view wrong, rather than simply assuming it as a premise.
9.8.2008 2:59am
one of many:
one of many: We consider Rand a radical. Plus she wasn't hot.

Perhaps you could send us some cheerleaders?

I didn't mean to imply Rand would fit in with your group, certainly by your standards she was a radical. However I have it on good authority that she was female, and she is considered a philosopher by many, yet she somehow is not included on lists of female philosophers. Are you certain that none of your small band is not female and you've just been concerned with weightier issues and not noticed? If Burke was a woman that would go a long way towards explaining Macaulay's (?sp?, the female philosopher) spats with Burke, they were just catfights.

As for the cheerleaders, I'll mention it at the next VRWC meeting. We're light there too, goodness we had to use the runner-up for Miss Alaska to fill the VP slot, but I'li try to see what I can do. The VRWC has a vested interest in keeping some real conservatives around for the smokescreen effect, so it might be doable,
9.8.2008 4:52am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Let's keep the cheerleaders. There aren't enough to go around.
Charity only extends so far.
9.8.2008 9:28am
r.friedman (mail):
We would all be better off if George Will sucked his lemons and muttered his imprecations sitting in a corner to himself than in the national media.
9.8.2008 10:02am
We would all be better off if George Will sucked his lemons

friedman, buddy: The kink-with-fruit thread is so last week.
9.8.2008 10:29pm