The Folly of Rhetorical Asymmetry

While it is undoubtedly a cliche, “thou shall not talk politics at work” is still an extremely wise saying. Yet after the longest “short” work week of my life, discipline was in short supply. And when a coworker criticized New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for scrapping a partially completed train line from New Jersey to Manhattan, I just about lost it.

My colleague’s argument boiled down to the following: There are a lot of people in northern New Jersey and even more in Manhattan. The existing PATH train that connects the two urban centers is insufficient. Christie, therefore, should have allowed the project to be completed. It was clear that my coworker had no idea that another side of the debate even existed, or that if it did, it was completely invalid.

How, I asked, was the state supposed to pay for the line’s completion? New Jersey was already several billion dollars in debt. Its tax rates are among the highest in the country. And unlike the federal government, states can neither carry a deficit nor print money. So where was Christie supposed to come up with the ten billion dollars or more necessary for the new line?

Flabbergasted, the coworker gave up. Like many Americans, she had been convinced by demagogic politicians that there are no tough choices. In order to harness voters’ passions, politicians portray complex issues as simple (and false) right vs. wrong soundbites rather than the very tough cost-benefit analyses that they are. In reality, more of X typically means less of Y. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. But rhetorical asymmetry paints a false reality and hides true costs. The issue plagues both conservatives and liberals, and it may very well threaten America’s standing as the world’s preeminent economic and military power in the coming century.

Rhetorical asymmetry is by no means a new phenomenon in American politics. The first American president of my lifetime, Ronald Reagan, used it in waging a war against drugs. Reagan could have portrayed his policies in cost-benefit terms, arguing that the increase in taxes and inflation that would accompany the billions of dollars spent against drug dealers and users was a worthwhile cost to achieve social cohesion. Instead, he ignored the costs, and told the American taxpayer that keeping crack off of the streets was vital to American survival.

Following the tragic events of 9/11 15 years later, George W. Bush used asymmetrical rhetoric to vastly expand executive power, spy on American citizens without warrants, and launch both a high intensity war in Iraq and an endless war in the Middle East. Did he convince America to go along by starting an honest discussion of the risks and rewards of such a strategy? Did he tell the citizenry that young men and women would die, that the national deficit would skyrocket, and that we would embroil ourselves in very complicated regional politics with very unsavory characters? Of course not. Bush instead gave Americans the following asymmetrical “choices”: freedom or death, tyranny or liberty, security or perpetual danger. Voters were none the wiser.

Reagan’s war on drugs continues to cost the country billions of dollars a year. Bush’s wars cost far more money and several thousand American lives, not to mention a likely permanent reduction of individual civil liberties. Both Republicans, they were also responsible for much of the federal government’s recent expansion that their party claims to be so opposed to. Such “achievements” may not have been allowed by a populace given real choices by their elected leaders.

Rhetorical asymmetry is even more dangerous a weapon today than it was in the 1980s. Democrats and Republicans alike admit that we are in a very, very bad fiscal situation. America’s 2011 deficit will likely total $2 trillion, combining with existing deficits to place the country in roughly $10 trillion of debt. Even assuming optimistic economic growth numbers, the math is inescapable: Unless we make serious inroads in aligning revenue with spending, American power is in serious jeopardy.

The parties may disagree on the merit of tax increases. What they do agree on is that even with massive tax hikes, spending must still be cut. Ideally, this would prompt Congress to engage with voters in a substantive manner. Instead we now see any attempts to slash spending sabotaged by rhetorical asymmetry. Republican Governors Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Mitch Daniels (Indiana), and John Kasich (Ohio) have all proposed similar reforms of public sector pension plans and education spending. They have since been portrayed by national Democrats (including President Obama) as enemies of the middle class.

These cuts are surely a tough pill for state employees to swallow, and this is not to imply that Democrats shouldn’t disagree with the aforementioned governors. But this is not “Republicans vs. the middle class”, just as it wasn’t “America vs. drugs” or “Democracy vs. terrorists”. Rather than using such one-sided arguments, Democrats should outline specific spending reductions that should be made instead of what has been proposed. They should chide Republicans for prioritizing incorrectly, not simply for prioritizing.

It often benefits politicians to deploy such rhetorical asymmetry in the short term. It may even help them get reelected. In the long run? As the Wilpon family can attest to, being in charge of a functionally bankrupt entity isn’t really being in charge at all.

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