In the Los Angeles Times, writer Bob Rosenblatt characterized President Obama’s strategy for his health care proposal as “Give me a bunch of money, and we’ll figure out the details later how we are going to manage this thing.” In other words, its key element is vagueness.
The problem with such vagueness is that any informed public policy decision has to be based on specific proposals. Absent concrete details, which is where the devil lurks, no one–including those proposing a “reform”–can judge how it would fare or falter in the real world. So when the President wants approval for a proposal which offers too few details for evaluation, we must ask why.
Like private sector salesmen, politicians strive to present their wares as attractively as possible. Unlike them, however, a politician’s product line consists of claimed consequences of proposals not yet enacted. Further, politicians are unconstrained by truth in advertising laws, which would require that claims be more than misleading half-truths; they have fewer competitors keeping them honest; and they face “customers”–voters– far more ignorant about the merchandise involved than those spending their own money.
These differences from the private sector explain why politicians’ “sales pitches” for their proposals are so vague. However, if vague proposals are the best politicians can offer, they are inadequate.
If rhetoric is unmatched by specifics, there is no reason to believe a policy change will be an improvement, because no reliable way exists to determine whether it will actually accomplish what is promised. Only the details will determine the actual incentives facing the decision-makers involved, which is the only way to forecast the results, including the myriad of unintended consequences from unnoticed aspects. We must remember that, however laudable, goals and promises and claims of cost-effectiveness that are inconsistent with the incentives created will go unmet.
It may be that President Obama knows too little of his “solution” to provide specific plans. If so, he knows too little to deliver on his promises. Achieving intended goals then necessarily depends on blind faith that Obama and a panoply of bureaucrats, legislators, overseers and commissions will somehow adequately grasp the entire situation, know precisely what to do about it, and do it right (and that the result will not be too painful, however serious the problem)–a prospect that, due to the painful lessons of history, attracts few real believers.
Alternatively, President Obama may know the details of what he intends, but is not providing them to the public. But if it is necessary to conceal a plan’s details to put the best possible public face on it, those details must be adverse. If they made a more persuasive sales pitch, a politician would not hide actual details. They would be trumpeted at every opportunity, proving to a skeptical public he really had the answers, since concealing rather than revealing pays only when better informed citizens would be more inclined to reject a plan.
Claiming adherence to elevated principles, but keeping detailed proposals from sight, also has a strategic advantage. It defuses critics. Absent details, any criticism can be parried by saying “that was not in our proposal” or “we have no plans to do that” or other rhetorical devices. It also allows a candidate to incorporate alternatives proposed as part of his evolving reform, as if it was his idea all along.
The new administration has already put vague proposals on prominent display. However, adequate analysis cannot rest upon such flimsy foundations. That requires the nuts and bolts so glaringly absent. In the private sector, people don’t spend their own money on such vague promises of unseen products. It is foolhardy to act any differently when political salesmen withhold specifics, because political incentives guarantee that people would object to what is kept hidden. So while vagueness may be good political strategy, it virtually ensures bad policy, if Americans’ welfare is the criterion.