By Cody Byers
Problem – Competing political candidates offer opposing views, leading to confusion, fatigue, and misallocation
The issue of interventionist government spending is nothing new to policy discussion. An intense topic of debate in the current presidential race is whether to implement a number of government programs spanning from universal health care, nationwide minimum wage, or various initiatives to combat climate change. There are essentially two groups of candidates: those who are generally in favor of spending in these areas, and those who are against. These groups typically agree that there exists a need for policy intervention, but tend to disagree whether stimulus policy is the solution or not. This then implies two problems for any political candidate running for office on a platform of stimulating government spending in various industries: 1) which (if any) spending programs will actually net benefit voters, and 2) how can the candidate convince voters that their proposed policy platform will produce the predicted benefit?
Research on misallocation suggests that government “favoring” of relatively inefficient firms over other, more efficient firms (or industries over other industries) would lead to a drop in productivity for the economy (Hsieh et. al 2009). This research suggests that, were the government to treat different firms equally with regards to taxes, stimulus, etc., overall productivity in the economy would grow.
Recent research, however, takes a different approach: it suggests that the government must favor some industries over others as a way to cater to public opinion (Byers 2020). In other words, it is necessary for the government to misallocate stimulus to some degree. Otherwise, a populace of voters would be incentivized to remove the current administration in favor of one that would allocate government stimulus to the industries “passed over” by the previous. Thus, while a candidate must propose to allocate resources as efficiently as possible, they must also convince the public that this allocation will be an overall benefit to avoid alienating voters. While this research is oversimplified to a significant degree, the simplifying assumptions serve to more clearly demonstrate the main argument: that, should a political candidate wish to change the allocation of government resources, they must find some way to avoid incensing public opinion against themselves.
This research suggests that there are two ways for political candidates to do this: make it more “costly”, in terms of public opinion, for the administration to stimulate the incorrect industries, or make it less “costly” to stimulate the correct industries. An example of the former could be a candidate producing “attack ads”, criticizing unproductive industries directly or attacking opposing candidate platforms that advocate for stimulus in such industries. An example of the latter would be a candidate instead promoting their own platform, citing benefits and positive aspects of their own platform.
Empirical analysis conducted by John Sides suggests that positive promotion (i.e. lowering the opinion cost of productive stimulus) of a policy platform can be more effective than typical negative promotion (Sides 2016). Indeed, a myriad of studies suggest similar results. Some research suggests voters’ opinions of the producer of a negative political ad were reduced after viewing said ad (Carraro et. al 2010), while other studies suggest that independent voter turnout is damaged by negative campaign tactics (Lau et. al 2001).
Americans are growing extremely tired of politics. 85% of Americans surveyed say that they believe that American politics have grown overall more negative in the past several years, and the same number say that politics have become less respectful over the same time period (Pew Research Center 2019). Negative campaigning has become the norm, and it is driving voters to ambivalence and fatigue. With this in mind, the following are two recommendations to combat this.
First: Identify productive industries and plan policy platforms around them
Advocating for a policy platform that is detrimental to the United States economy amounts to nothing more than pandering, and should be avoided completely. An evidence based approach should be taken to draw up policy platforms that will increase productivity (and consequently, incomes). This approach would include analyzing existing domestic and foreign programs that are similar to proposed policies and identifying costs and benefits. In addition, growth-accounting methods should be utilized to identify those industries that may be overall a detriment to the U.S. economy and those that increase productivity the most (Byers 2020).
Second: Utilize positive campaigning methods to increase public support of the proposed policy platform.
Fact and data driven campaign messages have an equal effect on public support of policy, and are more often used positively for one’s own platform than to attack another (Sides 2016). As such, when creating campaign advertisements and messages, candidates should provide factual information about their proposed platform, ranging from information about who would benefit to how funds would be raised to pay for the proposed platform. Emotionally-driven stories about persons affected by similar programs should be kept uplifting, espousing the benefits of a candidates policy platform instead of denigrating another.
American politics have grown murky with an extreme increase in negative campaign messages and conflicting policy platforms. The voting base—especially valuable independent voters who suffer from the “swing-voter’s curse”, a proclivity to abstain when presented with policy uncertainty (Feddersen et. al 1996)— is growing increasingly fatigued, and turnout is beginning to be affected. For any candidate seeking to win office amid this confusion, a clear and precise policy platform of productive government stimulus, backed by positive, evidence-based reinforcement, is a necessity to convince voters and overcome the negative atmosphere produced by political rivals.
Hsieh, Chang-Tai, and Peter J. Klenow. “Misallocation and manufacturing TFP in China and India.” The Quarterly journal of economics 124, no. 4 (2009): 1403-1448.
Sides, John. “Stories or science? Facts, frames, and policy attitudes.” American Politics Research 44, no. 3 (2016): 387-414.
Byers, Cody. “A model of Industry and Public Opinion” [unpublished research], 2020. Brigham Young University.
Carraro, Luciana, Bertram Gawronski, and Luigi Castelli. “Losing on all fronts: The effects of negative versus positive person‐based campaigns on implicit and explicit evaluations of political candidates.” British Journal of Social Psychology 49, no. 3 (2010): 453-470.
Lau, Richard R. and Gerald M. Pomper. “Effects of Negative Campaigning on Turnout in US Senate Elections, 1988-1998.” (2001) Journal of Politics 63 (3).
Pew Research Organization. “Americans say the nation’s political debate has grown more toxic and ‘heated’ rhetoric could lead to violence”. (2019) Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/18/americans-say-the-nations-political-debate-has-grown-more-toxic-and-heated-rhetoric-could-lead-to-violence/
Feddersen, Timothy J., and Wolfgang Pesendorfer. “The swing voter’s curse.” The American economic review (1996): 408-424.
Garramone, Gina M. “Voter Responses to Negative Political Ads.” (1994) Journalism Quarterly.