The Morning Jolt


A Lesson from the Democratic Debate: Math and Emotions Don’t Mix

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during the first night of the second 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Detroit, Mich., July 30, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and progressive activists hate John Delaney and/or math; why Democrats prefer to live in an imaginary world with no potential threats in Iraq or Afghanistan; and finally, a candidate turns to the real issue of dark psychic forces.

Warren and Sanders Take on Their Worst Enemy: Math

You can find my debate review here.

The assessment from the rest of the mainstream media is that last night featured Elizabeth Warren against less-progressive foes, and that Warren won handily.

The line everyone is quoting is Warren’s riposte to John Delaney: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

Step back and you can see a media myth being created before your eyes. Everyone’s talking about the zinger, nobody can remember that allegedly unambitious agenda from Delaney that spurred Warren’s response:

I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics. Look at the story of Detroit, this amazing city that we’re in. This city is turning around because the government and the private sector are working well together. That has to be our model going forward. We need to encourage collaboration between the government, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector, and focus on those kitchen table, pocketbook issues that matter to hard-working Americans: building infrastructure, creating jobs, improving their pay, creating universal health care, and lowering drug prices.

That’s what makes Delaney such a naysayer and cynic? If the next president built up America’s infrastructure, created jobs, improved take-home pay, created universal health care, and lowered drug prices, would you look at that legacy and lament how timid and unambitious it was? Or would you say, “wow, that was an amazing presidency, I can’t believe so much got done”?

(This is all separate from the question of whether a zinger against one of the least-known, least-discussed, lowest-polling figures in the field really counts as the knockout punch that Warren fans want to believe it is.)

Delaney’s recurring refrain during the debate, particularly in reference to Sanders, was “I’ve done the math, it doesn’t add up,” and “his math is wrong.” The progressives hate him for it. Everyone wants their presidential campaign to be about brighter tomorrows and daring proposals and sunnier horizons and bold visions and all of that. But that doesn’t change the math.

Delaney may have exaggerated when he said that enacting Medicare for All would lead to all hospitals shutting down. But he’s pointing to a real problem. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “more than two-thirds of hospitals are losing money on Medicare inpatient services and that the average Medicare inpatient hospital margin was -9.9 percent in 2017.” What happens when everyone’s paying through Medicare, and more hospitals are losing money on most of their treatment?

Over at Reason, Alex Muresianu calculates that Warren wants to spend her $2.75 trillion in new wealth taxes on $3.26 trillion in spending. When you use the trillion, it doesn’t look so bad, so let’s rephrase that: after enacting a gigantic new tax hike, Warren wants to spend $510,000,000,000 more.* And she continues to insist her taxes will only hit “billionaires and big corporations.” (*Naturally, in a column about the importance of math, I wrote $51 billion instead of $510 billion. Deep sigh.)

David A. Graham writes, “[Warren] seemed to be focusing on emotion.” Yeah, no kidding. Every presidential candidate prefers to focus on emotion. Obama talked about “hope” and “yes we can,” Trump vented his spleen and offered a vision of an America that was “great again.” Every candidate wants to focus on emotion because it’s easier than getting the math to add up. You would think the electorate would learn after getting so many consecutive cycles of believing in the next great inspiring hope and then being disappointed by the results.

Emotion is easy. Everybody’s got a sad anecdote about losing someone they loved, or knowing someone who faced an unfair, undeserved hardship. Everybody’s got some inspiring anecdote about someone who fought through adversity and is now living the American dream. Everybody’s heard about some kind of injustice that is technically legal but morally wrong, and that gets an audience’s blood boiling.

You know what kind of people want you to focus on emotion? Salesmen, con artists, cult leaders, and demagogues. Emotion empowered Bernie Madoff; math caught him.

You want to know why you have problems, America? Because you don’t like doing the math. Your checkbook doesn’t add up, you didn’t read the fine print, you didn’t realize how bad the interest rate on your credit card was, you didn’t think your adjustable rate mortgage would adjust so soon, and you can’t believe you agreed to buy that timeshare.

You know why you get lured into bad ideas? Because people play on your emotions. The people in the commercials using that product look so happy. They flatter you and flirt to win you over and get you to let down your guard. They boast about how great their life is to make you envious and insecure. Human beings shop excessively, or eat too much, or drink too much, or take drugs because of how it makes them feel.

The higher the stakes of the decision, the more you ought to make sure your emotions aren’t clouding your judgment and blinding you to facts that will cause you problems down the road. Yes, it’s reassuring to hear ‘if you like your plan, you can keep your plan.” But it turns out that if you make a ton of changes to what kinds of health insurance plans are legal, some people will not be able to keep their plan or keep their doctor. Yes, it feels good to hear that the problem of illegal immigration will be solved by a “big beautiful wall” that will be paid for by Mexico. It turns out that Mexico is not willing to pay for a border wall — and that the president will have to keep insisting that Mexico is indeed technically paying for it through a new trade deal that is still not enacted by Congress.

This doesn’t mean we have to be Vulcans, but to quote a guy you may have heard of, “facts don’t care about your feelings.”

The Democrats Psychologically Live in a Happier World with No Foreign Threats

Last night marked the fourth consecutive presidential elections where candidate promised to bring back all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Oh, how easy that decision must look from outside the Oval Office.

Last night Sanders declared, “we have been in Afghanistan I think 18 years, in Iraq 16 or 17 years. We have spent $5 trillion on the war on terror. And there are probably more terrorists out there now than before it began.” The Sanders plan is to withdraw our troops and leave all those terrorists alone. There’s no way that could turn out badly for us, right? Surely if we withdraw our troops from those countries, none of those Islamist terrorist groups could decide to target Americans anyway, right? ISIS exploded upon the scene when we withdrew our troops from Iraq, and Sanders is proposing doing the exact same thing all over again and hoping for better results.

Do Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke think that neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump wanted to withdraw troops from these countries badly enough? That they just didn’t try hard enough? Or that maybe they just forgot their promises?

When Pentagon officials push back against a presidential proposal to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, do these candidates understand why? Do they think the generals just don’t care about the casualties? Or that they’re warmongers?

Isn’t the most likely explanation that the guys in the Pentagon have weighed the costs and the benefits of a complicated situation and concluded that a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops would increase the risk to Americans at home and abroad, compared with keeping some presence on the ground?

Later in the debate, Sanders declared, “What we need is a foreign policy that focuses on diplomacy, ending conflicts by people sitting at a table, not by killing each other.” Gee, if only someone had ever tried that before.

Then Beto O’Rourke promised, “as president, I will end those wars, and we will not start new wars.”

In one of his debates with Al Gore in 2000, George W. Bush declared how the world should see America: “Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we have to be humble. And yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom. So I don’t think they ought to look at us in any way other than what we are. We’re a freedom-loving nation and if we’re an arrogant nation they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation they’ll respect us.” I don’t think he was lying or secretly planning an ambitious agenda of toppling dictatorial regimes and democracy promotion. I think Bush really believed he could and would enact a humble foreign policy that would be, if not quite isolationist, then a quieter and less dramatic, where the United States let other countries sort out their problems for themselves.

And then 9/11 happened. Sometimes those new wars start, despite your best intentions and best efforts.

ADDENDA: Oh, Marianne. You had me at “dark psychic forces.”

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