I fantasize about running for President, but in the same way I fantasize about being Batman. I wouldn't want either job, but it's fun to think about how I'd handle certain situations. One situation that pops up all the time is when a reporter asks a candidate to respond to his opponent's campaign promises to do the impossible. My fantasy answer would be "My opponent thinks voters are stupid."
The great thing about that answer is that it would generate world headlines. Second, it would resonate as being honest and accurate. You'd have to make sure you weren't making unrealistic promises yourself, and that's the hard part. But it would be a killer line.
Calling your opponent names, like flip-flopper, clearly works to some extent. But telling voters that your opponent thinks THEY are stupid would work even better, especially if it is clearly true that he thinks that.
I've also been working on good sound bites for both Obama and McCain. Obama's sound bite is easy. He took heat for suggesting a specific timetable for withdrawal before he had visited Iraq and talked to the generals. That seemed dumb. Then he made the best political move I have ever seen, by saying a President has to see the bigger picture, so generals in Iraq can't be the ones to determine when we leave. Agree with him or not, it was a brilliant political move. He needs to capture that in a soundbite: "Generals fight wars. Presidents make peace." It sounds like universal wisdom. That's a good sound bite.
Now that the Iraqi Prime Minister wants the U.S. to leave on Obama's timetable, McCain's biggest issue is gone. Even if you think McCain was right about the surge, it is no longer relevant to the election. No one cares that an old guy once made a good decision. The average voter doesn't know enough about economics to make the economy a powerful issue for McCain, and it's too late for him to start hammering on social issues. So McCain's sound bite needs to be something vague yet persuasive. I suggest: "Do voters prefer words or actions?"
The great part of that sound bite is that everyone is programmed to automatically prefer words to action. And to the extent that Obama is viewed as a great orator, and McCain is seen as more of a man of action, you start thinking the sound bite actually means something. And phrasing the sound bite as a question forces the listener to automatically answer it, thus reinforcing it in the irrationsl part of the brain. It is the political equivalent of "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit." It sounds like a reason to the unreasonable part of your brain, which unfortnately makes most of your decisions.
The other sound bite I have been thinking about wouldn't work for the election, but it's funny: "Change is good until it's your turn to be the diaper."
Do you have a better sound bite for this election?
[Disclaimer: I don't think either candidate meets the minimum standard to be president. And I won't have a preference until I complete a poll of economists that I'm working on now.]
My favorite fantasy in this genre is imagining what I could say to a kid that would make him think he should substitute his own judgment for mine. My fantasy argument goes like this:Kid: Can I climb on the roof?
Me: No. You'd get hurt.
Kid: I'll be careful. And my friend Brian climbs on his roof all the time. He never falls off.
Now at this point you realize that regular reasoning isn't going to win the day. You have to resort to the "Because I said so" fall-back, but while effective, that never seems like a clean win to me. To the kid it appears you don't have a good reason and you're just being an ass about it. That's why I fantasize about the rest of the discussion going this way:
Me: Do you know who invented the roof?
Me: It wasn't a kid. In fact, nothing important has ever been invented by a kid. Do you know why that is?
Kid: I don't care.
Me: It's because your brain won't be fully developed until sometime in your twenties.
Kid: I'm not listening TRA-LA-LA-LA-LA!!!
Me: You don't understand why you can't go on the roof because your brain isn't developed enough to understand the risk involved.
Kid: You suck. I hate you.
Me: I'll make you a deal. If you can find anything in this house that was invented by a kid, I'll admit that kids know as much as adults and you can climb on the roof. Use my computer, which incidentally was invented by adults. Go nuts.
(seven hours later)
Kid: Golly. Not only was I wrong, but probably stupid as well, and perhaps a little bit insane. I now adopt your viewpoint as my own. Would you like a bite of my sandwich?
Me: Thanks, but the last time you washed your hands was in amniotic fluid.
This makes me wonder what would be the very worst name you could give a kid to guarantee he or she gets beat up three times a day. You can play at home. How about...
I was reminded of this when I heard about Al Gore's ambitious recommendation that we should attempt to generate all electricity from green sources in ten years. Many experts believe that timetable is too ambitious.
What do you think?
It is safe to assume the federal government will be more hindrance than help. Any real progress will come from brilliant individuals inventing things, funded by super rich investors. I can't see them cracking the full nut in ten years, no matter what gets invented.
Meanwhile, 99.99% of the general public is treating this as a spectator sport. It makes you wonder how you can help, since this might be the most important battle our species has known.
I can vote for the candidate who has the best energy policy, but none of them have plans ambitious enough to make a difference. And yes, I recycle. But let's face it: Recycling is the masturbation of energy policy. It might make you feel better, but it won't put a dent in global energy needs.
I wish some entrepreneur would create a way for citizens to invest in clean energy sources without having to gamble in abstractions such as the stock market or venture funds. I would love to invest in, for example, a particular windmill, or a piece of a solar farm that is generating a particular amount of energy each day. I would even invest in a few feet of new transmission cables in a specific place. I wouldn't care that it was a great investment if I knew it was directly helping save the planet.
If I could name my windmill, and see webcam pictures of it on the Internet to see how it is running, along with a widget on my desktop telling me how much power I am generating today, I would invest in it just to help save the planet, even if I knew the financial return was marginal. The same goes for investing in discrete parts of a solar farm, or any other clean energy source.
I realize windmills are expensive. But I'd be happy owning a share of a particular windmill with friends. We could name it together.
My prediction is that the brilliant scientists and the super rich investors working on clean energy can't meet the ten year goal by themselves. Some entrepreneur is going to have to figure out a way to get the other 99.99% of the country involved. If that happens, the ten year goal seems feasible to me, assuming the government stays out of the way.
Some of you poo-pooed my idea of surveying economists, pointing out that they have a bad track record of predicting the big things that matter, such as the credit crunch, or oil at $145 a barrel. Does that mean a poll of economists would be useless even if they all agreed?
As economists like to say, "It depends."
First, let's agree that even if experts such as doctors and lawyers and engineers are often wrong, that doesn't mean they should be ignored. What matters is that consulting with experts produces a better result on average than whatever is the alternative. Depending on the sort of question being asked, economists are likely to be more reliable than the public at large.
If the question involves predicting the value of the stock market next year, economists aren't any better than a monkey with a dart board. And they know it. But if the question is whether using food crops for ethanol could hurt the economy more than it helps, or whether free trade is a good idea, or whether a gas tax holiday makes sense, you would be wise to listen.
Economists are also historians when it comes to their field. They would know, for example, that government price controls would be a disaster because they have failed in the past. If doing X with the economy caused Y to happen the last three times someone tried it, wouldn't you like to know it? Economists already do.
When you are talking about the global economy, making the right decisions just barely more often than before is a huge deal. So the bar is set low for economists. They only need to be right more often than the public and the politicians. Is that so hard?
I'll blog again in a few days.