Belmont Club

The Politics of the Future

I have seen the future and it works

History is surprising because it’s full of callbacks.  In the programming world there are many times when the result of an instruction cannot be immediately known because it takes time to finish.  Perhaps you must wait long query to finish or await the response of a distant user. At all events you must wait.  While that is going the code moves on, doing other things. But when the result eventually returns it calls the main program back (hence the term callback) signalling “I’m here.  What do I do with this data?” Then the main program has to figure out what to do with it.

Human events are similarly asynchronous.  When the administration created a power vacuum in the Middle East or created the massive Obamacare health insurance system the supporters and critics were divided over whether they were good or bad policies.  But then that was all a matter of opinion.  The actual outcome had to await events; and in the meantime the debate petered out of the news cycle which moved on.

But eventually the remote call returns and now the main narrative has to figure out what to do with it.  The administration’s foreign policy called back some time ago and sounding like it came from the ’80s.  Now the rap on the door signals the callback of Obamacare and it is a disaster.  Sarah Kliff, one of the Affordable Care Act’s most vocal supporters, consoles herself by declaring she always knew it would be expensive.  “One fact that’s easy to loose sight of now: Obamacare premiums are actually right around where CBO thought they would be now.”  It’s not like she’s surprised.

In separate article in Vox, Kliff makes a valiant attempt at arguing that Obamacare’s premiums are not rising — they’re just catching up. “When Obamacare launched, premiums were much lower than analysts had expected. Insurance plans are now bringing their premiums more in line with expectations, and after they do that, they won’t have to make these big rate increases again.”  But even she knows what the forlorn callback signifies: “These numbers are bad news for Obamacare — we just don’t know how bad, exactly, the news is at this point.”

The delayed effects of past actions show up all the time and dealing with them is the most difficult of all problems for the Narrative.  It can suppress things temporarily but it cannot suppress things forever, which is a problem even for the most formidable of Talking Points systems.  You would think that now Obamacare’s advocates would accept they made a mistake.  You would think.

But that’s not necessarily the case.  When Damon Linker at the Week asks “why won’t anyone admit that America is fighting 5 wars?” or Missy Ryan in the Washington Post writes ‘when will we wake up to the fact that the Obama administration is bombing in six countries?’  you might imagine the answer is when refugees show up at the border or attacks happen on Main Street.

But there is another way of dealing with consequences that politicians use all the time, which is to send the result back to the future.  They chain the promise to another promise.  They take it out of the present and pack it into the blue once more.  The refugee crisis is answered by bunding it into a European border policy which will surely work in the coming years.  In the realm of healthcare the plan is apparently to sweep the wreckage of Obamacare into a still-unnamed Single Payer program so we’ll be back where started: with supporters and critics divided over whether it will work, but awaiting results. It will all be a matter of opinion until the Single Payer callback shows up.

The characteristic of nearly every failed political enterprise is that they are huge successes but only in the future.  In the present they are always abject failures.  Truly rational public policy shows positive results right away or demonstrates improvement soon after.  In the case of really serious “progressive projects” so much of society’s resources are sunk in future schemes that it assumes the character of a Powerball lottery with the population eagerly, resignedly or desperately  waiting for their number to be called because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.  This actually strengthens the hold of  a progressive politician on his base because at some point the enterprise has to pay off or the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.

This explains how a politician can run on a completely unbroken record of failure.  For so long as that politician can present the prospect of a glittering future there is always the promise, a promise without bounds. It’s tempting and eventually a country which succumbs becomes a nation of Hope because in the end Hope is all they have.  This can be kept up for a surprisingly long time. Obamacare is going to be wonderful.  Single payer even more wonderful.  Leading from behind is going to be a winner.  Maybe it will be.  But not just yet.  Not just yet.

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