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My Attempt to Vote Selfishly

Updated on July 30, 2012

How Can I Best Look Out for my Self-Interest?

The Founding Fathers were not thrilled with the idea of political parties. They feared that the existence of parties would lead to a permanent factionalism, with the various factions fighting more for their particular interests than for the country as a whole. Given the current state of affairs in the United States, the Founders were more than a bit prophetic. But given the state of human nature, political parties and self-interested factions may be unavoidable.

It is hard to deny the fact that many Americans vote out of self-interest. Social class, for instance, is one of the most significant determinants of a person’s party affiliation. Higher income people tend to be Republican in order to keep those tax rates low, and poor people tend to be Democrat in order to protect social programs. It does not always work out this way, but I suspect that self-interest is a bigger factor in determining ideology for many people than a rigorous, objective attempt to figure out what is best for the country. We are all influenced by at least a bit of selfishness, no matter how hard we may try to be noble and rational.

So if lots of other people are going to base their vote on self-interest, then I might as well do the same. As an adjunct community college instructor in California, it is clear what I must do in statewide elections. Since Republicans want to bring our perennially deficit prone budget into balance purely with cuts, and education spending is a big chunk of the state budget, then I should vote Democrat across the board. Cuts are going to come either way, but Democrats are more likely to defend education from the more severe actions supported by Republicans. Sure, this may lead to avoiding more cuts with higher taxes, more borrowing, or various accounting shenanigans. Also, it is important to note that much of this education spending goes to bureaucrats, administrators, and pension plans instead of the classroom, and Republicans are more likely to complain about waste than Democrats (and their union buddies). But for me personally, I am more likely to get hurt by education cuts than either tax hikes or future interest payments on borrowing. And if big education cuts are implemented, adjunct instructors like me will suffer much more than those higher-paid administrators or current retirees (with their AARP membership). So like most Americans, I will focus on the short-term, protecting my piece of the pie before some other interest group either eliminates or grabs it.

At the federal level, things get a bit more complicated. Since federal education is far less significant than statewide spending, particularly for me at the community college level, my teaching prospects are unlikely to be impacted much by federal elections. In theory, the fact that Democrats generally favor education spending over Republicans could have some minimal impact, particularly with financial aid programs. If students have easier access to financial aid, more will have the ability to show up and fill my classrooms. But since there is far more demand for classes than supply at the moment, measures regarding financial aid might not matter much either. So I will need to look beyond my particular job to figure out the best way to vote selfishly.

Most federal spending goes toward weapons, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on past borrowing. Since I am not in the military, and I do not currently pay into Social Security, government actions in these areas will not directly affect me. And since old people and the defense establishment wield enormous power, we are unlikely to see much significant change in these areas anyway. I also have no access to federally provided health insurance, and if I keep my current job(s), I will not be buying insurance in 2014 from an “insurance exchange.” So any changes to the health care system – whether recent reforms are repealed, changed, or maintained - are unlikely to impact me directly either. And the federal government, of course, can’t do much to avoid paying all of that interest without creating an international financial calamity. So for me specifically, it’s difficult to determine how any significant changes with federal spending will have much of an impact, and major changes seem unlikely anyway. There are too many entrenched interests out there who have a stake in the system as it stands. If a person is not old, disabled, poor, connected to the defense establishment, or employed in the federal bureaucracy, it’s hard to see why they would get excited about federal spending (and elections) at all.

Of course, there is one area of federal policy where we all have an interest: taxes. So the most direct way for me to vote selfishly at the federal level is to vote Republican, the party more likely to defend and/or implement even more tax cuts. But for a person in my position, it is unlikely that the upcoming elections will have much of an impact on my tax rate. Barring an unknown, long lost relative leaving me a fortune or my recently published book - see link at the bottom of the page - becoming a best seller, I am not going to be joining those “rich” people who make more than $250,000 per year. And even Democrats, as recent history has demonstrated, are not stupid enough to push for tax increases on a significant percentage of the population. In spite of the historically low tax rates of recent years, Americans today feel overtaxed, and they will crucify any politicians who seek to raise them even further.

So in spite of my selfish efforts, I am apparently forced to go against human nature and think about the good of the country as a whole. For if the economy improves, and the federal government can start to get its fiscal house in order, these positive developments will ultimately trickle down to little old me. But what is the best way to make these closely related improvements happen: tax cuts, tax increases, defense cuts, entitlement reform, infrastructure spending, further health care changes, deregulation, more regulation of the financial sector, or some combination of the various ideas floating around?

In the end, any objective attempt to deal with complex economic and political problems will lead to a couple of basic conclusions. First, there are not any simple answers, as demonstrated by the very smart people who have been debating one another over these questions for decades. And history, in spite of so many attempts to back up ideological arguments with highly selective historical information, is often not a clear guide. Second, politicians have a limited impact on the economy, especially in a highly partisan age when it is difficult to get much of any significance done. So I can understand why people choose – whether consciously or unconsciously - either to vote selfishly or to break down the world into simplistic, ideological terms in which there are clear answers. You can only get excited about elections, after all, when you feel that there are concrete things that your vote can do to improve your personal situation. Being a bit cynical about the whole thing, however, has at least one advantage. You don’t get too bent out of shape if the elections do not go the way that you hoped.


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