The Limits of ‘Better Off’

“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

It is the question of the week put out by the Republican Party, and the challenge President Obama and the Democrats have been tasked to confront during their convention in Charlotte.

U.S. election enthusiasts know the formulation well.  It was first put to Americans by Ronald Reagan during his campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980—a pithy query designed to streamline the complex act of endless considerations that is voting into a simple assessment of overall well-being.  Challengers to an incumbent president have anchored their campaigns around the “better off” question, in one form or another, ever since.

At minimum, this binary, up-or-down approach to politics poses three problems, all of which suggest its limits as a means of judging an incumbent president.

For starters, how exactly does one measure well-being as a function of time?  Does it simply come down to economics?  If so, should we adjust for inflation?  Are stagnant wages offset by lower taxes?  Does “four years ago” refer to Election Day, Inauguration Day or exactly four years from whenever the question is asked?  (On this last point, Democrats have been especially scrupulous in drawing distinctions.)

Perhaps it’s a matter of the heart:  Irrespective of the facts, do you feel better about the state of America and/or the trajectory of your own life than you did when George W. Bush left town?

A second consideration:  Is the question meant to be taken personally, or does it rather refer to the country as a whole?  To ask whether you are individually better off vs. whether America is better off does not necessarily yield the same answer.

Does it matter, say, that a great number of Americans are out of work if you are not?  Should you vote on behalf of yourself or everyone?  Much has been written and said—often in critical tones—about the curious tendency of the working class to “vote against their economic interests” by supporting politicians who would cut taxes for the upper 1 percent but not for them.  The Democratic Party, for its part, implores millionaires and billionaires to do the same by endorsing candidates who would raise their taxes in the interests of the common good.

In any case, all of this hair-splitting of the “better off” matter is really just the garnish surrounding the main dish:  This enormous assumption—unstated but unmistakable—that the government, and the chief executive at its helm, is wholly and solely responsible for ensuring that you are made better off tomorrow than you are today.  That the blame for all of life’s ills can be laid at the doorstep of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In fact, the Republican Party has made it its business—nay, its overriding mission—to create a nation in which this is not so.  The notion of “small government”—so small that “we can drown it in the bathtub,” as Grover Norquist put it—necessitates nothing so much as a citizenry of individuals who shape their own destiny and are neither helped nor hampered by the actions of Washington.  People whose well-being is determined by luck and pluck and very little else.

In the GOP’s dream of dreams, it would make no sense to ask “are you better off” in the first place.

Of course, this does not describe the country in which we actually live—nor, for that matter, a country the Republican Party has taken any meaningful steps to effect.  Nonetheless, if the irony of this does not strike GOP leaders with the force of a thousand hammers, it certainly should.

As the Democrats in Charlotte remind us, there indisputably are ways in which the government affects our lives like no other entity (including ourselves) can.  Gay members of the U.S. military are better off specifically because of the current administration’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as are those whose very way of life depends on the forms of health coverage guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act.  It does matter who wins the election; Democrats and Republicans are not simply two sides of the same toxic coin.

Whatever the government’s size, for all the power it wields, we must forever remind ourselves that its authority over us is only as strong as we allow it to be.  As Clint Eastwood correctly rambled last week in Tampa, “We own this country.”  Accordingly, we must take extreme caution in transferring our responsibility over it and ourselves unto our elected officials, and with it all the liability presumed under this infernal question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

We would be better off without it.

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