Many of us have had the experience of really trying to listen to a politician give a speech and yet walk away feeling they may not actually have said anything.
It's too bad, especially in this election cycle, when so much seems to ride on choosing between candidates. How can we make informed decisions when we don't understand positions?
The answer: Start thinking a little more like economists – and not just on budget issues.
Economics emphasizes thinking at the margin, focusing on the trade-offs – made necessary by scarcity – that individuals are willing to make between relevant alternatives. Unfortunately, political campaigns blur trade-offs and undermine clear thinking with their language.
Take a recent comment by Hillary Rodham Clinton, "You don't spend what you don't have on what you don't need," she said. The use of the word "need" is a prime example of failing to think at the margin.
Not only do people disagree about what they consider needs, but since many choices are between different needs, merely calling something "a need" diverts attention away from the actual choices.
The word is an example of categorical language misrepresenting marginal choices.
For instance, when pushing food programs, politicians paint food as the most important thing (at other times, they might do the same for housing, education). However, to say that food (or any other good) is categorically more valuable than other things, such as sleep, is a red herring. The relative values of things actually depend greatly on circumstance – as most of us notice when our alarm sounds in the morning.
Such misleading language makes confusion inevitable.
Barack Obama's "yes, we can" theme faces a similar problem. Not only does it fail to specify what is to be done, the word "we" generates confusion. Who can do what? Which part of "we" gets benefits and which part will be forced to bear the costs, is hidden.
Given America's highly disproportionate tax burdens, when "we" provide certain goods, it is usually "not me" paying for it. Without knowing who will be forced to pay how much, we cannot fully see the real trade-offs involved.
Similarly, amid the plethora of things politicians say they stand for, marginal trade-offs are clouded. After all, most politicians are largely "for" the same things (peace, our "general welfare"). Using these general terms tells us nothing about what we really want to know – at what price politicians might "sell us out" on a particular issue.
Other campaign issues are also framed in ways that fail to confront the right questions. For instance, each candidate has a position on whether we should have government-provided health insurance. But voters need to know precisely what services will be offered, under what conditions, and what it will cost them, and those terms are rarely made clear.
Without knowing the precise benefits and costs, which take far more detail to explain than any of them offer, we have little idea of what we are actually considering.
Promises of centralized, vague, "solutions" fail us in another way. When planning supersedes market mechanisms, the information markets reveal about people's willingness to trade off between goods is also lost. Any gain such information enables is also wasted.
Because most people only cut deals when they expect their marginal benefits to exceed their marginal costs, failing to think at the margin causes problems for those going into any agreement.
Not being able to recognize the inherent gain from a trade, and missing the inherent harm to society from restricting or penalizing it, is a damaging restriction to place on voluntary arrangements. If politicians better understood this, they might waste less of our time with confusing, unproductive discourse.
Marginal misunderstandings infest public policy discussions. That is why thinking at the margin about the choices scarcity presents us with is a valuable form of self-defense. It is insurance against those who would "sell" some political panacea with misleading language.
Given the vast sea of electoral rhetoric using such misrepresentation and misdirection to win political power, only careful thinking can force those salesmen to defend their real positions to citizens, rather than baffling and befuddling us.
But don't expect politicians to appreciate it. Disappointingly, they are more likely to respond similar to the way Mrs. Clinton did when her gas tax holiday proposal was challenged: "I'm not going to put my lot in with economists."