WASHINGTON D.C. — Of all the challenges I expected to be wrapped up in teaching a course for Michigan students in Washington, D.C. last fall a suffocating sense of irony and despair was not among them.
Political science is often a depressing topic. Introductory courses on international relations deal with terrorism, genocide and the multiple reasons why we shouldn’t expect any cooperative effort to address the defining challenge of our lifetimes: catastrophic man-made climate change. These are sad problems with few solutions.
This semester’s class should, at face value, be much less bleak. I’ll be teaching research design, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s a course on critical thinking, built around constructing an original piece of research. We’ll focus on what makes a good argument, like identifying a specific claim about the world that students can support with empirical, or “real world,” evidence. Ideally, students will leave the class not only better able to perform research, but also as more sophisticated critics of other people’s political arguments.
This is all well and good, except for the problem of the class location: Washington, D.C. This is not the kind of town that rewards careful arguments based on evidence — or rewards simply behaving in good faith, for that matter. This is often the case during times of crisis. For example, when Senators John McCain (R–Ariz.), Lindsay Graham (R–N.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I–Conn.) spent the entire summer complaining that President Barack Obama was not sufficiently committed to overthrowing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, only to have it reported by Wikileaks that the same three senators had promised Gaddafi two years ago that they would do everything in their power to sell him more American weapons.
Similar stories unfold during elections as well. Most reporters have already decided that the prodigious job growth in Texas last year constitutes a “miracle,” even though the picture is much more complex given unusual immigration patterns there. In any event, Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, a presidential candidate papered over his state’s budget deficit with federal stimulus dollars only to declare that no stimulus would ever be adopted during his presidency.
And then there are the rumors that Obama will offer a much-needed mortgage restructuring program to the public, but only after first devising a deal to give immunity to America’s largest banks against any prosecution for widespread fraud and abuse of ordinary consumers that goes back decades. The total settlement fund is capped at $20 billion. In comparison, Florida’s state pension system alone lost $62 billion in value in 2008 after mortgage-backed security shell game came to a screeching halt.
But those are all large, complicated, difficult issues. Sometimes the doublethink comes in much smaller packages, which are more entertaining but also even harder to justify.
Take former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford and former Republican Sen. John Sununu, who are both paid lobbyists for Broadband for America — a group that represents Internet service providers. Ford and Sununu recently co-authored a piece for the San Jose Mercury News arguing that Netflix, the popular streaming video service, should pay more for the bandwidth needed to provide videos to their customers.
How much more? It’s unclear. Why? Because Ford and Sununu believe that Netflix doesn’t pay “enough.” But Netflix, just like any other customer, is simply paying whatever price it’s given by its suppliers. The entire point of a market is that the goods and services being traded are priced at whatever their worth and are worth whatever their price. The ISPs represented by Sununu and Ford could just raise their prices if they think they’re getting a raw deal, but they won’t. Instead, they’ll just have the two congressmen on their payroll try to mug their biggest customer.
And that’s par for the course for politics at the highest levels. Normal people — sane people — find it hard to say one thing and do another, like McCain and his colleagues on Libya, or to adopt positions that are so clearly at odds with the way the world actually works, like Ford and Sununu. I hope that this semester’s Michigan in Washington students don’t find that sanity is a liability.
Neill Mohammad can be reached at email@example.com.