In recent weeks, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan have been goading Americans to consider one simple and seemingly obvious question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” In framing this election as a referendum on President Obama, the goal of Romney’s question is clear: if a voter answers ‘no,’ they might begin to doubt the effectiveness of the current administration, which would make them consider a vote for Romney as a path to becoming ‘better off.’

I know as well as anyone that elections have never been based in sound logic or strict truth-telling. But if only in the interest of reason as an ideal of liberal democracy, I want to spell out explicitly the flaws inherent in asking if you are “better off now than you were four years ago,” and use that answer as a guide for who to vote for in this election.

The first problem is that it’s framed not in terms of the well-being of Americans in aggregate, but in terms of a single listener (“are you better off?). It seems that in framing the choice of who will lead a nation, a moral agent ought to consider not only the well-being of himself but the well-being of his fellow citizens as well. (You’ll have to excuse my naïve idealism here — I’m a philosophy major, and I’d much rather deal with the world as it ought to be rather than as it actually is). An incrementally more appropriate question might be, “Are we better off than we were four years ago?”

But, even framing the question in terms of collective well-being cannot suffice to make this a legitimate question as it relates to your choice in this election. The reason is simple: Romney’s question asks the listener to consider a net increase or decrease in well-being over time — “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — rather than counterfactual well-being — “Are you better off than you would have been under different leadership and policies?” Of course, the latter question doesn’t have quite the same rhetorical ring as the former, but I’m concerned only with reason here, not rhetoric.

For example, consider the 2004 presidential election which pitted the incumbent George W. Bush against the Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it would have been simply absurd for Kerry to ask Americans if they were better off than they were four years ago. The country was still reeling from the tragedy of only three years prior, had just been catapulted into two wars and was still recovering from the recession of 2002-2003. The question of whether or not Americans were, strictly speaking, ‘better off’ did not even enter into the public debate — rather, Kerry asked the sensible question of whether or not Americans were satisfied with the trajectory of their current leadership given the enduring difficulties of war, recession and tragedy.

This is not 2004, and President Obama faces markedly different challenges than Bush did in his first term. But our current challenges cannot be understated: we are still in the throes of the deepest global recession since World War II, according to the International Monetary Fund. Given these circumstances, can it make any sense at all to simply ask whether or not you are better off now than you were four years ago?

It’s up to voters to consider the successes and shortcomings of the Obama administration, and pit them against their understanding of Romney’s plan for America. Ultimately, each voter will generate his or her own answers to the central questions of this election. But please, when formulating these questions, let’s at least be sure they make sense to ask before giving an answer.

Seth Wolin is an LSA sophomore.

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