2012 FOURTH PLACE ESSAY

by Kayli Hall, Age 15
Submitting Teacher: Brandy Hall


More than two hundred years ago, a politician promised a balanced budget and a reduction in federal power. Thomas Jefferson, elected in 1800, failed to keep those promises. Instead, he signed the Louisiana purchase for $15 million in 1803. This purchase, though likely a wise decision, did break the campaign promise by increasing the national debt and expanding government power, because the constitution never gave the federal government power to purchase new territories. Although a much beloved president, this promise was the first of a series of broken promises politicians have made to the people. However, sometimes promises that are kept can be even more troubling than the promises that are broken. We'll be examining why politicians make promises, why the promises may have unintended consequences, and a current promise that is likely to have unexpected results.

First of all, why do politicians make promises? Politicians make promises primarily because it leads to more support from voters. There are three main reasons that promises lead to more votes. First, political promises can help voters identify with a candidate. For example, in the 2008 election, Barrack Obama promised hope and change, and this promise resonated with Americans who were desperate for hope and change, especially with the economic recession. Second, promises define and differentiate a politician. One illustration of this is Ron Paul, whose promises to end all foreign aid and establish a gold standard have made him stand out from the other candidates. Third, one might wonder why voters are swayed by promises if they often have unintended consequences. This is because, as J. C. Bradbury mentions in the Stossel video, there are seen and unseen consequences of policies. The positive benefits are seen, but the side-affects are often unseen. As a result, many voters continue to base their decision on promises.

Secondly, why do these promises have unintended consequences? In the article "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action" Robert K. Merton, who was a distinguished American sociologist, mentions several causes of unexpected consequences. Three of the causes he mentions are very relevant to political promises. First, ignorance of the unintended consequences of political promises makes them more likely to occur. Politicians are often simply unaware of the side affects their promises will have, and therefore are not able to attempt to avoid these consequences. Second, error is another large cause of unintended consequences. Politicians incorrectly analyzing the policy lead to unanticipated results.

In the Stossel Report, Ben Schreiber, from Friends of Earth, states that research has now concluded that ethanol is worse for the environment than gasoline. Unfortunately, the original error in studies on ethanol's environmental impact has led to unexpected results. Finally, basic values lead a politician to ignore unintended consequences because they believe the consequences are not as important. For example, in "Promise gone wrong number ten" from the Stossel special, Christian Dorsey, from the Economic Policy Institute, agrees that the Cash for Clunkers program took away from sales that would have been made in the future, but states it was worth it because that is what economic stimulus is about. In other words, because economic stimulus was valued, the unintended consequences were ignored.

Finally, let's take a look at a current promise that was made and how it will have unanticipated consequences. In his state of the union address, Obama promised "we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules". This promise of fairness is the basis for his Buffet rule which would have people making more than one million each year pay at least a 30% tax rate. Currently, Obama doesn't seem to be planning to offer the Buffet rule as legislation, so he is unlikely to try to keep the promise. Instead, he is using it as a campaign platform because it is popular with voters. The rational behind this rule is that Warren Buffet and other wealthy investors pay a lower rate than the middle class does, because their income comes from capital gains, which is normally taxed at 15%. To start with, this policy would barely affect our budget deficit. If implemented, it would bring in $36.7 Billion the first year. That's 3.8% of the planned budget deficit in 2012. Furthermore, the Buffet rule would have the unintended consequence of dragging down the economy. Increasing taxes on the wealthy leaves them with less income to invest or spend, both of which would have benefited the economy. Increasing taxes on the wealthy penalizes the wealth creators, the employers, the drivers of our economy who are helping to carry America out of the recession.

In conclusion, promises are made by politicians in order to get elected and these promises often have unintended consequences due to ignorance, error, or differences in basic values. Obama's Buffet rule illustrates both of these things. The promise was made to gain more support from voters and if enacted it will have unintended consequences due to a difference in basic values. More than two hundred years after Thomas Jefferson broke his campaign promise, we are faced with a new promise, a promise that threatens the little economic prosperity that we have today. Perhaps the most dangerous threats to Americans are not the promises that are broken, but the promises that are kept.