Ryan Young: Focus on policy, not politics this election

Sometimes the quieter political issues have more to say. High-decibel culture warriors have been getting people riled up over everything from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” remake to a woman playing a flute. But more important things are going on right now, such as the highest inflation in 40 years. And there are healthier outlets than politics for releasing pent-up anger.

Outrage makes sense as a business strategy, driving clicks and revenues. But it bombs as a political strategy. Poll after poll finds that voters prioritize inflation and the economy over the culture wars. One reason is that culture warfare distracts attention away from real issues. Another is that it conditions people to think in terms of us-against-them, and most people are sick of polarization.

For example, inflation is easily the most important issue in the country right now. It costs the typical household about $2,000 per year. People must spend more on gas (up 18 percent from last year), groceries (up 13 percent) and other essentials, leaving less for savings, travel and other priorities.

It also doesn’t fit partisan lines, so it doesn’t fit the outrage model. Inflation has to do with the number of dollars in existence, and neither party has much control over that. That responsibility lies with the Federal Reserve. Rather than partisan combat, people should focus on what caused the problem and how to fix it.

When COVID-19 hit and people hunkered down, consumer spending cratered. The Fed tried to make up for it by boosting the money supply. The problem is that they overdid it, and over the next two years, they grew the money supply by 40 percent while real output grew by just 4 percent.

That massive imbalance literally changed the exchange rate between dollars and real goods. That alone caused most of today’s inflation. The solution is to get the money supply back in balance with real output.

Supply chain problems and oil shocks have separately raised some prices. Congress and President Biden can help somewhat with these issues with tariff relief, speeding up permits for new energy and infrastructure projects and regulatory reform.

Instead, a series of bipartisan trillion-dollar spending bills from Congress and presidents Donald Trump and Biden have made the Fed’s job harder than it already is. But inflation still comes down to the money supply, which only the Federal Reserve can adjust.

Culture warriors’ us-against-them partisanship doesn’t help the Fed solve that problem or persuade Congress to spend more responsibly.

The good news is that the Fed has taken steps to get the money supply back in sync with the real economy in recent months. But even in the best-case scenario, inflation will stay high into next year. The price of the Fed fixing its mistakes may even be a recession.

That is far more important than someone kneeling at a football game. Yet, which one gets people fired up?

Culture warriors succeed in politics because the human brain is wired to respond to threats. We can’t help it. Evolution itself is partly to blame for today’s divisive politics. People naturally focus on simple stories with names and faces, not more important issues like inflation, which are often more abstract.

If anything, outrage culture emboldens politicians because voters will be so busy shouting at each other that they are less likely to notice the bad policies coming from Washington.

While everyone has these reptile brain tendencies, some self-awareness can help us overcome them. If someone is clearly just trying to get people riled up, don’t give them that power. Turn off cable news. Be aware that not every political issue is an us-against-them issue. Know that it’s OK not to have an opinion on every issue. Focus instead on a few issues you’re passionate about, and get involved with those.

Politics and policy are two very different things. Politics is about winning elections. Policy is concerned with finding solutions to problems. This election, let’s focus less on politics and more on policy. Pay more attention to James Madison’s ideas and less to who plays his flute.

Ryan Young is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He wrote this for InsideSources.com. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.