Let’s put some drama into the crisis

Image of Gillian Tett

When Al Gore, the former US vice-president, starred in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth back in 2006, it had a big impact on the green debate. Never mind the fact that most of the documentary’s viewers did not really understand the science behind global warming, or that the issue of climate change had been bubbling away, often unnoticed, for years. The fact that An Inconvenient Truth featured dramatic images (melting ice caps, marooned polar bears) and a powerful person speaking with passion (Gore) suddenly gave a focus to the formerly nebulous green issue. The complexities of climate change no longer seemed quite so off-putting or dull, even to US voters.

Might it be possible to perform a similar trick for fiscal reform? This is a question I have been mulling over in recent weeks, for as the campaigning in the 2012 US election gathers pace, a curious paradox hangs over the political debate. In theory, almost every American voter who can read Facebook and Twitter, turn on cable television – or peruse the FT – knows that fiscal issues are crucial in this forthcoming vote. Politicians are tossing fiscal rhetoric about, engaging in a fierce ideological debate about the nature and role of government.

And some of these slogans are striking emotional chords. In recent weeks, for example, the Democrats appear to have garnered more political support by focusing on the idea that the richest should pay more tax. Meanwhile, the Republicans have attacked bloated government spending, and demanded lower nominal tax rates and the closure of tax loopholes (although their message appears to have been a little less successful in reaching voters, partly because it is more complex).

But while the voters know that these tax issues are crucial, I suspect many also feel a stomach-lurching sense of aversion – if not guilt – whenever the issue comes up. The numbers and concepts being bandied about are apt to be so complicated that it is painfully difficult to work out what they actually mean. For sure, anybody can see the zeros, or take note of slogans such as “the debt burden is rising by x a year”, in much the same way, say, that anyone can take note of a chemical equation behind greenhouse gases. But I would hazard that 99.9 per cent of voters are utterly confused about what the endless political wrangling – or gridlock – in Washington really means, and have little appetite to consider those issues in depth.

This week, for example, I read The Price of Politics, the latest book by the legendary Washington journalist Bob Woodward, which chronicles the White House’s (hitherto doomed) efforts to create a bipartisan fiscal deal. Like all of Woodward’s books, this is written in a dramatic, fly-on-the-wall style that purports to offer a gossipy insider’s glimpse. As a result, it has created quite a buzz inside the Beltway, not least because it casts President Barack Obama in an unflattering light. And yet, in spite of the fast-moving style, even I – as an economic and financial geek – found the narrative embarrassingly hard to digest and finish, compared with Woodward’s earlier books. War stories are mesmerising, even monetary policy and financial crisis can get thrilling. Budget battles are another matter.

So could the “Inconvenient Truth” approach work? Some networks are trying to find out. The HBO group, for example, is currently working on a fly-on-the wall documentary that tracks – as part of its narrative – Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the two colourful characters who spearheaded the 2010 bipartisan fiscal commission. The hope behind this film, as HBO executives explain, is that two human beings – the wisecracking Simpson’n’Bowles duo – can make budget maths more compelling, in much the same way, say, that Too Big to Fail told the story of the financial crisis, or Game Change told the story of the 2008 Republican campaign. If you want to get modern, Hollywood-reared voters to watch anything, the idea goes, you need to chuck in plot twists, spooky music, heroes or villains.

Whether it works remains to be seen: the movie will not be released until later this year. But there is a lot riding on these initiatives, and not just for HBO (or any of the other networks that are now attempting similar things). For unless voters start to get more sense of what those abstract fiscal numbers mean, it will be tough to start having a truly democratic debate. Or to put it another way, in an increasingly complex world, where information increasingly lies in the hands of a tiny cadre of technical geeks who operate in introverted silos, the question of how citizens can understand convoluted topics is more crucial than ever. Even, or especially, when this involves crucial but obscure topics such as intergenerational transfers – or issues that sadly cannot be communicated with quite the same drama as a melting ice cap or a stranded polar bear.


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