David R. Henderson  

Does Stress Over Politics Mean You Need to Get a Life?

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On his other blog, co-blogger Scott Sumner quotes a news article as follows:

For all their sharp differences, supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have one thing in common: election-related stress.

Nearly half of all likely voters in the ABC News tracking poll, 46 percent, describe the election as a source of stress in their lives, including roughly equal numbers of Clinton and Trump supporters. Nearly a quarter, again among both candidates' camps, say the stress is serious.


Then he writes:
Wow, get a life. I wish politics were all I had to worry about.

This shows that Scott and I have very different views about the importance of politics and government in people's lives. He appears to think that they matter very little. I think they matter a lot.

I commented on Scott's post as follows:

I find this election stressful: one of these two awful people [Trump and Clinton] will be the next president. And I have a life. Indeed, it's because I have a life and value life, of others and me, that I do find it stressful.

Scott replied:
David, There are 1000s of awful things in the world. Most far more awful than this election. I can't even imagine being stressed out by everything in the news. Yes, intellectually I know it's important. But so is drug legalization and kidney market legalization and ending the war in Syria. But I can't get stressed out over everything wrong in the world, or I'd go crazy. Maybe I'm just lacking in empathy, but I believe I'm not alone. The recent election of Duterte in the Philippines was much worse than Trump, in a country of 100 million people. I was disappointed, but I didn't lose sleep over it. I'm resigned to the fact that the next president will likely be worse than Obama. But that's a first world problem, not like Aleppo. Life goes on--the NBA season starts tonight!!

Like him, I am excited about the NBA. In fact, as I write this, I'm about to watch the Warriors play San Antonio. Go Warriors! And I think it is good to try not to stress over elections, even those that have big consequences. But Scott's second-last sentence gets at what I was getting at with talking about how stressful the election is. Scott writes as if he thinks Aleppo had nothing to do with the election of George W. Bush and of Barack Obama. But a case can be made that Aleppo wouldn't be in the bad shape it's in had Bush not invaded Iraq and had Obama not destabilized Libya. The stakes in this election are huge. I don't know which of the two awful candidates is worse. But I do know that if you are concerned about people in other countries, it's important not to elect people who will kill them or indirectly contribute to their deaths.


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory




COMMENTS (23 to date)
MikeP writes:

But I do know that if you are concerned about people in other countries, it's important not to elect people who will kill them or indirectly contribute to their deaths.

I didn't know that was even an option! How do I elect someone else?

BC writes:

I think it's fairer to say that Aleppo's problems are due primarily to the fact that it is not part of the first world. After all, going beyond merely invading countries nearby to the US, Bush and Obama ruled over the US for 16 years combined, and yet we do not have the same problems that Aleppo has. Also, I don't think that many people in places like Aleppo count US elections among their top concerns.

Perhaps, though, the best reason not to stress about US elections is that one cannot really influence their outcomes very much [Serenity Prayer].

Michael writes:

The slaughter in Syria is performed and enabled by Russia. If it (and similar crimes) can be prevented at all, it's probably by a strong and humanistic (and sane) US
Given the mess the USA have steered themselves into, do you even see a viable path forward via politics?

Michael Byrnes writes:

Sorry about the Warriors! (But, as a Celtics fan, not that sorry...)

Bill writes:

I like to think of libertarians as happy warriors. I think it comes from libertarians' unique belief that it is precisely by the voluntary efforts and exchanges among individuals that happiness and prosperity come about, not in how to get, keep and exercise power over others. Politics (especially of late) and the consequences that it seems to portend for government's relationship to the individual, is concerning but doesn't need to drag us so far down that we experience stress about things beyond the limits of our daily efforts.

Philo writes:

"I don't know which of the two awful candidates is worse." Then why are you stressed over the election?

Scott Sumner writes:

I strongly disagree about Aleppo; I don't think it has anything to do with the US. Here's my take. A few years ago a democracy movement started in Tunisia. This had nothing to do with the US. Then protests spread to many other countries in the Middle East, typically dictatorships. Again, this was not caused by the US. One of those countries was Syria. Assad cracked down hard on the protestors, again, not because of the US. Countries like Saudi Arabia started supporting the rebels, mostly because they were Sunnis (the majority in Syria). In contrast, the US doesn't care very much about the Shia/Sunni split, indeed seemed almost unaware of it when invading Iraq. Of course when talking about a big power like the US, there is always the possibility that a small role was played indirectly--maybe protesters thought we'd help them, as in Libya---but overall the protesters seemed quite determined, and civil war was almost inevitable either way. If the US had never gotten involved in the mideast, things might be better or they might be worse. Who knows? (I think the US would be better off uninvolved.)

In addition, even if you wanted to point to Iraq, I would question the importance of elections. I think Al Gore would have also invaded Iraq. I know he denies this, but then Wilson said he'd keep us out of WWI, and (AFAIK) McKinley was opposed the the Spanish American war and LBJ promised he'd keep America boys out of Vietnam, so words mean little.

Actions speak much louder than words, and Gore intended to make Richard Holbrooke his foreign policy czar. Holbrooke was strong supporter of invading Iraq. In my view, the deeply entrenched foreign policy establishment determines most US actions overseas, and that establishment was very hawkish after 9/11. Gore was more hawkish than Bush during their foreign policy debate. So while in retrospect I would have voted for Gore and hope I'm wrong, I deny that elections have the sort of consequences that most people assume. And even if they did, given Gore's hawkish stand in the debate, how would a dove know who to vote for?

And finally, the US is currently involved in 6 Middle Eastern/South Asian wars. Should we be stressed out by each war? Should our total stress be 6 times as much as from a single war? I still say that there are so many problems in the world that at least some people who are stressed out over politics are not thinking logically---or perhaps they care more about problems in the US than overseas. Or perhaps they are not even aware of many American problems. The media creates an image of the Presidency being far more important than it is. The media creates the image that the "issues" in the campaign are the important issues. They are not---the important issues are not even being discussed. If you want to stress out over something, stress out over the War on Drugs, not the US election.

David, You may be right, but even if you are you'd be better off living your life as if I am right.

Glen Smith writes:

If I don't control the outcome of something that strongly effects my life the it seems that it should stress me more. If I have control of something that effects me then there is no stress.

RPLong writes:
And finally, the US is currently involved in 6 Middle Eastern/South Asian wars. Should we be stressed out by each war?

My answer: Of course we should be. This is remarkable.

Andrew_FL writes:

Would Sumner be saying this if Trump wasn't currently losing?

Given he's compared Trump to a certain infamous German dictator before, I'd think he'd find the prospect of his ascendency to the Presidency pretty stressful. Or perhaps that's just the reaction lesser mortals would have.

Hazel Meade writes:

I'm not too stressed because it seems fairly certain that Clinton will win and I'm fairly confident that means a continuation of the status quo.

I'm also pretty sure she will be a one-term President.

Khodge writes:

I have always followed politics closely and am often active on the local level. I am very much dismayed at the promise of this election having gone down the toilet so quickly.

But stressed? No, one ought to get stressed by matters over which one has no control. As a low level volunteer, it is easy to see the futility of such effort. To be stressed out is a failure to recognize that you are one little, tiny piece of a huge puzzle.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Scott Sumner,
Thanks for answering and I think I’m a little clearer than I was on your views.
So two questions, to make sure:
1. Your point is that what matters in an election is the delta, right? So, if, for example, you believed that Trump would kill one million foreigners and Clinton would kill the same one million foreigners, then, because there’s no difference, there’s no point in stressing. Correct?
2. Just to drive home the point about Aleppo. What if I were right that the U.S. government were a major contributor to what happened in Aleppo? Would that change your view about stressing? And if it wouldn’t, why did you mention Aleppo?

Phil writes:

I've found this election stressful too

but I think I agree with Prof Sumner here

-----

it's not that it isn't important, its that its not actionable for you (or me either)

while I think putting good thinking into writing is important, expecting it to actionably move the needle 3 weeks away from a Presidential election doesn't seem realistic

as such, its not a productive outlet for stress

we are all better off directing our stress toward things actually inside the sphere of our control

--------

the nature of stress being what it is, it seems to often have its own ideas about what I should stress out about

but to the degree towards which I can direct it, I don't think this election is a very good target for that

MikeP writes:

But Scott's second-last sentence gets at what I was getting at with talking about how stressful the election is. Scott writes as if he thinks Aleppo had nothing to do with the election of George W. Bush and of Barack Obama. But a case can be made that Aleppo wouldn't be in the bad shape it's in had Bush not invaded Iraq and had Obama not destabilized Libya.

I think there's a contradiction in here.

If one stresses over an election that one has no control over because one candidate may be more likely to do something that causes great suffering somewhere else than another candidate, then how much more must one stress if no candidate has or states any plans to interfere in that somewhere else should such great suffering occur?

Nonintervention, from a government point of view, is the art of not stressing. The endgame in Syria without Obama's enunciating support for the Arab Spring or his clumsiness over a Red Line was in hindsight very clear -- a crushed rebellion. In order to stay out of Syria, Obama had to be willing to watch Assad slaughter people by the hundreds of thousands until the rebels relented, and then watch the surviving rebels and their supporters be slaughtered in the aftermath.

I see no reason to stress over an election of the president of the United States that you have no control over but not to stress over the nonelection of the president of Syria that you have no control over. I think the only reasonable course is being unhappy with both but not stressing over either.

TMC writes:

"I'm resigned to the fact that the next president will likely be worse than Obama."

Actually the only bright spot in this election is that either way we'll at least get a better president than we have now.

Rick Bohan writes:

"Actually the only bright spot in this election is that either way we'll at least get a better president than we have now."

Not likely. And in the case of the GOP nominee, decidedly not. And in any case, we're likely to get the same House, which has shown itself willing only to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on a long series of fruitless wild goose chases.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Hazel Meade-I concur on both points, but you can see where someone with very different priors about likely outcome of this and/or the next election would be stressed, yeah?

Scott Sumner writes:

David, If each candidate were equally horrible, I might stress about what they would do, but not the election itself.

I mentioned Aleppo because you did. It was merely a reply to your point. i didn't think it was a product of US elections.

Just to be clear, there are lots of things in the world that I am morally outraged about, and yet cause me no stress. They cause me disappointment, not mental illness. I was not stressed out over either the Rwandan or Cambodian genocide, even though (at an intellectual level) I found both events to be absolutely horrifying. The world is so full of horrifying things that I can't even imagine living if I took it all personally. I'd probably just kill myself in that case.

Maybe I'm just cold-hearted, but I'm perfectly capable of watching the evening news and then 30 minutes later be laughing at an episode of Seinfeld. Presidential elections are important, but no more important than 100s of other horrible things on the evening news. Life goes on.

If people lose sleep over presidential elections, then they ought to also lose sleep when Congress fails to legalize kidney sales. Do they? I'd guess only when a loved one needs a kidney.

Andrew, You said:

"Given he's compared Trump to a certain infamous German dictator before"

Mentioning two people in the same post does not at all mean one is claiming they are identical. I've consistently made it clear that Hitler was 1000 times worse. I never equated Trump to any German dictators.

MikeP, You said:

"I see no reason to stress over an election of the president of the United States that you have no control over but not to stress over the nonelection of the president of Syria that you have no control over. I think the only reasonable course is being unhappy with both but not stressing over either."

I agree.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Scott Sumner,
Thanks for clarifying. I think I understand your point of view a little better.
Two things, though:
1. For the record, you were the one who raised the issue of Aleppo. See your comment on Money Illusion in response to my comment.
2. I’m coming to the conclusion that I really don’t know you. I’ve read so many posts by you about Trump in which you seem to be stressing. But I guess I’ll take you at your word that you’re not.

Andrew_FL writes:

So you expect he'll only kill 25 thousand people?

Mark V Anderson writes:

I was very impressed by both of Scott's comments. There are two good reasons not to stress over the presidential election:

1) It truly doesn't make all that much difference. The president has limited influence over what is going to happen in the next 4 years, especially as long as the winning party doesn't also have the Senate and House, which will almost certainly be the case. There would have been little difference in the government if Gore had won in 2000 or 2004, or McCain or Romney had won after that. Not much changes because one elite is in instead of the other -- they are largely the same, simply rhetorically different.

2) Even more important, stressing is a waste of time and effort. Each person here has very little influence on the results, so yes, we should treat the governance of the US about the same as that of Syria. If you can vote, do that, maybe give some money to one candidate (altho I can't believe that each of us here don't have more critical local candidates to support). Then forget about it and go about working on things you can affect, like your job, your marriage, your kids, and your friends.

Doug Fechter writes:

Marcus Aurelius and the ancient stoics emphasized the importance (and feasibility) of not stressing over things out of our control. Curious how you feel about that philosophy, which has been experiencing an uptick in popularity lately.

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