The Art of the Impossible

Thomas Sowell

12/31/2008 12:01:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

Whoever called politics "the art of the possible" must have had a strange idea of what is possible or a strange idea of politics, where the impossible is one of the biggest vote-getters.

People can get the possible on their own. Politicians have to be able to offer the voters something that they cannot get on their own. The impossible fills that bill perfectly.

As a noted economist has pointed out, nothing "could prevent the California electorate from simultaneously demanding low electricity prices and no new generating plants while using ever increasing amounts of electricity."

You want the impossible? You got it. Politicians don't get elected by saying "No" to voters.

Of course Californians also got electricity blackouts and, in order to deal with the blackouts, a multi-billion dollar surplus in the state's treasury was turned into a multi-billion dollar deficit, followed by cutbacks in various other government programs, followed by calls for higher taxes.

You want the government to create more jobs for people when there is widespread unemployment? It's been done. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the government employed more young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps than there were in the Army. The money to pay for all this had to come from somewhere-- and that meant that there was less money left to employ other people in the private sector. While jobs created by the government may not have reduced total unemployment, these jobs increased votes for the administration, which is the real bottom line in politics.

Are you for "open space" laws forbidding building and also for "affordable housing"? Don't be discouraged by the fact that severe building restrictions have sent housing prices sky-rocketing in community after community.

It may be impossible to have "open space" laws and "affordable housing" at the same time, but what are politicians there for, except to figure out ways to give us the impossible?

Palo Alto, California, where housing prices nearly quadrupled in one decade after severe building restrictions were imposed, also pioneered in laws mandating that each builder agree to sell a certain percentage of any new housing "below market."

In other words, they combined "open space" laws with "affordable housing." Who says the impossible cannot be achieved?

Of course this system can work only where just a fraction of the new housing is sold "below market." Moreover, the market price of housing is raised so far above what it was by building restrictions that even "below market" prices for condominiums in Palo Alto can run to $300,000 or $400,000.

This is hardly "affordable housing" for people on modest incomes. Only 7 percent of Palo Alto's police, for example, live in Palo Alto-- probably older cops who bought their homes long ago.

But none of that matters politically. What matters is that people in Palo Alto can feel good about themselves, by being for both "open space" and "affordable housing." Happy voters are what get politicians re-elected.

The big political crusade today is for "affordable" medical care through the government. No one believes that government is just going to be more efficient, and thereby have lower costs that will be reflected in lower prices for medications and medical treatment.

It might seem as if adding the costs of government bureaucracies to the costs of medications and medical treatment would make it impossible for the total costs to go down. But again, the impossible is no problem in politics.

Many countries around the world already have government-run medical care. People who get sick in these countries usually wait much longer to get treatment, including months on waiting lists for surgery, often paying in pain or debilitation, rather than money.

High-tech medical devices like MRIs are also far less common in these countries than in the United States. With medical care as with anything else, you can always get poorer quality at a lower price, though that is no bargain, especially when you are sick.

What you may have in mind are lower prices with no reduction in quality. While that may be impossible, don't expect that fact to stop politicians from offering it, even if they can't deliver.