Obama’s Birth Certificate: Diminishing Marginal Utility and Finite Agenda Space

I posted this on Seth Masket’s facebook page a moment ago (see his blog here).  Seth asked why Obama released his birth certificate now when there is presumably an electoral incentive to keep the issue alive (given that it makes Republican candidates like Donald Trump look silly and lose credibility).  Some of the responses from to Seth’s question included:

  • Public opinion is starting to turn against Obama on this issue
  • Obama is tired of refuting Republicans on this point
  • Birthers will look even more stupid trying to refute his birth certificate

My thoughts are somewhat different.  I think the answer has to do with  (1) diminishing marginal utility (a concept from economics which says that every additional unit of some good will yield less beneficial outcomes or “diminishing returns”) and (2) the limited amount of agenda space. Here is a reprint of my facebook post (edited slightly):

If all else were equal, Obama would love to let Republicans continue to look foolish over the birther issue. Clearly, in my eyes, they have intentionally kept the issue alive rather than squashing it months ago.  However, all else is not equal in this case. With the media’s obsession with Trump and the birthers, other political issues are getting crowded out or ignored entirely (political agendas are finite, after all). In particular, there is less attention on the Ryan budget plan, which the Obama White House probably views as a winner for their side (polls show that upwards of 80% are against cutting Medicare, for example). To win in 2012, Obama needs more than the birther issue. Diminishing marginal utility makes sense of this because “additional units of crazy” produced by the right are likely to yield diminishing returns. In other words, people have made their mind up on the birth certificate issue so the benefit to Obama and Democrats has already been awarded (to the extent that large segments are turned off by the birther issue).  Keeping the issue alive will produce few additional gains while keeping the budget issue out of the media.  Thus, Obama made a strategic calculation, deciding to get his birth off the agenda and return the people’s focus to a substantive issue in which they can beat Republicans in 2012 (Ryan’s draconian cuts).

Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.  Back to my dissertation…