Scattered Thoughts about Politics

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My friend and dissertation committee member Don Boudreaux notes with approval this superb Robert Samuelson column (rr) on how politicians are avoiding serious discussion of the sacred cows of Medicare and Social Security. Don notes that the special interests served by these programs are worse than piggish children, and politicians are worse than pandering parents.

So true. But the pathetic state of honest, frank political discussion is how things have been for my entire life, under every President, Congress, and Chief Justice of the U.S.. Why on earth should I expect a better outcome from our defacto social democratic political system? (Don doesn't imply that we should).

There is no formal, structural solution required by our current law, and no benefit to any dime-a-dozen politician. And the biggest kicker is that these redistribution schemes still work. In my view, the politicians are waiting for them to fall apart in a few decades (which will require structural reform), at which time D's and R's will point fingers at our current politicians. But you can't punish retired or dead politicians--and current politicians know this.

Don notes that countless pundits have sounded the alarm bells on Medicare and SS; I would add that Alan Greenspan receives front page attention for his pronouncements on them. But these warnings make no difference whatsoever; the bulk of the opportunity costs of not implementing reform will be felt only in the future...

Besides, I'd argue that most people fundamentally accept some or all of the failings and trappings of social democracy--including the politicking of impossible promises--even though they have the feeling of living in a liberal democracy.

This lack of seriousness on the part of politicians should dull the brilliant hopes of future economic reformers grinding their way through Ph.D. programs in economics and public policy. Get this through your heads: policymakers will not listen to you about the big issues. Become an expert in a sub-sub-specialty that doesn't interest a Senator McCain or Senator Kennedy or any President.

I say this having done work which military policymakers actually implemented after considerable review. But that work did not impact the everyman; it was disconnected from political bickering, involving technical administrative details, rule changes, and the like.

I'd argue that the vast majority of politicians don't stick to their own principles when it can bring them needed advantage. The ROI is just too high. For this 99.x%, the soundness of policy (as judged by their own norms) comes second to scoring personal and political points. How are these points earned? By speculating in political currency--the exchange of principled action for votes and money. Political action is consistent; whether the issues are "hard" (cutting pork) or "easy" (adding it), the underlying power structure, and motives of the power brokers remain the same. Their political arithmetick calculates their own advantage, not yours.

A masterful politician weilds power over a wide selection of legislation, regulation, and taxation; when need be, politicos utilize the tools of "consensus" (i.e. bipartisanship, coalition governments, etc.) and game play among power brokers to keep the rate of return from decreasing. Politics is not about doing the right thing at the right time, even if packaged that way, and marketed by news media.

Constitutional economics, the research program of James Buchanan and others, is about devising and implementing political structures so that elephants like SS and Medicare are 1) hard to create in the first place, and 2) must be dealt with when they do. To achieve sound policy, rules (like a balanced budget amendment) must strangle legislative and executive plans and action; these rules must be enforced by other self-interested folks and vigorously discussed by the public. Getting sound policy otherwise is almost pure chance... It is trite to note that SS and Medicare could have never been implemented if the U.S. had kept to the letter of its founding Constitution. The U.S. hasn't kept to those rules, and there's a lesson to be learned from that.

2 TrackBacks

A Sound Idea...I Think from Becoming An Economist - The Blog on September 8, 2004 5:02 PM

Kevin Brancato over at Truck and Barter has a post about the uselessness of studying efficient public policy reforms for democratic national policies. Kevin declares... This lack of seriousness on the part of politicians should dull the brilliant h... Read More

In general, I see two reasons why 'bad' policy gets enacted: 1) Politicians and their advisors are dumb. 2) Politicians and their advisors are evil. Kevin Brancato highlights the second reason in his response to Don Boudreaux's citing of Rob... Read More

1 Comment

I should have posted an interesting survey of health care around the world. For all the talk of high prescription drug prices here in the U.S., we don't spend a significant amount more than the average rich nation as a percentage of GDP per person basis. I think this maybe the best arguement on behalf of GWB, he may actually be serious about some sort of SS reform. Yeah, I know he created a monstrocity in the drug benefit thing, but it was probably inevitable anyways.


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This page contains a single entry by Kevin published on September 8, 2004 11:30 AM.

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