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Friday, November 5, 2010

Incentives and one thing my Mom used to say about politicians

[This post was originally published in late September;  I went back to correct some typos, and notw it's here.  Sorry]
Interests/Perceived Interests
            Most of us generally act in a manner in which we perceive to be in our own best interest.  Often this will be in terms of our own economic best interest and sometimes it will be in what we only perceive to be in our own best interest.  Usually, it will be in a fairly short-term best interest.  Often, we will extend this to something we will perceive to be in our immediate or extended family's or tribe's best interest.  In addition, most of us have a strong need to believe that we are acting in a "fair" [there's a slippery word] and /or moral/ethical fashion.  We need to believe we're one of the "good guys".  I do not mean to imply that these characteristics are either good or bad.  This is somply how people behave.  (The best short analysis of how behavior is driven by incentives I have come across is in Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner; I would highly recommend it.)
Congress and other elected representatives          
       OK, now, as some of you (my relatives) been waiting for with bated breat, we get to my Mom and politicians.  My Dad was a news junkie.  He would watch the news on TV.  Occassionally, he would become irritated, often at some elected official who said something, and who "knew better".  (He was much more tolerant of people he thought were idiots).  My Mom would get annoyed at what she perceived to be his essential naivte and forcefully opine that: "Goddammit, Eddie, they're all just a bunch of crooks".  I remember thinking that she was awfully cynical about politicians.  (She was also the first person I ever heard to actually use the phrase "pigs feeding at the public trough", but that's another story.)  Well, I have to admit that, as often occurs as we grow older, my (our) parents mysteriously became smarter.  And I think she'd be closer to the truth about today's politicians than she was about the ones she was talking about then.
         I do not think most politicans are actually crooks or theives in a legal sense.  I do believe that the incentive system currently in place makes them act in their own interests rather than in ours.
        What motivates people (in a conscious decision sense - not in a hunger, sex, physical fear  more immediate sense)?  1) Money.  2) Power.  3)Status.  4)Feeling good about themselves.  5)avoiding unpleasant consequences.  I think that covers most of it.  With our elected representatives, I would guess that power, status and feeling good about themselves are the big three.  (The money is good, but at least some of these people could make a lot more in the private sector).  How is this a problem?
                 We have before us an anonymous member of Congress. He is or she is at least reasonably principled and does not take bribes – at least direct ones.  He (or she) believes that his (or her) actions are generally in the best interest of the American people.  This person may or may not be is kidding himself, but I , somewhat naively (I am my Father's son), believe that they really believe they are the good guys. 
          Well, what are most of us interested in these days?  Often, keeping our jobs or our businesses afloat.
Most members of Congress – like most of the rest of us – are very, very interested in keeping their jobs.  After all, they have worked hard for years to reach the top of the public servant pyramid.  They get good money,  lots of power and even more status.  They may say (or think) that they want to keep their jobs solely because they feel that they best serve the interests of their constituents or of the country.   Bullshit.  They're people.  They've worked hard to get where they are.  They have egos.  They want to keep their jobs, and, if possible, get more power and status (to do good, of course, but partly because these people really like power and status).
          These days, to be elected, it takes a lot of money.  If you don’t have your own money, you are dependent on raising campaign contributions.  If you do not vote a certain way, those contributions will dry up.  Perhaps the most egregious of example of this is the contributions made to members of Congress in the past several years by the banking and financial community.  These people have given scads of money to Democrats and Republicans alike.  Fundraisers were being held by several congressmen focusing on donors in the financial community at the very same time the Congress was debating the recently passed laws governing those institutions!!  It is interesting to me, at least, that the head of the Senate Banking Committee, Senator Christopher Dodd, over the years, received a great deal of money from the financial services industry.  As far as I know, during his long tenure, he did not sponsor any serious restrictive or regulatory steps which might upset that industry during that period.  Senator Dodd did propose such regulations almost immediately after he announced that he would retire after his current term in office.  In other words, once Senator Dodd no longer needed campaign funds, he seemed to see the light.  As my Son would say, "Coincidence?  I think not." 
            I do not mean to pick on Senator Dodd.  I do not know the man, and I am not attributing to him any motive I do not attribute to most of our representatives.  Nor can I really blame these people.  They are acting like, well,  people.  I blame us - the people (and, like everyone else does, the Media) [you may insert your most despised media outlet here.  Being a liberal, I choose Fox News, but they are all pretty guilty, with the exception of Comedy Central] 
   If you're waiting for an easy answer to this one here, you're going to be waiting for a long time.  While I have doubts about the recent Citizens United decision, I am not a big fan of public financing.  I really believe that the right of free speech and association includes the right to put your money where your mouth is.  There are some things that can be done.  We can, as has been proposed, make sources of funding public.  We could also approach it from the cost side.  As a "cost" of allowing broadcasters/cable companies/ whoever use the airwaves or cablewaves or satellite waves, we could require that they make a certain amount of political advertising time available at low cost or free prior to elections.  (I know-it woudl be a complicated mess, but. . . ).  There are, presumably, other "out of the box" ideas.  Unfortunately implementing them would almost certainly require Congress to do something.
Government is not a sport - nor it is a question of whether I was "right" or not
     But the big thing is for us, the people to loudly and publically "Call Bullshit" when we see it.  This involves detaching ourselves from what I call the "sports event" model of politics, where a chief goal is that our "team" wins. 
    There are a number of Congressional Republicans who stated early and openly that their chief goal was to make the Obama presdency a failure.  Given my analysis above, that doesn't surprise me.  That they would admit it publicly and that elements of the press and public would cheer them on is disgraceful.  
   One of my partners, the late Thomas P. Riordan was (and wherever he is, still is) a conservative Republican.  A few years ago, Tom and I were arguing about George W. Bush’s proposed “surge,” in which he was going to temporarily and dramatically increase American troop levels  in Iraq.  Tom thought this was a good idea.  I told him that I thought it was a bad idea, but that I hoped I was wrong. (and I was wrong, as it turned out).  I went on to say that, in fact, I hoped the presidency of George W. Bush went down as one of the greatest in American history.  Tom was nonplused.  He looked at me and said something to the effect of “but you think that President Bush is an idiot.”  I agreed, but pointed out that I hoped I was wrong.  (Afraid I still think I was right on that one). I explained that  I was an American, and that, if George Bush and his presidency went down as being tremendously successful, it meant that things were going well for my country.  That was much more important than my being right or having the Democrats “win.”  To put it in another way, the more successful the government was at accomplishing the goals in the Preamble of the Constitution, the more likely I – and all of us – were to be better off.  Tom indicated that he had to think about that, that it seemed to make sense, but that my idea was “unusual.”  That’s part of the problem.  It should not be unusual.  I am not particularly virtuous – far from it – but I would like to think I am not going to let my own ego or the “team” I root for get in the way of a good result for my country.
    I understand that there are factors involved in worrying about whether your political opponent's apparently good ideas are a "Trojan Horse" of some kind, and that you really would like to win the next election in part to keep him or her from implementing his other, less desirable, plans, but come on; you're supposed to be working for the country. [sorry about the rant].  But our representatives are, as noted above, going to pull that garbage as long as we let them.  In my paranoid(?) moments, I suspect that there are Republican leaders (and Fox News) who would be delighted if America were to suffer a (small) successful terrorist attack because it would make Obama look bad.   At least we have not reached the point where they would admit it openly, but just wait [sarcasm].
     We voters are getting what we deserve because we have been sucked into rooting for teams in something that is not just a sport - and also because we have let our own egos get involved.  Who cares if I'm right?  I hope I'm right a lot, but I'm wrong a lot.  That's called learning from your mistakes, guys. (I would argue that any adult who has the exact political opinions he did 10 years ago is, by definition, an idiot).
     While I really disagree with the Tea Party substantively (my Brother, in response to my last post, emailed me that "Just because they are crazy does not mean that they are not stupid"), part of me is delighted that they are looking at our so-called leaders and "Calling Bullshit".
   As you can tell, I'm sort of fixated on the Tea Party Movement right now.  Let me hasten to note that I know that they are a diverse group, not really a traditional political party, and include a variety of different opinions and motives.   Nonetheless, I will almost certainly babble about them more in some future post .

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