Glenn's Junk Chest

An assortment of Glenn's writings, photography, gaming resources, flash movies, and other creative output.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Politics: Failing to Make Tough Choices

A combination of personal circumstances and news articles have caused me to form a new opinion about the United States, and how we do things.

We have a consistent inability to make tough choices, and on some fronts, it's proving to be our undoing. The scary thing about our failure is that it's not rooted in any individual, tempting as it is to blame certain politicians. It's a structural failing. A person can choose to make tough choices, like giving up beef so they can buy more food with less money. A political organization often can't.

They can't, because, simply put, no one has a mandate. With almost every important political contest falling within 0 to 5 percent of the middle, no group can afford to give up any block of votes without getting another block almost immediately to replace it. Even something that clearly needs changing to avert a problem in the future. Take this question that Time poses and answers:

So how would Bush fix Social Security's long-term funding problem?
That remains the big unanswered question. Everyone in Washington knows it would be political suicide to cut the benefits of today's retirees or those about to retire. Absent those options, there are only three ways to bring the system into fiscal balance: cut future benefits, raise taxes or borrow the money, which adds to the debt.

Rather than concentrating on the vexing question of how to fix Social Security, which I don't care to wrestle with right now, I ask you to note the second sentence and think about what it means. There are four possible solutions to the posed problem, and one of them is off the table for all parties. The problem is that it would be off the table even if it were the best solution for the country as a whole, not on its merits, but because it would result in an immediate loss of political power. The group that backed such a solution would lose big in upcoming elections, would fail to accomplish its Social Security goals, and would probably fail to accomplish any other goal the organization had as well.

This kind of problem manifests in a startling array of areas. Global warming is a disaster that's already happening. The glaciers are melting, there were multiple terrible tropical storms last year that wreaked untold personal and economic havok on Florida. Every degree that the temperature rises is adding an incredible amount of energy to the weather systems of our planet.

Clearly the world needs to crack down on emissions that increase greenhouse gasses. There's international agreement on that point. Many nations, both industrialized and not, have an accord to do just that. The U.S., the biggest source of the problem is, of course, doing nothing. It's just too painful for poor old us.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement, mandates cutbacks in such emissions, but the reductions are small and the United States, the biggest emitter, is not a party, arguing that the mandates will set back the U.S. economy.

It's the same problem. If car prices rise, if gas prices rise, if taxes rise, if SUVs become harder to buy, it will be regarded by the voting population of the US as a failure by those political organizations that backed the measure. Even if the resultant money is used to pay for slowing down the damage done to the global climate. Everyone in power knows that it will be seen as a failure, and so they defer the problem to the future.

We are a country that routinely votes "no" on referendums to fund needed improvements at local public schools, even if we attended them and our children attend them. A country that supports useless government programs not because we don't realize they're useless, but because they earn votes from some important constituency, or would cost votes if cancelled. A country that is consistantlly unwilling to have things like gasoline, cigarettes, cars, computers, cell phones and plastic bottles include the actual costs to the nation associated with their disposal or health effect in their purchase price. A country that has a skyrocketing national debt as we continue to borrow from our descendants without apparent concern for the consequences it will bring them.

I'm going to say something atypically nice about President Bush. His social security plan is a sham designed to break the current system. It's clearly a sham and any serious analysis reveals it's a sham. Why is he doing it, then? Because sooner or later someone has to fix social security, but we've become a country that can't take our medicine. Any parent or pet owner will tell you that one of the easiest ways to get someone who doesn't want to take their medicine to take it is to make them think it's something else. I happen to think his plan is a very bad one, but I certainly can see why he feels like he needs to trick people into it.

Is there an answer? I don't know. One solution is to make those in power less accountable. In general I think this is a terrible idea, but it does allow for real tough decisions to be made. For instance Cuba just instituted a public smoking ban, which will unquestionably benefit the entire country, but is probably not a terribly popular move. Similarly, a Supreme Court justice has no need to shy away from unpopular decisions, he has the position until he chooses to quit.

Alternatively, having elected officials serve longer terms buffers the problem a bit. If you've got a position for eight years, a painful decision made at the beginning might actually have time to bear tangible fruit by the end, or at least people might become reconciled to it by the passing of time. If you've only got the position for two years, that's a lot less likely. After the recent "morality push", Tammy Baldwin smells trouble on the horizon. She's begun her fundraising for the next election already. How much is her effectiveness as a legislator compromised by this need to look ahead to the next election immediately after the previous one is resolved?

But in the end, I think the problem needs to percolate down to the individual voter. Voters in the U.S. need to learn that when the price of gas rises at the pump, and the reason it did is so that we can make the world a better place, that they should take their medicine and move on. I just don't know how to bring about such a major cultural shift in a land where everything's been pretty easy for decades.


At 11:25 AM, Blogger Bill D91 said...

I have an alternative suggestion. It involves two distinct issues that I think are a problem in our country: polarization and lack of accountability (yep, that's LACK of accountability). This may take some explaining.

In Europe, they have thorny problems too but don't seem to have as much trouble at least starting to grapple with them (minus a few sacred cows here and there). One reason is that their executive and legislature are accountable together and not separately. The majority party sinks or swims based on the performance of the government as a whole without the difficulties of trying to decide who to blame when Congress and the Presidency are at odds. In the US, our problems when this occurs is called constitutional insolvency and parliamentary systems cut that gordian knot quite well. In the US, one party just blames the other and no one is really accountable.
One other feature of parliamentary systems is the issue of confidence. The government can fall at any time if sufficiently important legislation is defeated, sending the country to the polls. In other words, there's a little MORE accountability in the system than having fixed terms. I think that tends to push governments to be less polarized in their policies. They can't afford to piss off too many back benchers, giving them common cause with the opposition.
Finally, adding an element of proportional representation to the mix wouldn't hurt. Especially if we take the German model. The lower house is composed of 2 sets of representatives: half from geographic constituencies that are won by plurality winner (like our system of districts) and half by proportional representation from a party list (as long as the party gets at least 5% of the poll). The constituency system pushes for 2 main parties, but the PR component ensures smaller ones will survive and carve our niches. This also generally ensures that coalition governments rule the day in Germany which has a tendency to keep polarization to a minimum.
With less polarization, there can be more incremental progress on issues and less of the lurching right and left that so many people seem to be afraid of. And proportional representation in some degree will allow our big umbrella parties to hive off into more ideologically compact units and still be viable in election. Then we'll see where the electorate REALLY sits a bit better than we do now.
I used to be opposed to parliamentary systems, particularly after watching what can happen when a radical really does get into power (like Thatcher), but I think I've really come around to that way of thinking.

At 12:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A different political system in the U.S. would not solve the fundamental problem Glenn describes. All western democracies have certain areas that are political deathtraps for the parties involved. (Germany and restructuring the labor market and corporate governance; France and letting go of agricultural subsidies are just two examples.)

The issue with Social Security in the U.S. is a monumental and troubling one, because in the long run, what goes out has to be balanced by what comes in. I think Glenn summarizes the problem well.

As for global warming, one can make a reasonable argument that follows:
Given that the magnitude of the problem is unknown, as are the consequences, it is not an economically sound policy to spend trillions of dollars (and also dampen economic output) on something that *might* happen.

Instead, it is better to look at problems for which the return on investment is much better, and would lead to substantial and demonstrable benefits.

(I point you to for some recommendations.)

John K


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