Thursday, November 1, 2012

Politics as Usual

I'm having trouble telling whether this is a serious question or not. Could it be that the writer is exactly on the same page that I am, or is he actually unsure why Chris Christie is praising President Obama for the Federal response to Hurricane Sandy?

Maybe the media intelligentsia is too far into campaign mode to see that hurricanes and the government response to them falls under the category of actual governance. This is not an ideological fight. And when there is an issue where there is absolutely nothing to litigate, politics goes out the window and basic humanity takes over.

Sometimes people expect government to do the "right" thing, but what we forget is that government, like any other organization, is made up of humans. They have feelings, egos, and all sorts of personality traits that need to be managed and maintained. Governor Christie wants help from the Federal government. Getting help from the government is a good thing. Christie would be derelict in not mentioning his gratitude, or next time the Federal response won't be as easily forthcoming.

Governmental response to a natural disaster is a foregone conclusion. The vast majority of people expect the government to help disaster stricken communities. There is no political issue to litigate. There's no zinger to be had or a gotcha moment. This is serious business. Lives and livelihoods are at stake. If there is a political or ideological issue, it should be whether the government response is primarily at the Federal or local level.

But that kind of issue should be addressed after the situation is under control. In combat, there are almost no circumstances in which somebody should question or defy an order from his/her commanding officer. After the unit exits the combat zone, that is the time to bring up issues and concerns.

As Secretary Rumsfeld once said, "you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish to have". When the marching orders come, you ask "how high?" It's only when we're in a position to rationally and calmly analyze what went right and what went wrong should we concern ourselves with those kinds of questions. Because those kinds of questions don't contribute to the immediate concern.

I've written about this problem before. When it comes to issues like national defense, public safety, the legal system, economic regulation, there is no need for bipartisan consensus or cobbling together a majority. These issues transcend interparty squabbling because these are the things that government is traditionally supposed to provide. Everything else is really icing on the cake.

The real issues are about legislative and executive efficacy, efficiency, and issues on the margins. If you want the government to do something but you can't cobble together an overwhelming majority (80%+), then perhaps the government shouldn't do it. When an issue attracts nearly as much opposition as it does support, perhaps people should be allowed to do their own thing and not have to worry about the government trying to ram something down our throats.

You will always be able to build a consensus around things like providing for a military, policing the streets, having regulators monitor the private sector, etc. When it comes to implementation, it's really squabbling over the margins. And when it comes to actual spending and implementation, there is almost no difference between Republicans and Democrats.

It just seems like there's this huge chasm because politicians love to make everything about government look and sound much more momentous than it actually is. Government should be and is boring, mundane, rote and mostly uneventful.

One "central" issue is over taxes. The Democrats want the Bush tax cuts to expire only for those in the top two tax brackets. The Republicans want to keep them for everybody. The actual difference is worth about 60 billion dollars a year according to most independent estimates. That's less than 2% of what the Federal government spends every fiscal year. See what I mean by no huge difference? It's all about a tiny margin that gets magnified beyond its actual worth.

I propose the following heuristic: if you can't get at least 75% of the people to agree on it, you should err on the side of freedom. Taxes are inherently an issue of freedom: it's about the ability to keep what we earn and to spend it on what we like. If somebody wants to raise taxes on anybody, they should have to cobble together a huge majority.

If we governed according to that principle, politics would be a lot more boring. But when it comes time for real, decisive government action over things that actually matter, things would still get done.


  1. "I propose the following heuristic: if you can't get at least 75% of the people to agree on it, you should err on the side of freedom. Taxes are inherently an issue of freedom: it's about the ability to keep what we earn and to spend it on what we like. If somebody wants to raise taxes on anybody, they should have to cobble together a huge majority."

    We do this in California. It doesn't work.

    1. What exactly is broken in your government? Yes, you're facing a huge budget deficit, but that's an indictment on California's voracious public employee unions. But the core functions of government are still there.

      Government in California is relatively dysfunctional because of poor management and a public's willingness to tolerate it. There will come a point where California is going to have an adult conversation on how to effectively run the government, because the obligations that they have to pay vastly outpace what they're taking in.

      I suspect that when push comes to shove (and I'm not talking about Proposition 30) and California's politicians want to significantly raise taxes on everybody, you'll see significant voter pushback.

      Regardless, tyranny by a temporary, fickle majority is arbitrary, capricious, and highly vulnerable to special interests. The most effective governments have the most buyin from the governed.

  2. I'm pretty sure you need a super majority to both raise taxes and cut spending here, so rural republican counties have an enormous amount of power within the state legislature.

    Thats why we're planning (at least I still hope we are) to rewrite the state's constitution.

  3. Just looked it up and its even worse than I though, you need a 2/3 vote here just to pass a budget.

    1. How is that a bad thing? Spending public monies, and trying to get more from people shouldn't be such an easy thing to accomplish.

      The vast majority of people will agree that the government can and should raise money to build and maintain roads, bridges, police and fire departments, and health facilities. But when they ask for more money to do the exact same thing, maybe we shouldn't make it so easy to take more money from private hands.