Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Tyranny of Small Margins

As I type this, the fiscal cliff compromise that passed the Senate has since been stalled in the House as Representative Eric Cantor, the Republican Majority Leader, announced his opposition. If a deal can't be reached today, the stock market is going to tumble tomorrow. But a "tumble" is usually defined as a drop of more than 1%. That doesn't seem particularly impressive.

And the two big issues that the Republicans and Democrats can't get to a deal on will affect less than 2% of taxpayers and 3% of the Federal government's budget. This is the paradox of politics. The issues we are arguing about are all on the margin. And they are very small margins. Once a final deal is reached, the Democrats and the Republicans will have agreed on essentially 99% of the Bush tax cuts and 98% of the Federal budget.

This is the primary reason why cynics, burnt out on politics and the interminable news cycle, say it doesn't matter which party is in charge or who's in the White House. Because it doesn't. The vast majority of the electorate agrees on the vast majority of issues. Because everybody wants Social Security and Medicare. And everybody wants strong national defense. And everybody wants a government that provides this, that, and the other thing.

But since humans are still hardwired to view things in black and white, that means we have to make mountains out of molehills and turn these marginal disagreements into huge, ideological divides. The inability for Americans to get the 98-99% of stuff that we all agree that we want because we disagree on the 1-2% is why the public says Washington is broken.

Let me be clear. I do not mean to say that it's the Republicans' fault for "holding the 99% hostage to tax cuts for the 1%". Because it's equally valid (from an argumentative standpoint) to say that Democrats are "holding the 99% hostage to tax hikes for the 1%". But our government is structured to a point where 1-2% of the issues can set back every other issue. It's no way for the country to operate.

Imagine if your significant other breaks up with you and says something along the lines of, "don't get me wrong. You're a great person. I think you're really good looking and have a killer smile. You make a lot of money at your awesome job and I really like hanging out with your friends. But I've decided that I just can't be with a person who doesn't have green eyes." It would never happen.

And because the private sector and the American people are so resilient, the government continues to get away with their irresponsibility and childishness. This will continue until we reach the breaking point. Because the only time you can get Congress, the President, and the American people to all agree to do something is if a war breaks out or if there's a real domestic crisis currently raging.

That's where we are now on Capitol Hill. And it's why the Presidency has grown increasingly powerful with each successive election cycle. Because Congress is constantly gridlocked, only the President, with his unquestioned power over the Federal bureaucracy, can act unilaterally and with complete impunity. We will essentially be electing a king every 4 years until people realize that they aren't that different from each other. This is the tyranny of small margins.

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