02 June 2015

Warren speaks, people sort of listen, mostly hearing things.

On the plus side she is basically talking about public choice theory and rent seeking behavior, a language I'm well versed in observing and complaining about. On the down side, I don't see that that's fixable by talking to the common person very easily. The incentives are very low for them to pay attention to amendments of bills or tiny legislative fights over something they don't presume to care about in the first place.

The responses Klein gives are interesting though. 

"My theory is that it's that last kind of candidate who resonates most deeply with the electorate right now, because that's the question most voters can't actually figure out: they keep voting for, and electing, people they like, but they keep ending up with a political system they loathe. There's a disconnect there."

- I've encountered that frustration many times when people talk about politics "Why can't they get anything done!" or "why don't they work together to solve things!". The critical component to me is people are electing politicians they like rather than focusing on policy. Politics isn't about policy. It's a team building exercise involving a lot of symbolic action. Government is about policy though, and is intended to produce decent results. That's the disconnect. We as voters have confused politics for governing. That's why people (mostly) only pay attention every four years and usually only vote for Presidents rather than mayors or city council members or judges. Or why the media largely covers horse race politics, who will win an election, rather than agenda politics, what they will do with their victories, or what they have done.

It isn't a problem limited to any ideological faction either. Conservatives and libertarians right now seem more prone to it, but historically have offered all manner of reasoned critiques about the nature or direction of government actions. Whether or not those were correct or not, it is effectively the role they should play in politics is to act as the judge for the pragmatic effects of policy and nudge it away from ineffectual or too expansive and ambitious designs. This has rarely happened over the last 30 years or so.

"An analogy I like is that Washington is a bit like physics: it has different rules for big and small things. The kind of political conflict that leads A1 — the question of whether Obamacare will pass, or whether the debt ceiling will be breached – tends to be driven primarily by raw partisan incentives. In many cases, that partisanship often ends up frustrating the interests of the rich and powerful, as has happened, to some degree, on infrastructure. But when you get down to the level of text — the specific provisions of those big bills, not to mention the smaller bills and amendments that take up much of Congress's time — the rich and powerful have a wildly outsize voice."

- This is probably mostly accurate. It's far easier to influence events and bills on the micro level than to try to push against a macro event demanded by some large polity of people.

Further point there is that the reason rich and powerful people have a wildly outsize voice is in my view twofold

1) Access to media is much higher. This is democratized somewhat over the last decade or so with the internet that it is easier for "normal" people to say something, but there's no guarantee the average person will read me or even Ezra Klein if we have something to say and hear it and listen to it (unless they're already pretty wonky). There's a pretty good chance people will read about what Bill Gates had to say. Or Rupert Murdoch. Or hear about people talking about what Bill Gates has had to say. And so on. This means that the media narratives and the agenda politics can be largely defined by what rich or powerful people care about.

Note that this isn't always a bad thing for the general public. Or that what rich and powerful people want isn't always unified and that they often will quarrel with one another. But it should be noted that if rich and powerful people don't want something, or at least don't see it as a major concern of theirs, there's a good chance it won't appear on the agenda. This is why a lot of the issues I find myself concerned with rarely surface (drug policy, occupational licensing, the mortgage interest deduction, etc). These rarely impact richer people and if they do it is often positive (occupational licensing is often a big handout to large corporations over small businesses for example). But it is also partly why abstract civil libertarian concerns about the war on terror have been allowed to surface as a major issue as many tech companies or some telecommunications companies are angry.

2) Richer and more powerful people tend to vote much more often and for more things than poorer people. They are more attentive voters (on average), engaged in observing and questioning the decisions being made, not just showing up for election day. They're also often located in areas of the country that place them with access to people in power (or locate representatives of their interests in those areas): NYC, DC, LA. They often went to school with people in power, or both have children that do, and so on. All of that makes it far easier to scratch each other's backs than to worry about the little people.

Populist politics often presumes to care about the little people as well but rarely offers productive policy proscriptions beyond the symbolic concern. This is because populist politicians rarely know normal people and their problems in the first place. For instance, it is well and good to criticize the government bailouts of banking institutions (or other large corporate entities, I'm looking in your direction GM) that made horrible business decisions. It is not then automatically justified that we should bailout college student loans because we made these other horrible policy decisions. The moral disconnect there is clever, but has little to say about whether that would be a sound policy decision on its own merits. The actual student loan problem has more to do with people who do not complete college and still amass debt (all of the costs and none of the gains) or the general utility of a particular college degree being hampered by structural economic problems (recession being a large factor also), than it does with the affordability of college per se. The expansive growth of college costs is likewise not likely to be resolved by the proposals set forward either. These are not converted into sensible policies simply because we made worse or less sensible policies on the behest of "powerful" people.
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