Simplistic Solutions – Again

The other day, my brother sent me a copy of the final column of a retiring columnist [Charlie Reese of the Orlando Sentinal].  If the column is representative of Mr. Reese’s views, I’m glad to see him no longer in print and wish him a very happy retirement.  His view was that all of our ills as a society can be laid to 545 people – the Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court, because not one of the taxes, not one of the federal budgets, not one of the federal regulations, not one of the deficits, and not one of the federal court decisions that have led to the mess we’re in could have taken place without the acts of those individuals… and that each and every one of them could have said “no.”

And, in the strictest and most simplistic sense of the word, he’s absolutely right.  But in the larger sense, he’s absolutely wrong… because we live in a representative democratic republic, and we, as voters or non-voters, decide who represents us every two years. As some of you may know, I spent some 18 years in Washington, D.C., first as the legislative director for a congressman, then as the staff director for his successor, then as the head of legislation and congressional relations for the U.S. EPA, and finally as a consultant, i.e., beltway bandit, representing corporations before the Congress and the Executive Branch.  Given that I’ve also worked in private industry and as a small businessman, not to mention as a Navy pilot, I’ve seen how government works and doesn’t work pretty much from all sides.  And it’s anything but simple.

I’ve known personally dozens of representative and senators, and professionally dealt with hundreds of them… and well over 90% of them faithfully and diligently represented the views of the majority of the voters who elected them.  It’s all well and good to extol the “good old days” when the USA was the economic power of the world with balanced budgets and prosperity… but that often wasn’t the case.  Even before the Great Depression, there were other brutal depressions and financial collapses, and certainly in World War II, the budget was far from balanced.  By the time of the Great Depression, the majority of Americans were ready to move away from unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, and they showed it in their support of Franklin Roosevelt and whom they elected to Congress.  With unemployment over 25%, and breadlines everywhere, with older people in poverty, who could blame them?  They voted for what they thought they wanted, as they did before, and as they have ever since.

Since I left Washington, have my representatives and senators represented my views?  Hell no!  But my views aren’t in the majority where I live.  And because only a little more than half the eligible voters actually vote, especially in off-year elections, it may well be that many senators and representatives do not represent the views of the majority of their constituents, but only the views of the majority of those who vote… but that’s not the fault of the Congress.  It’s the fault of those who fail to vote.

To blame the problems in Washington on a Congress and a President that reflect the views of the majority of voters is not only simplistic, but it’s also taking the easy way out.  Recent elections have shown, more than ever, that any representative or senator who goes against the wishes of the majority of voters in his or district or state usually gets tossed out.  The plain fact of the matter is that the majority of voters, for better or worse, really don’t want fiscal discipline.  They don’t want cuts in the federal programs that benefit them, only in those that benefit someone else, and they don’t want to pay more taxes, although it might be all right if someone else did.  And Congress has continued to listen to them and reflect their wishes.

Would any of us want a government that didn’t?  That would be even worse than what we have… and what we have isn’t all that wonderful at the moment, but it’s still better than the alternatives.  The problem isn’t the structure, and it isn’t the Congress.  As Pogo said many years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

 

11 Responses to “Simplistic Solutions – Again”

  1. Joe says:

    You are presenting anecdotal evidence that representatives do what the majority of their constituents want. Do you have any statistical evidence for this statement?

    My impression is that to be heard a politician needs money (for TV advertisements and the like). To obtain money he needs to constrain his policies to those that supporters such as corporations like. Then he has to compete with the other candidates in capturing the majority of the vote from them. They also will only be suggesting policies palatable to large donors. I.e. the game is rigged so that certain possibilities are never considered:

    * Did we ever consider nationalizing the banks, clean them up, sell them off, like Sweden did during its financial crisis? (something the IMF recommended)

    * Did we consider nationalizing the health care system like most other western industrial countries have so we could compete more effectively with them?

    * Have we considered a serious reduction in defense spending instead of cutting back on the services such as Social Security citizens have paid for?

    * Have we considered any form of tax on exporting the technological knowhow our scientists and engineers, results of our culture, have made? Or is it ok for management to make a quick buck by exporting technology they could not invent, reducing the competitiveness of the country? China maintained a silk monopoly for centuries by executing anyone who tried to export a silk worm. I believe the Ottoman Empire had the same policy for coffee beans.

    • R. Hamilton says:

      * nationalizing anything leaves it open to government corruption, which may not be any worse than commercial corruption, but isn’t any better, either

      * nationalizing the health care system removes competition. competition is even _more_ necessary in something like health care, where everyone naturally wants all of the best that they need (which is not possible for anything)

      * citizens have not _fully_ paid for services such as Social Security; they’ve long been Ponzi schemes, where those paying in are _not_ being invested to pay back out to them (as a private alternative would do, to the considerable benefit of those participating in it); rather, because benefits get added (politics) and the population ages (demographics), those currently paying in are paying for those currently receiving benefits. If you think about it, such insolvency is probably inevitable in any long-term government benefits.

      “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.” (variously attributed to Tytler or de Tocqueville)

      If it was ok for the Chinese to execute people trying to break their monopoly, why don’t we preserve a monopoly on real freedom and make it ok to execute socialists? (no, I’m not quite serious, and yes, I recognize the contradiction; but as far as I’m concerned, the left is a hundredfold the threat to liberty that the right could ever be, although I’d prefer libertarian with just enough of the right mixed in to add a little backbone)

      • Gary V. says:

        Excellent post, R. Hamilton. I’d give you a “like” or a “+1″ if those buttons were available :) Socialists live in a fantasy land where they think their ideas actually work. Just look at our current president. Keynesian economics doesn’t work, yet the left continues to say it’s only because we haven’t spent enough. Jeesh :( As Margaret Thatcher said, “Socialism works only until you run out of other people’s money.”

  2. Essentially, the difference between anecdotal evidence and statistical evidence is the sample size. When I ran Legislation and Congressional Affairs for the EPA, we kept track of the voting records and profiles of every member of Congress, as well as the key issues in their states and districts. That’s a sample size of 100%. In the years that have followed, I’ve not seen any trends or evidence that contradicts my postulates about representation. Nor is confirmation bias likely to be a problem, since I’m acknowledging evidence contrary to anything I’d like to believe and since it would be somewhat easier to “solve” the problem if it were merely the case of money buying representatives and senators [not that it would be easy, given all the ways money has of avoiding rules].

    • Joe says:

      It would be interesting to know what years you ran Legislation and Congressional Affairs for the EPA.

      • During the Reagan administration — 1981-83 — and then I was a special assistant for regulatory review in 1984-85. And, according to my contacts, matters haven’t changed much, except for greater polarization created by constituent political pressures.

  3. Kathryn says:

    I get annoyed when people complain about the government, you ask who they voted for and they say “I didn’t vote”. I think that’s a ridiculous thing to say and do.

    Firstly, as a citizen of your country, you have a duty and a right to vote for the party you believe fits your country’s interests the best. Do you think the UK should be out of the Eurozone? Vote UKIP. Do you think the Conservatives are best for you and the UK? Vote for them. It’s a right that people in many countries don’t have, and I think it’s shameful that a country’s government can be elected on 50% of the eligible citizens of a country voting.

    If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about the party in charge, because you didn’t try to stop them getting in! You sat on your backside and probably said “oh, politics is rubbish!” It may well be rubbish, but every citizen has a duty to contribute to our ‘democracy’. I make a point to vote when I can, because I don’t agree with the two big parties battling it out, although I will confess I did vote for our current coalition government (We had two elections that day, so I spread my votes).

    If you think about what the government does, all the different branches and different things they vote on and discuss, it’s clearly not going to be simple. Blaming Obama for not fixing everything is naive and shows a lack of understanding for politics. What he and congress vote on may not seem right to some people, but it’s what they believe is right for their country. They have a duty to support their country, to do right for it. That’s what they generally believe they do, I suspect, and that’s what I would guess they actually do.

    We, as citizens, don’t know everything our government do. That is necessary, I believe, just to keep us safe.

    • Joe says:

      “We, as citizens, don’t know everything our government do. That is necessary, I believe, just to keep us safe.”

      The “WikiLeaks” cables are a perfect opportunity for you to test that hypothesis.

      As for voting, I’m sure the vast majority of the LIberal Democrats are pleased with Nick Clegg… NOT.

      • Kathryn says:

        I think the WikiLeaks cables are a mixed bag. A lot of it was nothing new, from what I’ve heard, but some of it can be… bad. I’ve heard that there was a Tibetan monk living in China named in them. That isn’t good. His life may have been endangered by the cables.

        Some things that our government does *have* to be kept secret from everyone, whether it’s the development of arms or of technology. We’ve had many scandals where personal data has been lost or misplaced by government officials, at great risk to the country (I still haven’t worked out who thinks it’s a good idea to traipse around with personal records of half the country), because that personal data has to be kept safe, secure and away from… everyone, really.

        I have to trust my government, whether it’s Labour, Conservative, BNP, whatever, to do the right thing for me, my mum, my nan and everyone else in this country. Do I think they do? No, that’d be naive, but I still have to give them a bit of trust to make the right decisions. I don’t want to live anywhere else, not even eastern Canada, so I have to make do with what we have.

        • Sam says:

          The problem with a system where secrets are allowed to be kept is that it is ripe for abuse and coverups.

          I can see a need for official secrets to a limited extent, ie. military technology design specs and capabilities.

          However if things are going to be kept secret legally there needs to be an official record and and expiry date upon which that record becomes available to the public.

          If crimes have been committed and covered up using official secrets laws then the perpetrators need to be held accountable so I think 20 years is the maximum period of time that secrets should be able to be kept. Long enough that any information that may have once been important to keep out of foreign hands should be of little relevance to the present but short enough that those responsible are likely still living and therefore able to be held accountable.

          • R. Hamilton says:

            To a large degree, that is done. Considerable amounts of documents are declassified all the time, and historians and researchers probably feed avidly on such material.

            There are occasional genies best kept in their bottles as long as possible; I would suppose those are more technical than policy.

            A simple change to law to address the (almost certainly much exaggerated, if understandably so) concern of secrets hiding crimes would be to extend any statute of limitations by the period of time during which evidence was classified; in other words, so long as it wasn’t double jeopardy, the clock would start over again when evidence was declassified.

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