Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Just fix it"

Alyssa Milano, via Twitter:
Hey, Republicans AND Democrats. Liberals, moderates AND conservatives. All of you. Stop the bullshit and just fix it.
Here's why we can't "just fix it." There are different ways of fixing it. You could raise taxes. You could cut spending. If you want to raise taxes, you could do it on upper income Americans, or on lower income Americans, or some combination. If you want to cut spending, you could cut the military, social programs, or some combination. There is no one way to fix it. And it turns out that people who want to fix things a certain way tend to group together in parties and elect people to Congress who agree with them. So Congress is filled with people who feel very strongly about doing things a certain way, and others feel very strongly about doing it another way, and their careers depend on them making good on their commitments to the people who elected them. That makes it very hard to quickly reach an agreement. This is the essence of democratic representation. Dictators could fix things much more quickly, but there's no guarantee they'd do it better. Most likely, they'd do it worse.

I don't mean to pick on Alyssa Milano -- she's from my home town, after all -- but she's uttering a commonly held sentiment that needs, in my opinion, to be addressed.


CL said...

YES. This is one of those things people say to me when they learn that I study politics. "They just need to stop with the partisan bickering and solve our problems."

And because I don't feel like going into it, I usually just pretend to agree. But it drives me crazy.

Anonymous said...

that's why you don't tell them that you are a student of political science... it only leads to futile discussions :/

Anonymous said...

how about this futile discussion: do you really think a dictator would do worse? how much worse could one person do? okay, alot worse. but this particular political moment looks pretty bad.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Part of the sentiment is driven by the fact that Congress has the option of failing to choose a solution even if that is worse than any alternative.

Few political systems have this feature as a practical matter. Parliamentary systems have a final decision maker. The public can disagree with the prime minister's choice, can even oust him if they don't like it, but he doesn't have the option of not choosing and creating a constitutional crisis. Just about any unicameral political body effectively works the same way. Courts, for example, almost never punt on case - a trial judge must rule one way or the other and a tie vote later in the appellate chain affirms the decision below. Even a hung jury's decision has a short term practical impact of acquittal until there is a retrial (if there is one).

Groups of people, especially large groups of people, are fundamentally bad at making constrained decisions. They are going to do what they are going to do, rules and limitations be damned. I call it the "sovereignty of the group." We reply on outside forces like courts (e.g. in the case of failure to agree on redistricting) and executive branch officials (e.g. with line item vetos for Governors) to reign them in if they overstep their boundaries and constraints.

As observed above at August 1, 9:18 a.m., there are some kinds of decisions that are the default for a body like Congress (inaction even when a choice of some kind is required) that even a dicator would never make. The fact that it is understandable that people in the shoes of politicians can be deadlocked and refuse to choose door 1, door 2 or door 3 even when there are three doors and a boulder is rushing down the hallway to crush us, doesn't make it any less contemptable that deadlock happens bringing us to the brink of constitutional crisis.

It would be easy enough to design a constitutional system without these design flaws that would have a more palatable default option for must pass decisions for the operations of government like appointments and budgets. For example, the new Afghan constitution, informed by the problem of deadlock in Iraqi civilian government and elsewhere, is written that way.

In lots of cases, we can rely on people who have much to lose from not agreeing to reach deals. Our economy is based on that idea. But, very few economic decisions involve players whose failure to agree can't be worked around by working out deals with others, and in the cases where that is true (de facto monopoly management teams and unions where there is no economic possibility to replace the union workers), failures to agree producing unreasonable carnage happen with some regularity and government shutdowns have demonstrated the possibility of the same thing at the federal law - with the consequences of a federal deadlock being much more severe. Plaintiffs and defendants who can't agree on a settlement can go to court and have a judge decide.

Even though deadlock is almost always much less likely than it seems running up to the brink, it does happen, and the risk can be unacceptably high when the continuing functioning of the federal government is at stake. I simply don't have the faith in the game of chicken as a dispute resolution mechanism that our Founders evidently did.

Irfan said...

What's the basis for the claim that dictators would most likely make a worse decision?

Seth Masket said...

Irfan, I'll admit that dictatorships aren't my area of expertise, but my understanding is that they tend to have a great deal of waste and inefficiency as the dictator buys regime support and rewards old friends with little if any oversight from the media or an opposition party. There's also the whole thing about them "solving" problems by enslaving or eliminating substantial portions of the population.

Lara said...

All the more reason Obama needs to quit coddling the Republicans and forget about his bi-partisan, 'soft' approach. Was glad to hear him turn things up a notch today. We need more of the same. And I've decided to start taking some of my well-meaning, but misguided friends to task, no longer abiding by the unspoken of rule of "Don't discuss Politics or Religion in a social setting."

Anonymous said...

In my economics class we were having a discussion about economic equity and having things fair to everyone and it's hard to do. When we began to talk about things such as taxes many people in the lower classes believe that those in the upper class should have higher tax. But as you can guess many of the upper class don't think so. Ergo, this problem is hard to fix for obvious reasons. Considering every bodies wants and needs is something hard to do especially for the president who doesn't want to lose voters, so it is something that they can't "just fix it". However, this is just one of the problems that can't just be fixed and therefore society here's all the BS as our president and congress try to come to a good solution that could, hopefully, please enough people. So, even though that sounds good it's more complicated than that.