Is American politics ruled by gridlock?

by on December 22, 2013 at 7:34 am in Current Affairs, Economics, History, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

My latest New York Times column is here, and here is one excerpt:

Consider the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Coordinated actions by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and Congress geared up rapidly, were decisive by global standards and received a fair amount of bipartisan support. In contrast, the euro zone is still discussing how to manage its bailouts or whether to start a program of quantitative easing, which the Federal Reserve will begin to wind down in January. And Japan, after letting problems with bad banks fester for decades, is only now using monetary policy to fight deflationary pressures.

After that initial decisiveness in the financial crisis, America did indeed slow down in policy innovation. Bailouts and our activist central bank have become extremely contentious factors in the nation’s politics, and there has been bitter fighting over how to set into motion the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

Lunging and lurching forward with big changes, then enduring periods of backlash, consolidation and frustration, is often a better description of our political system than is “gridlock,” which is too unidimensional a concept to capture the reality.

At other times, because political flexibility is a fundamental part of the American system, it doesn’t feel as though we are defeating gridlock as much as bypassing it. Fracking — hydraulic fracturing — is reshaping the American energy sector, in part because of previous federal support for research and development, and in part because of regulatory tolerance: Many of the relevant changes took place through agencies like the Energy Department. In contrast, much of Europe is refusing to proceed with fracking at all. The American breakthrough has generated economic headlines, but rarely is it cited as an example of political success.

Do read the whole column.  Two other examples are the building of the surveillance state and the shift toward ever-tougher forms of intellectual property protection, and the spread of that philosophy to other nations through the form of treaties.  Sometimes we could use more gridlock, although I recognize that many people prefer to rail against it.

If you would like to read a defense of the gridlock view, here is Ornstein and Mann, noting that they confuse polarization with gridlock and don’t consider most of the examples and comparisons I raise.  Their argument is closer to “we shouldn’t feel very good about how things have been running,” which I have no problem accepting.  Here is Summers, responding to their critique., though he is more optimistic about the consequences of periodic non-gridlock than I am.  Here is the original Summers Op-EdMany other contributions to the political science literature either predate the recent wave of rather considerable policy reform, focus on Congress, or focus on whether polarization is preventing us from addressing income inequality.   I don’t intend those points as criticisms, simply a note that many of those pieces and books do not bear so directly on my thesis.

Edward Burke December 22, 2013 at 9:49 am

So what does this say about the state or status of (formerly) celebrated American pragmatism? (I do not permit myself to believe that Peirce, James, and Dewey are celebrated in our public secondary schools.) For winning the 2008 Presidential election, our current President was hailed only short years ago as an arch-pragmatist, but who credibly claims that today?

If pragmatic action helped us navigate through the early worst of the Great Recession well enough for us to’ve arrived in relatively becalmed waters, what manner or complexion of pragmatism is active now? Boomers have derived about all the residual benefits that 20th century American pragmatism had to confer. Millennials seem to betray a vast unfamiliarity with pragmatism, and we have no good idea yet what their nihilism will yield, although we begin to see just how effete their idealism is (insofar as nihilism typically emerges from spells of quashed “idealism”).

john personna December 22, 2013 at 11:13 am

I agree that pragmatism is given short shrift. And gridlock (including Tyler’s incomplete gridlock) is a poor substitute for genuine moderation.

derek December 22, 2013 at 1:48 pm

So what is the moderate view on fracking, to take an example? Or Detroit? Take any contentious issue.

Moderation as a political stand is an attempt to deny that there are valid differences in opinion and interests, and usually is a political definition of what I want others to do. I am moderate, everyone else is extreme. If only everyone could be moderate and agree with me.

There are real differences with real consequences. The folks who gain on the insurance exchanges because of certain circumstances have on the other side those who lose what they had or have to pay more. An increase in taxes to pay for something produces a gain for the beneficiaries, a loss to those who have to pay. Making coal plants uneconomic by regulation makes natural gas producers and generation capacity benefit, but the coal miners and those working in that industry lose. There is no moderate position, there are winners and losers.

The political system of representative government replaces the gangs of losers attacking the winners with pikes and spears, or visa versa. If there wasn’t vigorous procedural fights, over the top rhetoric in Washington or any place where these political battles occur, I suggest that the political structures would no longer be working. A good sign of a collapsing government is when the ‘representatives’ complaining that the people back home don’t understand all the good they are doing.

john personna December 22, 2013 at 2:28 pm

I guess fracking serves as an example. I don’t have a strong opinion, but I hope that rational interests (economic and environmental) have been represented and balanced.

On a lot of things I’ll accept a solution to the left or to the right of me, if I think the process was good. This isn’t at all the same as getting whatever is squeezed out of gridlock.

john personna December 22, 2013 at 2:31 pm

BTW, coal plants are bad, and without a lot of regulation would be spewing SOx, NOx, particulates, and etc. with abandon.

It used to be that the “solution” to coal pollution was a tall smokestack, one that put the effluent high enough that it would bother the next state downwind. If that was a “pragmatic” solution, it was only in the very local sense.

BenK December 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm

It bears repeating that the mean of fire and ice is not a sensible thing to discuss. It often sounds good to applaud moderation, mostly as a stalking horse for one or another position. In fact, ‘moderation’ is no particular virtue and in most multidimensional distributions there is no body of humanity present at the ‘medium’ position.

john personna December 22, 2013 at 4:05 pm

In the abstract I guess we can say that cool, clean, water isn’t as good as fire or ice … for someone. I suppose.

The New American Center: Why our nation isn’t as divided as we think

But it seems easier, and the high ground, to say that problems should be resolved by reason and compromise. I mean, what else? If we have punctuated gridlock, in which certain important solutions skate by, do know that they were reasoned? Or were they just given a pass?

john personna December 22, 2013 at 4:10 pm

(I’m worried that Tyler’s logic is that since our system occasionally produces laws, it must be working with some efficiency. Not necessarily. For that we’d need good laws with some regularity.)

Ray Lopez December 22, 2013 at 10:01 am

Aside: fracking is not a cure all. It only increases supply by a few years. The reason prices drop so much is that storage of fossil fuels is very difficult: once pumped, pretty much it must be sold. The “US Strategic Reserve” is the exception that proves the rule. Often oil is simply stored in a supertanker that’s parked, ready to be unloaded when prices get a little better. So don’t celebrate the end of “Peak Oil” just because they found some gas due to fracking. BTW something like up to two thirds of oil remains in the ground, since it is too difficult to remove. It reminds me of the stat that something like 33% of all harvested food rots, even in free markets (in the USSR it was said that 90% rotted). The laws of entropy at (in?) work.

JWatts December 22, 2013 at 11:08 am

Fracking will probably extend supplies for decades. It brings a substantial amount of reserves into the economically recoverable category.

Brian December 22, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Lopez: “fracking is not a cure all. It only increases supply by a few years”

JWatts: “Fracking will probably extend supplies for decades.”

These two actually agree. Suppose fracking adds 10% to production for forty years. Then the supply is extended by 40 * 10% = 4 years. Extended for decades equals increased by a few years.

Alex' December 22, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Are you using the word “supply” in some esoteric peak oil nutjob context?

Ray Lopez December 22, 2013 at 8:45 pm

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/future_tense/2011/12/is_there_really_100_years_worth_of_natural_gas_beneath_the_united_states_.html

(“Assuming that the United States continues to use about 24 tcf per annum, then, only an 11-year supply of natural gas [due to fracking] is certain. The other 89 years’ worth has not yet been shown to exist or to be recoverable.”)

And keep in mind natural gas is just for making peak electricity for utilities and heating homes, not really moving vehicles. In short, fracking is not a game changer.

Z December 22, 2013 at 10:02 am

I’m not so sure you are correct when you assert “because political flexibility is a fundamental part of the American system…” It was certainly not something the Founders would have accepted. Our original Constitution was designed to hobble majorities and limit the impact of prevailing sentiment. It was only later when Progressives grew frustrated with the system that “pragmatism” became fashionable amongst the ruling class. Gridlock today is what stands between some degree of lawful order and the madness of mob rule.

I think maybe the better way of framing it is in terms of corruption. Compared to Europe and Japan, the level of corruption in America is significantly lower. Japan’s sclerotic political class is a reflection of Japanese culture which celebrates traditions we would consider public corruption. Europe, outside of Britain, has a tradition of mendacity amongst the ruling elites that dates back to the Thirty Years War. Culture, not scribblings on sheets of paper, has more to do with our relative flexibility than anything else.

ummm December 22, 2013 at 11:44 am

better to smaller government than bigger except during crisis like 911 or 2008

radical white blogger December 22, 2013 at 1:07 pm

the founding aristocrats (most especially madison, who was worth $100 mil in today’s dollars when he got his inheritance) deliberately designed the fed govt is be in perpetual gridlock in order to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”, as he wrote. Good of him to do that. Oh, wait, madison and his buddies washington and morris, et al, were the opulent. Hmmm….

So, let us look at the sort of system the founding aristocrats destroyed when they installed the federal –small, parliamentarian nations (the several states) where the electorate was quite homogeneous (and white).

So, if we wanted to compare the gridlock system (the american system) with the other system (small, white and parliamentarian), how could we do that? Say, I got an ideer! Why not compare how well the USA works compared to, say, every_other_white_nation!? I mean by that the following nations, to varying degrees: switzerland, denmark, sweden, norway, australia, austria, finland, germany, ireland, etc etc etc.

Those nations are somewhat similar to what each of the several states were before the founding aristocrats put their federalist coup in place–parliamentarian governments, small and white.

Gosh, those aforementioned nations are just horrid places! The citizens of those nations are in pure agony! Aren’t we lucky to be living in a system of gridlock where we are not subjected to the whim of the masses!?

So, suppose a person were to want to live in a nation like one of those aforementioned nations–under the rule of the masses, the riotous mobs, say, like Finland or Austria. Ya can’t really move there because, being under the rule of the mob, those nations don’t really accept many immigrants. Isn’t that just horrible!?

So, is it possible we could make the USA more like Austria? Ya know, just in case we wanted to torture ourselves with that horrid thing called democracy…

Well, yes, we could make the USA more like all those other western nations by….wait for it…sending power back to the states, thus making each state more like finland, austria, etc etc….

derek December 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Austria in 2013 or Austria in 1939?

Z December 22, 2013 at 1:33 pm

We’re a lot closer to the 1939 Austria than most would like to admit. Instead of a death’s head and black shirts, it is a smiley face and rainbow shirts. When they are closing the oven door on you, I don’t think the fashion sense of the jailers is all that important.

john personna December 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Maybe we are closer to American in 1939 than many would admit.

radical white blogger December 22, 2013 at 2:24 pm

i meant austria of 2000 BC, of course. How could you possibly think otherwise?

derek December 22, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Well, you started describing some folks who lived a couple centuries ago and wrote some foundational documents for the US. What was Austria like then? My historical knowledge of Austria is very shallow, but the Austrian-Hungarian empire rings a bell, as the Nazi invasion/movement in Austria in more recent times.

The Austria of today is how old?

lxm December 22, 2013 at 10:10 am

For the most part I agree that ‘gridlock’ is not as apt as ‘lunging and lurching forward.’ On the other hand ‘forward’ is not a word I would choice. Your use of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as an example of ‘lurching forward’ is not what I would call them. ‘Lurching backwards’ might be a better choice.

So we may not have gridlock, but we may not have improvements either. Our government may still be able to make big changes, but there is no promise that the changes will be improvements. It could be two steps backward for every step forward. Or gridlock by another name.

You say, “ To many partisans it feels like gridlock, but in reality moderate voters are getting their way.” Seems like a big jump from the rest of your article and I do not think you support it, either. I would think that moderate voters would like a government that doesn’t act too too stupid. I do not see lunging and lurching forward fulfilling that promise.

Rahul December 22, 2013 at 10:15 am

Sometimes we could use more gridlock, although I recognize that many people prefer to rail against it.”

People love gridlocking the other side’s plans & people hate gridlocks when it screws their own plans.

JWatts December 22, 2013 at 11:10 am

Bingo.

Brian December 22, 2013 at 2:16 pm

“Your use of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as an example of ‘lurching forward’ is not what I would call them. ‘Lurching backwards’ might be a better choice.”

Indeed, the other examples are just as bad. Tyler’s first example is the bailouts that turned a short term crisis into a six years long recession and the worst economy since the Great Depression. Then comes the environmental disaster of fracking that comes just in time to extend our dependence on scarce imports just when we were beginning to reform our economy to be less energy dependent.

Then he mentions the surveillance state scandal and the overbearingly strict intellectual property regime choking Silicon Valley. It sounds swiftian, as if Tyler is telling us we should always wish for more gridlock.

karl December 22, 2013 at 10:56 am

Some claim (with evidence) that the elections of 2008 and (particularly) 2010 resulted in not just a quantitative increase in examples of “gridlock” but a qualitative change in the character of minority opposition — a strategy that allows the executive no policy victories, regardless of popularity or even former minority support.

JWatts December 22, 2013 at 11:14 am

We call those people partisans. The system didn’t fundamentally change in 2008, what changed was the executive branch. We obtained a President who fails to spend much effort or time working with Congress. With obvious and predictable results.

derek December 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm

The 2010 election result was a response to the passing of Obamacare. Oddly the voters were prescient. The shutdown of 2013 could have been easily avoided if the executive actions taken since to delay some of the more contentious and unworkable bits were accepted at the time.

There has been a series of legislation over the last decade and a half where the opposition is painted as radical, but in fact the legislation is radical. The one creating Homeland Security, the Medicare pharmaceutical coverage, Sarbanes-Oxley, TARP, the stimulus, Dodd Frank, Obamacare. Each on done in response to some need, but very expensive and intrusive.

If there has been gridlock it has been the result of procedural plays whose goals are to prevent any erosion of existing spending and power accumulation. The baseline set by the 2009 one party government has been maintained by not passing budgets but using continuing resolutions. And the absurdity of the showdown of a few months ago which essentially was an utter refusal to consider urgently needed adjustments to Obamacare since implemented by executive action.

Brian Donohue December 22, 2013 at 11:01 am

Call it what you will, 2013 was the best year for responsible government in more than a decade in this country.

– a moderate

TMC December 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm

If you mean the snowball for this type to collapse has begun to roll, then yes.

derek December 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm

If you want to hit 4% growth for a quarter, arrange a 15 day shutdown of the Federal government.

CPV December 22, 2013 at 11:10 am

The phrase “punctuated equilibrium” comes to mind.

DCBillS December 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm

So bailouts are good? I guess it depends on whether you are the bailor (bad) or bailee (good). Please Tyler, you have gone over the top with this one. How does the apparent fact that the UK is doing better than the US fit with your thesis? And remember that every dollar used to bail out the imprudent has to come from someone more prudent. Nice incentive system. This slow motion train wreck has not climaxed yet. Hindsight will be clear only when the dust settles.

Joe Smith December 22, 2013 at 2:48 pm

The bailout involved politicians agreeing to give hundreds of billions of dollars to the crooks running the nation’s banks so those same crooks could refund a few tens of millions to the politicians. This is not an example of an effective political process. (Unless you are a corrupt politician or banker.)

TMC December 22, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Not much different than the money delivered to the unions, and makes it way back again.
The Democratic party is mostly a money laundering scheme.
Should be able to dismantle it with RICO.

BenK December 22, 2013 at 3:10 pm

It’s unfortunate that we don’t get a system which really only allows government action or expenditure when 80% of the states agree. Instead, we have one that spends wildly on one set of plans and then on the other; the plans change but the spending keeps going.

Willitts December 22, 2013 at 10:26 pm

If we had a Congress that followed the Constitution, that’s exactly what we would have.

Congress and the Executive have, over the past 150 years, expanded their powers far beyond what the founders intended and without the inconvenience of a constitutional amendment. Unfortunately, we can’t close Pandora’s box.

AD December 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm

I enjoyed your more nuanced take on gridlock (and polarization). There’s too much of a “the sky is falling” mentality. More people should read David Mayhew on the topic.

Near the end, you state: “One problem, however, is that the fear of eventual gridlock can make our policy lurches too hasty and ill-considered.”

Is is the fear of eventual gridlock or the fear that the majority party will soon be the minority party. From the 1930’s until the end of the 1980’s, no one thought the Republicans would ever take the House. Now control of Congress alternates every so many years. Perhaps it’s this new phenomenon that explains the hasty and ill-considered policy lurches of late.

Willitts December 22, 2013 at 10:23 pm

Excellent point. Americans hate abrupt change, and when politicians over-reach, they get punished two years later.

But I think the growth of mass media and instant communication has made the national identity far more important than local concerns. It is a smaller world.

Steve Sailer December 22, 2013 at 10:02 pm

An emerging story is the increasing unification of interests of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, and the media-culture-gay complex, with Russia as the designated Bad Guy:

http://isteve.blogspot.com/2013/12/world-war-g-and-military-industrial.html

Willitts December 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm

The US political system was designed for gridlock. It’s a feature, not a bug.

But the monetary and fiscal powers of the United States is still passed by a single sovereign. State governors and legislatures have no say in such policies. The US Congress is mist collegial in a real crisis, not the media hyped crises of shutdowns and debt ceilings.

The EU has too many masters.

ScottA December 23, 2013 at 9:19 am

In the PS literature gridlock is conceptualized within policy spaces, not within Congresses or years or any time period, really (although I realize that a few authors who write about it actually interpret their findings this way). Consider Krehbiel’s Pivotal Politics (from back in 1998) – gridlock occurs when no actor has an incentive to attempt to move policy, which, given the US system’s large number of veto players, can happen frequently. The specifics of the gridlock interval are spelled out in the book. Point being, we’re in the gridlock interval in some policy domains (health care, immigration, several others) and moving out of it on others (budget, thanks to the sequester, which moved the status quo to such an unacceptable point that policy movement became acceptable to the medians of various voting blocks). The budget deal was “the best that could be accomplished given gridlock”, but the tone is wrong, I think; this literally describes the way US politics works. Change only happens when the status quo is sufficiently unacceptable.

No idea why you go for Poole and Rosenthal / McCarty to explain gridlock – they’re polarization, which you point out quite correctly is NOT gridlock. Compromise happens under conditions of polarization when it suits people to move policy from the status quo (again, see Krehbiel and others, such as Sarah Binder) – this is less common with increased polarization, I think, but polarization is not the issue here. The parties are not homogenous, which people tend to forget – party ranks broke on the budget deal and I think this will happen more frequently on issues where there is not broad agreement (think GOP/immigration and gay-marriage, Dems and most economic things the liberal wing believes in). Parties have been surprisingly unified so far, but there’s a chance that’s just the Obama effect, which is falling apart a bit. He was great at unifying the Dems and, for a while, at unifying the GOP against him. Under a hypothetical Clinton presidency I see a lot less party discipline. But, we’ll see.

Random comment: Mann and Ornstein are almost purely normative/descriptive – they strike me as old-school institutionalists political scientists (think Woodrow Wilson, or, more recently, EE Schattsneider); they’re interested in describing what’s happened recently and claiming that it’s big-W-wrong (not because of outcomes – they have a bizarre faith in ‘getting things done’ and compromise for it’s own sake; I think they essentially believe in parliamentary-style unity-majority governments, like most old-school institutionalists in PS, which kind of explains their puzzlement that narrow majorities don’t suffice under the American system). And, a thought: I think the PPACA fiasco might get us out of gridlock on healthcare before too long – (maybe 2014 if it looks electorally terrible, 2015 otherwise), the status quo is looking so unacceptable to so many people that some sort of movement is probably going to be necessary. The form of the change will depend, as always, on the location/determination of the veto players (particularly Obama and the Senate Dems) in ideological space.

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