Blaming the Republicans

Ryan Avent has a good post and I agree with much of it (and read him as expressing a good deal of agreement with me).  I do, however, disagree with one part:

…if Waxman-Markey is a bad bill, then it is a bad bill largely because
the minority party has an energy plan that scarcely recognises the
threat of climate change as a problem. This guarantees that the vote
will be close, which guarantees that Democrats will have to wheel and
deal and wheel and deal to get the votes they need–the last Democrat to
be converted can name his price. It's a little silly to complain about
the imperfect bill Democrats have crafted, when the Republican minority
has basically forced them to build a law that every last Democrat can
accept.

I don't mean to pick on Ryan but I am seeing this idea growing in influence and I wish to push on it a bit.  (By the way, here is his follow-up post.)  A few points:

1. Negative claims about Republican politicians are, in fact, usually true.  I don't wish to defend them or make you dislike them less.

2. If a policy idea cannot survive the opposition being partisan and also lying about it, I submit the policy idea is not such a good one.  You can blame the opposition with all the justice in the world on your side, but still the idea has major, major problems.

3. The notion of a "minimum winning coalition" is commonplace in political science.  Maybe the idea isn't as universal as its early proponents claimed, but still it is an important force in shaping political equilibria.  If a policy idea cannot survive being turned into a "minimum winning coalition" version of itself…well…see #2.

4. Both the Republicans and the Democrats share some common problems and they are known as voters.  And special interest groups.  If your plan cannot survive the influence of voters, and special interest groups…well…see #2.

5. Many government programs can in fact survive all of these negative influences and still emerge as good ideas.

6. The Democrats do in fact rule by more than one seat in both houses of Congress.  So maybe the marginal Democratic legislators don't have so much bargaining power after all.  You can cite 60+ in the Senate but of course this is endogenous to what the Democrats themselves think public opinion will bear.  There is a reason why the Democratic establishment does not, as Matt Yglesias so often recommends, abolish the 60+ requirement.  Often they prefer inaction, combined with the ability to blame the Republicans for such.  See #4.  The often-sad truth is that the Democrats as a whole prefer to tailor policy to pander to their "worst" members.

7. If indeed "the revolution is over" it is a question of critical importance, for progressives, what lessons to take away from the experience.  I'm not yet sure what are the correct lessons, from a progressive point of view (Robin Hanson and I have been chatting about this and I hope to blog it more soon).  Deep in my bones, however, I feel that if the main takeaway were "the Republicans were at fault," that a significant learning opportunity will have been missed.

Comments

How's about the basic lesson that individuals are largely rational and self-interested, and hence, that there's nothing wrong with individual voters choosing to spend lots of money on their health. And further, and individuals not wanting to pay artificially high prices for the energy they use to get from place to place, heat and cool their homes, make their goods, etc.

We can debate whether in some cases, especially with respect to energy and health care for old folks, the costs might be artificially low, but by and large, my observation is that these "problems" are just as price responsive as everything else.

I am curious; in light of conclusion in #7, how can you start with #1? Seems Lazy.

How 'bout it's silly to complain about your energy plan being crappy because of the opposition when you haven't proposed an energy plan that actually does anything about energy?

What has the government done for energy, ever, besides make the price artificially high, pursue idiotic or premature technologies and stonewall real solutions? Well, they have invaded oil producing nations, so we have to give them some credit.

I'm confused over your definition of "good idea". Is the golden rule a good idea? Was a federal union a good idea? Was social security a good idea? Was Medicare a good idea? Was federal aid to education a good idea? Was insurance for catastrophic illness a good idea? Were price supports for farmers a good idea? IMHO there are multiple dimensions: the validity of the idea and its ability to mobilize enough support to be enacted into law and sustained over time.

The threat of climate change is a problem the Republicans should deal with. That is, the THREAT of climate change. That goes for all these "problems" that democrats conjure up that anything you do affects everyone else and is thus justifiably within the purview of government.

And where has this particular theme come from? I don't remember the Republicans whining about the democrats not helping with their agenda. I remember the Democrats whining about unilateral actions.

Besides, isn't the idea just wrong on its face. If the Republicans put up a competing plan, then there would be more wheeling and dealing and sausage making.

I don't really get your model. If in order to implement an idea you have to appease enough people that the idea is ruined that doesn't make the idea bad. Robin Hanson's ideas are often very good but impossible to implement and any attempt to implement his ideas would likely result in a ghoulish parody of his ideas coming into being. That outcome is in no way a referendum on the merits of the ideas themselves.

And as far as allocating blame goes you blame the people who are least supportive of good ideas. Now maybe the best version of the idea isn't good. And maybe allocating blame is not productive. If I think an idea is good and the good idea cannot get implemented I blame those who do the most to prevent the idea from being implemented. It's the unions fault that slavery could not be abolished without a civil war?

As has been pointed out, the argument in #2 doesn't follow from #1.

Congressional gridlock is nothing new. It is a bit self-serving to suddenly "discover" this problem only after the party one supports is in power.

The often-sad truth is that the Democrats as a whole prefer to tailor policy to pander to their "worst" members.

So the fiscal legislation of 2001 to 2006, and social and justice legislation of 1995 to 2006, was the product of yielding to the most logical and reasoned policies of the best and the brightest of the Republican Party?

Keep in mind, the polls as interpreted by Republicans say that the US is 80% conservative or something like that, so clearly a lot of Democrats are going to share the conservative values of the highly principled Republicans. But then, I suppose that qualifies as Democratic legislators pandering to the "worst" of their constituent voters, the conservatives.

The constant need for a supermajority vote of 60 is altering our political process. This is a relatively recent development. It had traditionally been reserved for more important issues, not every vote.

Steve

Big question is whether McCain will support it even if he can't persuade anyone else, or whether he will find an acceptable excuse.

And let's not hear you complain about any laws henceforth, after all, they are _good_ laws.

As several people have also stated, your second argument is hard to believe, especially since it's coming from someone who has repeatedly mentioned the foolishness of politicians and is more or less a libertarian. Are you saying that the vast majority of bills that have been passed by slight margins (indicating disagreements) are good bills? The only way I can think to reconcile this with your other beliefs is if you think many bipartisan bills have been absolutely terrible.

Duncan Black wins again.

I would ask if "mainstream" economists have played an honest role in the political debate, or whether they have found it more convenient to be silent when conservatives make bogus arguments. Or perhaps the economists make the bogus arguments themselves because they believe, contrary to the evidence, their unproven theories are correct.

For example, if we look at the eight years of the Clinton terms and the eight years of Bush, then as I understand the theory of taxes, the Clinton years were low taxes relative to the Bush years. And if lower taxes result in higher savings rates, then taxes when Carter was president were lower than when Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush were president.

So, while the evidence that high taxes hurts economic growth is completely lacking, the mantra is that any action taken to deal with pollution is a tax which will harm the economy and cause slow growth, job losses, and so on. And this has been the claim going back to the state cleanup programs in the 50s and 60s, the Nixon forming of the EPA and establishment of the CAFE standards, the requirements to put in sewage treatment plants, and then the battles since the early 80s to get the sulphur and nitrogen compounds out of the coal and oil burning emissions to deal with acid rain and all the other problems that caused.

Now when it is proposed that a carbon tax is used, the economists argue:
- the right level of tax can't be determined to have the right effect, so it might be too low and now work, so that is worthless, or it might be too high, and cause too much harm to the economy, and either way it is going to cost jobs
- a carbon tax will fall on the poor the hardest
- a carbon tax will be wasted by government on wasteful spending
- cap and trade is better, has been show to work in dealing with sulphur emissions

So, when cap and trade is proposed, then the arguments against it are:
- its too complicated, use a carbon tax
- it is subject to political influence
- it is the same as a carbon tax
- it will cost jobs
- cap and trade doesn't work

Then the next argument is that it is better to let the future generations deal with the problems because they will be richer.

Of course, in that case, the way we have dealt with the rising deficit, the looming cost of Social Security and Medicare and the cost of the Iraq war and the economic recovery is, like climate change, something to leave to future generations because they will be richer and the debt and liabilities will be easier for them to deal with.

Of course, what I can't figure out is what economists think happens with the taxes collected. One might believe that the taxes collected disappear into a black hole and the money vanishes from the economy.

Of course, the root of a lot of the policy issues is the view that most of the people can't be trusted, so taxes should be low so that voters won't vote for people who spend the tax dollars to benefit them, like pay for roads, bridges, public transportation, education, colleges and universities, water treatment plants, sewage treatment, energy independence, running electricity and telecom to the people living in rural areas, broadband everywhere, etc.

Personally, I wouldn't be as well off if what I see as the American mainstream economic thought had set public policy when I was born. Born in 1947, I would have grown up among a lot of kids of high school dropouts working in unskilled jobs because the CCC, et al, and then the military, and the GI Bill wouldn't have made educating everyone a high priority. I wouldn't have grown up in a climate where science and engineering were promoted by government as a matter of public policy, with money flowing into all parts of the economy to promote both basic research and applied research.

Working in the computer industry, everything I was involved in originated from government funded research, was directed first to government research, or was moving of work done for government into the broad and profitable commercial market.

Basically, I can't think of much in our society that isn't the fruit of some significant government funding paid for with taxes.

And if taxes are the problem and result in the wrong things being invested in, and the free market is always better at allocating scarce resources, then clearly Afghanistan, much of Africa and the Americas should have been far more advanced than the English and Europeans with heir high taxes and government/church waste and fraud and investment in useless infrastructure like government and church buildings.

Other than in economist textbooks, I find no evidence that small government results in better economic development and faster increase in general welfare than is accomplished by big government funded by taxes on the people.

So, when it comes to dealing with long term issues like climate change, environment, energy sustainability, I can't see good argument why government shouldn't be seen as a necessary force to promote the various public goods and why taxes aren't the best way to fund these government activities.

Clearly, government, just like private enterprise, can be badly run. And in this respect, I get the impression that when Reagan said "government is the problem" he was making a promise for how he would change government.

I'll pick on Ryan. His argument is idiotic. No one can force a Democrat to hold up an otherwise good bill and extort his/her fellow Democrats (and the nation) for venal self interest. The apparently not only unspeakable, but unthinkable alternative, is that such behavior comes naturally. Of course they could try to bribe a Republican, or can't they be bought?

I agree that the problem lies with leadership -- that the Democratic leaders have not accepted (1). Or that the American public has, by and large, recognized (1). So the next, and much more interesting question is: why?

Several other commenters have beaten me to the punch on this, but your argument seems to hang in particular on item #2, and item #2 seems poorly supported by either logic or real-world experience. Plenty of bad ideas garner majority support. Plenty of great ideas get permanently held up by client politics or other well-known defects of the political system. The relatively recent requirement for a supermajority in the senate only exacerbates these effects.

A more specific question is: are the Republicans worse in this regard than other political parties at other points in time. I think the data pretty clear shows that they are -- i.e., it's easy to draw up charts showing that this Republican party is extremely obstructionist. As to why that is, I imagine it has something to do with ideology coming unmoored from empirical facts. In other words, there is such a thing as quality of governance, and Republicans are sucking particularly hard right now. But who knows.

As to Point #2, if the main problem is the filibuster and public condemnation, the Senate is specifically designed to be immune or innoculated against short-term voter preferences.
Think of it another way: 6 years ago, what was your biggest issue? Did you vote and donate money and organize against those Senators you disagreed with on that issue in November? Or was it water-under-the-bridge by then?

Though I prefer divided government and gridlock, I thought the silver lining to having one party with overwhelming control of the federal government would be that they would be accountable for whatever happens. But if a tiny minority can be blamed for whatever goes wrong, then there is no silver lining for what we have now. Another reason to distrust government as a way of solving problems.

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