A simple theory of political jobs, with respect to the health care debate

Political jobs would be torture for most people.  You have no freedom.  You are underpaid and over-bugged.  You lose a lot of your privacy.  You have to stop writing emails or saying what you think.  You don't get to read many good books or go for many quiet walks.  It's hard to be a non-conformist.  And so on.

Yet it's really hard to get top political jobs.  So who gets them?  People who truly, deeply love the power.

Plus "doing what the voters want" very often feels like, or can be described as, "doing the right thing."

So what happens when those people perceive their power as threatened?  You see it.

One implication is that paying politicians more, and giving them more privacy, would lead to less craven behavior.  (Although I personally don't like the current bill, the D. refusal to pass it is sheer cowardice.)  There would then be less selection for the "power addiction" and perhaps more principled behavior.


Or maybe the cowardice is in the way it was crafted, with giveaways to recalcitrant Senators and unions.

I think your implication is unsupported. Congress is 44% millionaires.

Not to mention that by virtue of the "campaign" culture of the American political establishment, the very highest political jobs--elected offices--select not for those who would perform them most competently, but for those who are most adept at hobnobbing, speaking passionately, and making others look bad.

reminds me of a Dune quote: "All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible."

As you say, the problem is that the democratic systems in most of the developed world disincentivises competent managers (who needs the hassle? or the crappy pay), and promotes those who can win elections and those who seek power.

An interesting question: is the incidence of narcissism and/or sociopathy higher or lower in professional politicians than in the general population?

good point. while i'm sure we could pay them more, i can't see how we begin to provide more privacy...

While I agree with the point on privacy, I have a hard time seeing how paying them more would help. Giving politicians more money seems like it would only reinforce their craven behavior because they would have more to lose. If the problem is that they crave power, wouldn't more money mean more power?

I noticed in the recent tussle about EU vs. US, that DC had by far the highest per capita income among US states. This seems like a data point against the assumption here.

There is something strangely surreal about the fact that we can't design a democratic system that elects the people that we want...

Something need to be done to create incentives for people who know things to run for office. Perhaps this is material for a future post: What would it take to make Tyler of Alex to run for office?

DC has the highest per capita income because of a problem with the data.

The data counts all the income that commuters from Virginia and Maryland earn in DC, but does not count them in the population.

This does not happen in other cities because even though the commuters live in the suburbs, those suburbs are still in the same state.

The DC per capita data is very skewed and misleading.

You get something of the same thing in Luxembourg that has the highest European per capita income.

re: Congress being made up of millionaires. This point is somewhat deceptive.

Typically if a senator wants to remain competitive in the next election, he or she has to raise on average $50,000 a day. Let that sink in and ask yourself why we don't have more honest, intelligent, and principled people involved in the highest echelons of politics. Or you can watch the election campaign sequence in the Wire if you prefer.

maybe we should pay the loser the same amount as the winner. we could do this from corporate campaign contributions.

I've heard the theory that the fact that getting into office is so annoying and unpleasant that only people who really desperately want power do it, and people who want power that badly tend to be perusing power purely for its own sake. I have things I want to tell people to do. You have things you want to tell people to do. The people in office *want to be the one telling people what to do* but don't care so much what specifically that is. They don't want to steer the ship of state toward some destination, they just want to jerk the wheel back and forth to show everyone they can do it. "Now that you're in charge, what do you want us to do, sir?" "Um.... Never thought about that. Just knew I wanted to be in charge...."

You have no freedom. You are underpaid and over-bugged. You lose a lot of your privacy. You have to stop writing emails or saying what you think. You don't get to read many good books or go for many quiet walks. It's hard to be a non-conformist. And so on.

this is just a description of working for a corporation. except the part about not writing emails.

"Singapore pays its executives lots and gets fairly competent government. So, for that matter, does Hong Kong.

Oddly, Ireland also pays very highly per capita."

British Columbia.

Singapore pays its executives lots and gets fairly competent government. So, for that matter, does Hong Kong.
But those are democracies in roughly the same sense as the German Democratic Republic was one, or Iran is. In such a situation, you can say their leaders are very moderate in their looting, not that they are well-paid.

Our politicians are mediocre, power-hungry, corrupt, ignorant, etc etc etc. But it's a democracy -- who sends them to Washington? We do. In a country where fewer people believe in evolution than in the virgin birth what do we expect self-government will look like? Louis Menand wrote a piece in the New Yorker a few years about about what voters know. He pointed out that in 1992 86% of voters knew that George Bush Sr. didn't like broccoli, but only 16% knew that both Bush and Clinton were in favor of the death penalty. As he said, it's not that people know nothing, it's just that politics isn't what they know. And surely for self-government to work well the population has to know something about public policy and to care about it. It seems to me we're getting exactly the government we want, and they're doing exactly what we're telling them to do. A senator once told me that a typical constituent letter consisted of ten requests: nine for additional services and the last, always: lower my taxes. What this amounts to is a request to be lied to.

I like the lottery idea, but it won't happen, so public financing of elections is the only way to achieve marginal improvement in the quality of representation. To run for congress or the senate you have -- unless you're VERY rich, Corzine rich, Bloomberg rich -- to spend two years begging everyone you know and thousands of total strangers for money. it's humiliating and profoundly unpleasant, and the best people won't do it. Remove that and the talent pool would improve, and once elected they wouldn't all be on the take, as, now, every politician is.

And then maybe they'll fix the schools, and a generation or two from now we'll have smarter voters and better government.

Benjamin Franklin:

"Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall at the same time be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it. The vast number of such places it is that renders the British government so tempestuous. The struggles for them are the true source of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the nation, distracting its councils, hurrying it sometimes into fruitless and mischievous wars, and often compelling a submission to dishonorable terms of peace." Smyth, "Writings of Benjamin Franklin", 9:591

Perhaps it is not that we pay our elected officials too little but too much. Perhaps if we paid them less they might occassionally leave and open the path to new blood and new ideas.

i don't think it's just power hunger. politics is the route to rockstardom/celebrity for people who generally aren't otherwise cut out to be rockstars (lawyers, etc.). there's significant overlap with those who might be actors, or weather people/local news anchors, and the motives seem the same for all of these jobs (as olivier put it, "look at me"). conveniently, these are the people who don't so much mind the scrutiny of press, etc. (that's not a bug, it's a feature).

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