Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Ivory Cubicle | The Short-Sightedness of Representative Government

It’s a well-recognized fact, at least, among economists, that US government spending is completely out of control and that its current rates are unsustainable. Think tanks release study after study cautioning about overspending and demonstrating the consequences of such policies on the American economy.

But these warnings seem to always fall upon deaf ears. Every couple of years, a new crisis emerges requiring Congress to raise the debt ceiling, and we continue careening towards a fiscal cliff, handing out money left and right on our way down. Why?

Political Showmanship

Political showmanship has been a part of the American political experience for as long as we can remember. As countless politicians have demonstrated, kissing the right babies, using the right buzz-words, and sending mailers to the right demographics can effectively draw out the voters needed to catapult you into a position of power. Any successful politician knows who to credit for his position – his campaign manager.

The reason is simple. If the voters, as we pointed out last week, are rationally ignorant of what their elected officials are doing, then it is incumbent on the politician to demonstrate to the voters why they should vote for him. And campaign managers are particularly shrewd at knowing how to market a candidate to voters.

The trouble is that the politician is not always focused on doing what’s best for his constituents. He may instead be interested in doing what appears best for his constituents, thus securing needed votes for re-election.

So suppose that you’re a re-election minded politician. You’re trying to persuade the voters that you’re doing a good job out in Washington, looking out for your best interests. A couple of proposals come before you for consideration. One proposal, which would slash the budget considerably, involves a number of painful cuts to programs that provide benefits to many in your district. You know that the long-term effect might be economic prosperity, but in the short-term, some of your constituents are going to take a hit. The other involves pork-barrel spending, with a significant kickback for your particular district. Which proposal is the best marketing decision? Which one is going to go over better in the eyes of the voters this election cycle?

Many politicians select the latter. Why? Because playing the long-game in Congress might just result in a loss the following November, especially if a shrewd opponent can take your vote, layer it over haunting music and bad pictures of you, with a deep voice saying things such as “Politician A voted to slash funding for X in our district” in their latest attack ad, giving the rationally ignorant voter a nice tidbit of water-cooler information to talk about with the coworkers.

It’s the nature of politics to be short-sighted. If one thing has proved itself throughout the history of the world, and the rise and fall of empires, it’s that human beings have an enduring love of bread and circuses. This leaves the visionary politician, the one with a long-term plan, a need for an even more spectacularly effective campaign plan – not only must he himself avoid the temptations to fall into short-sighted, re-election minded policies, but he must weather the spirit of bread and circuses to get there.

Is it doable? I think so. The odds have been defeated before. But it requires rolling up one’s sleeves and digging in.

Posted by Nick Barden
Image from XKCD.

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