How Progressive Are You

CAP has an online “Progressive Quiz.” Neat, but I think pretty problematic, basically for the reasons Ezra Klein outlines here. For example, one statement which you were asked to gauge your level of agreement on was:

“Government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient.”

It seems odd to be asked to form an opinion on a matter that can be viewed objectively in specific terms. Of course, it’s up to the individual what constitutes “wasteful and inefficient,” but more importantly, this seems to basically miss the entire point. That is, if government spending is meeting a specific need that the private sector won’t, the efficiency of the spending is essentially secondary in nature. For example, Metro has a number of inefficiencies which require the use of stimulus money to avoid service cuts. But casting Metro’s deficit as a fundamental problem with government is the wrong way of looking at it. Rather, it’s basically in Metro’s “charter” to lose money — that’s why it’s a service the government provides. If a private entity could profitably run a transit system that met the needs of a city’s residents, then it’s like that these sorts of things would exist. Of course, there are issues beyond simple profitability — land use, for example — that tilt the variables in favor of government handling the job, but the basic issue is that if Metro wasn’t there to lose money, the entire transit structure would be vastly more inefficient (not to mention environmentally disastrous).

Of course, inefficiencies due to the different incentive structure that government agencies face exist, but focus

It’s Not the System

Ezra Klein brings up something I’ve been thinking about the past couple days as I’ve been contemplating the problems and virtues of a “representative” government.

Incidentally, I’m not exactly sure what you call a political system in which politicians routinely ignore public opinion. Not one Republican House member voted for the stimulus bill. Not one of them thought their constituent’s preference should outweigh their party’s interests. The implications of that seem pretty profound, but we’re so used to it by now that the most common response I’ve heard has been, “told you so.”

That the House Republicans knew the bill would pass regardless of their vote complicates this assertion quite a bit; the “constituent’s preference,” will essentially be promulgated whether or not their poopy-pants Congressman voted for it or not by virtue of the large Democratic majority. In light of that, I’m not sure how to gauge the profundity of all of this, but frankly I think it’s much more reflective of your average American than the American political system. Obvioulsy there’s something to be said for a groups’ incentive for self-preservation having a corruptive influence on government, but it’s a more striking indictment of the American public that politicians aren’t punished for ignoring their views. Of course, this isn’t born out of some innate tolerance or preference for institutional corruption, it’s a direct result of the fact that a good number of Americans might not even know their Congressman’s name, let alone their vote on a particular bill. Politicians wouldn’t so routinely lie or flaunt public opinion if they were actually held accountable for it.

Meta

Ezra comments on Paul Krugman’s recent pwnage of George Will on ABC’s This Week.

The pity is that there’s no judge, or score sheet, so folks who wanted to agree with Will probably still do, while those find Krugman’s commentary more convenient to their biases will happily nod along. Lots of folks are applauding this video, and I do too, but insofar as there are no consequences for being wrong on TV, I think the actual takeaway is that sounding like you know things and actually knowing things are, in this forum, pretty much equal.

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I think it’s a bit more distressing when removed from the realm of discourse. That is, as distressing as it may be that there are no consequences for being wrong on TV, there are about as many consequences, at least in the short term, for being wrong in the real world. For example, there was never any conclusive evidence to support the notion that Saddam Hussein had WMD. But it didn’t matter. The Bush Administration dexterously massaged the media to shape the debate so that objective fact was obscured and war was predicated on false pretenses. In the long term, the serial dishonesty and poor policy choices of the Bush Administration have hamstrung Republican candidates up and down the ticket, but it’s pretty indisputable that 4,000 Americans have sacrificed their lives in the name of pretense.

Perhaps George Bush will be convicted of war crimes in an international court, but I tend to doubt it. Might has an unfortunate way of making right.

Libertarianism

Some libertarians describe themselves as such because they are in fact traditional conservatives who find the current state of the movement rightly contemptible. Other libertarians, I believe, are as Ezra Klein describes below.

Libertarianism, for all its pretensions, isn’t an economics department dressed up as an ideology. Rather, it’s a belief — anti-statism — that gets dressed up as an economics department. Fundamentally, it’s about battling government, not supporting markets. The pro-market posturing is useful for libertarians because it makes them seem more intellectually credible, and that in turn makes it useful for certain corporate interests because it lets them fund advocates who seem somewhat intellectually credible, but it’s not a very useful way to predict the policy commitments or understand the policy priorities of the political entity that is libertarianism.

Matt Yglesias cogently assembles much of the supporting argument, somewhat ironically, at Cato Unbound, but the basic thrust eminates from inconsistencies like libertarian antipitathy for state sponsored transit infrastructure but not state sponsored highway expenditure. The point isn’t that libertarians are steadfast defenders of the free market, it’s that they’re steadfastly opposed to the state, and as such, their interests tend to align with those of corporations. Accordingly, it’s these policy ideas that receive the most funding and attention, obscures the ideological foundation of libertarianism.

Anyway, at the risk of simply echoing those who have written before me, the belief that optimal societal outcomes derive from less government uber alles is just plain silly.

It’s Still Interests

The other day I wrote about how it’s unclear to me that our political system would be any more facile if there more than two major political parties simply because constituent interest usually trumps rigid ideology. I got into a long an incoherent debate with a friend about the effects of a multipolar American political system,  during which I remarked I wish I knew more about countries that actually do have such a system. Anyway, as if on cue, here’s Matt Yglesias, writing from Switzerland.

Every now and again someone observes that it’s a shame that we have to cram our political debate into just two parties. Well, Switzerland has four major political parties (at least that’s how they describe it, arguably five is more accurate). There are your basic Social Democrats and then your Christian Democrats (think the Party of Sam’s Club) and your Free Democrats (think Cato Institute) and your Swiss People’s Party (think Pat Buchanan) and also a Green Party that doesn’t count as major even though it gets about 10 percent of the vote.

Nevertheless, even with all that to choose from, most of the Swiss members of the group I’m with who I’ve asked about it tell me that they don’t quite feel that any party really represents their views.

Here’s more.

It’s the Interests

It’s a pretty common gripe for those dissatisfied with the American politics to lament the “two party system”, the assumption being that if there were more political parties, there’d be less partisan gridlock. I’m not inclined to believe this.

For example, look at the upcoming battle between Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) for committee chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Dingell, from Michigan, has been a friend of the auto industry, and is thus disinclined to push sweeping climate change legislation inimical to the interests of his constituencies. Waxman, on the other hand, is not bound by the constraints of auto manufactures and would be inclined to push sweeping climate change legislation. In any event, this dispute would still exist regardless of whether or not Waxman and Dingell were both Democrats because Dingell would still be representing the interests of auto manufacturers and Democrats would still need Dingell’s vote from time to time.

On the Senate side, consider Joe Lieberman. Joe Lieberman votes with Democrats most of the time, he just happens to be a foreign policy lunatic. In a multipolar political system where Lieberman could run the Domestic Liberal/Foreign Policy Lunatic Party (DLFPLP), Lieberman’s vote would still be valuable to Democrats, and Democrats would still, at least to a certain extent, need to cater to Lieberman’s interests.

There are endless examples of this, and indeed, in multi-party political systems, legislatures can often be held captive by the extreme parties. Simply put, it doesn’t really matter how narrowly you choose to dice political interests. So long as interests are represented and majority coalitions need to be formed, there will always be a need for compromise.

Non-Regulatory Regulations

McCain’s latest add seeks to drum up the specter of “massive government.” 

Of particular complaint is the notion that during an economic crisis, a “big government casts a big shadow.” This of course, begs the question of what exactly John McCain means as he ambles around the country decrying the failure of government regulators to adequately impede the greed of Wall Street investors.