Monday, October 24, 2011

Reid Reminder: Electoral Paradox

Last week, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) reminded us why we need to "throw the bums out." During a debate over the teacher/first responder bill (S. 1723), Reid observed:
It's very clear that private-sector jobs have been doing just fine; it's the public-sector jobs where we've lost huge numbers, and that's what this legislation is all about.
Yes, he really said that. Reid went on the record and stated that the pace of job creation in the private sector is "just fine."

The last time I checked, we had a 9% headline unemployment rate, and a 16-20% effective unemployment rate. The 16-20% effective unemployment rate is an unofficial number which includes people who are too discouraged to continue seeking work. For Harry Reid, 9% headline unemployment and 16-20% effective unemployment is "just fine."

Reid's comments aren't particularly shocking. He makes airhead comments all the time. But that's no excuse. Why do we have such diminished expectations for our political leaders? We should not have to tolerate a Senate majority leader who projects such an air of incompetence. His own party should have demonstrated some common sense years ago and delegated Reid to the back benches. Let's prioritize leadership over seniority until we emerge from this period of economic malaise.

Reid apologists will argue that I'm taking his comments out of context. He was contrasting recent employment data in the private sector against similar data regarding state and local government employees. He was tilting at "obstructionist" Republicans who oppose more federal spending on state and local services. Blah blah blah. It was an airhead comment, and it projects an air of incompetence, regardless of political motivation.

I'm not just picking on the invertebrate* Harry Reid. Harry Reid is symbolic of a problem that has been festering on Capitol Hill for decades. It's not a problem with the Republican party or Democrat party; both parties share the blame for bad policies and incompetent leadership over the years. It's a structural problem baked into the U.S. electoral system itself. (*Credit to tax fashionista Lee Sheppard)

The problem is that our members of Congress are, for the most part, unaccountable for their actions as legislators. I won't digress far into PolySci 101. Suffice it to say that the deck is stacked in favor of incumbent legislators. Critically, incumbents can control or influence federal spending in their districts. Federal spending sometimes translates into permanent jobs (think military bases). Local constituents can sense where their bread is buttered, even if a given legislator is failing the country as a whole. Special interests trade campaign donations and elector muscle for direct or indirect legislative perks. Legislative districts are gerrymandered to maximize political support for one party or the other. The list goes on.

Because the deck is stacked in favor of incumbents, we get an Electoral Paradox. Depending on the poll, roughly 80 to 90 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress. Nearly 80 percent of the country believes that we're on the "wrong track." But paradoxically, local constituents continue to re-elect their incumbent members of Congress, cycle after cycle after cycle. Even in 2010, when the Tea Party energized a backlash against political incumbents from both parties, incumbents prevailed in an large majority of electoral contests. The American public is enormously disgruntled on a macro level, but doesn't hold incumbent legislators responsible on a micro level.

As a result of the Electoral Paradox, our nominal democracy has become a political oligarchy. We have a cadre of career politicians; men and women who are focused primarily on their individual re-election campaigns. Their secondary focus involves jockeying to create internal and external alliances and other legislative accoutrements (committee appointments, etc.) that support their primary focus on re-election. They are effectively neglecting the long-term interests of the country to pursue short-term agendas that "refresh" every two to six years.

We're emerging from a financial crisis that prompted the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The political class has attempted to pin the sole responsibility for the financial crisis on Wall Street. (To be fair, politicians on the left are more vocal advocates of this view. They also blame "de-regulation," despite the fact that the banking industry was highly regulated. But sheer volume of regulation is not the same as prudent and effective regulation.)

In reality, the financial crisis originated when the U.S. real estate bubble popped. The real estate bubble was fueled by government policies that distorted traditional lending practices. That problem was compounded by lax regulation of mortgage origination practices and feeble regulation of banks and other financial institutions. On both counts, legislators share culpability with Wall Street financial engineers. Politicians took the credit for a bubbly economy driven by the housing bubble. They scattered like cockroaches when the bubble popped and a vicious de-leveraging cycle ensued.

Congress has a responsibility to pilot the U.S. economy around financial crises. Individually and collectively, members of Congress failed to live up to that obligation. Political incumbents should acknowledge that they contributed to the financial crisis, accept responsibility, and pass the political reins to a new class of legislators. Instead, a majority of the political oligarchs have clung to power. Chuck Rangel, Henry Waxman, Barney Frank, and their senior colleagues on the political right, should not be able to look themselves in the mirror. The fact that they continue to influence legislation -- despite their abject failure as trustees of the American economy -- should make us all shudder. With some exceptions (e.g., Chris Dodd), these men and women have chosen to ride out their political careers in disgrace.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree that the problem is structural in not quite sure how "throwing the bums out" will result in a new crop of leaders that are not also primarily focused on reelection.

    Taxpayers that are fed up with their leaders should have the freedom to allocate their taxes themselves. Nothing will send a louder message to congress.

    Congress definitely does not have a monopoly on leaders. Therefore, taxpayers should have the option to follow the tax allocation suggestions of leaders that are not in congress. For's my reply to Jeffrey Sachs's article where he suggests certain tax allocations. Nearly all of the people who commented on his article agreed with his suggestions. In a pragmatarian system they would have the opportunity to put their taxes where their mouths are.

    Of course, those very same people might sing a different tune when they were forced to decide which other of their valued public goods they would have to sacrifice in order to follow Sachs's suggestions. That's the concept of opportunity's the only way we'll ever guarantee the best possible use of limited public resources. Without that, every single tax allocation by congress can be considered a misallocation of public funds.

  2. If you get a chance you should read this blog entry recently posted on the Crooked Timber website ‘We have faith in our citizens’ – why?.