Monday, April 25, 2011

Our checks are all out of balance

File this Harold Pollack post under "things I never thought I'd see in The American Prospect":

[W]e face a massive collective action problem. Every Democratic and Republican policy expert knows that we must reduce congressional micromanagement of Medicare policy. Unfortunately, every Democratic and Republican legislator knows that mechanisms such as IPAB that might do so would thereby constrain their own individual prerogatives.

Politicians respond to the incentives created by our political marketplace. The result does not produce a well-functioning democracy. Despite many reasons for caution—the words George W Bush foremost among them—I'm becoming more of a believer in an imperial presidency in domestic policy. Congress seems too screwed up and fragmented to address our most pressing problems.

Now, I feel obliged to note that, as Pollack himself points out elsewhere, there is no inherent evil in parochialism. One of the benefits of a democratic society -- maybe the chief benefit -- is that it gives small groups the tools to fight for their own interests, rather than relying on some benevolent overseer to provide for them.

But Pollack is also right that our current system is ill-suited to address a certain sort of slow-moving national problem. Medicare cost growth and other deficit issues are one clear example. Global warming is another. On a smaller scale, there is the continuing existence of Guantanamo Bay.

What do all these things have in common? You can call it a collective action problem, or a prisoner's dilemma, but the gist is the same: a congressperson whose party fights cost growth, or global warming, or closes Guantanamo, doesn't stand to benefit nearly as much as a congressperson who personally acts to protect local industries, or takes a firm stand on terrorism. So the nominal consensus on these issues shatters almost instantly (I mean, remember when John McCain had a climate plan and was going to close Guantanamo?) as individual congresspeople, one by one, jump ship to save their own hides.

Maybe the solution is, as Pollack says, an imperial presidency. Maybe. But A) functional executive control over the most pressing national issues is unattainable without essentially scuttling the Constitution, and B) elected autocrats are still autocrats, and autocrats are, well, scary.

I think there's a better solution. Consider the United Kingdom: the Tories are forging ahead with their austerity plan, in the face of an increasingly dire economic outlook, widespread economic discontent, and an electorate that cast barely more than a third of their votes for the party. Does anyone believe that such a thing would be possible in the United States? I'd say not -- someone always gets cold feet. So why there and not here?

The difference is the UK's truly majoritarian system. Tory MPs only have influence because they're in the majority. If they lose their majority, they also lose their voice in government, and even the most parochially-minded MPs lose the ability to protect local interests.

That means that individual MPs have every incentive to pursue a course of action that will preserve not only their local seats, but their national majority. And since every Tory is united by a belief that spending cuts will be better for the UK in the end, they have every incentive to stick to their guns on spending cuts.

In short, each MP is guided by two equally important political objectives: ensuring that he or she doesn't lose the next election, and ensuring that his or her party doesn't lose the next election.

Here in the US, however, a congressperson whose party suffers some political defeat is rarely rendered powerless. If last year's elections didn't go well, maybe the presidential election two years ago turned out better. And if that didn't go well, maybe the senatorial elections four years ago turned out better. And if that didn't go well, maybe your party still has over forty votes in the Senate. And if they don't, maybe you have four or five Supreme Court justices in your corner, appointed five, or ten, or twenty years ago. Each of these things gives congresspeople leverage in government, even if his party lost the most recent election.

The other side of the coin is that even if one party wins an election, it won't be able to pursue its agenda, frustrated by the same smorgasbord of counter-majoritarian checks and balances.

In other words, at any given time, there's a limited connection between a party's near-term political fortunes and the influence of its constituent members. The incentive, then, is for congresspeople to look out for Number One: first to protect their seat, and only then to pursue their party's national agenda.

How do they go about this? By prioritizing local interests over the welfare of the nation as a whole.

If you're still confused, well, I made a graph!

As I said, there's a role for parochialism in government. But Congress is the only body with near-complete power over the United States writ large, while local policy is dictated by layers of federal, state, and municipal agencies. With that in mind, wouldn't it make more sense to have Congress focus primarily on the United States writ large? If not Congress, who is steering the ship of state?

The way to make the national government care about national policy is to reduce the American system's insanely counter-majoritarian elements. You can certainly accomplish this by ceding ever more power to the executive, and I agree that some functions of government are in fact better managed by the executive. But there's another avenue, too: reducing the number of checks and veto points in Congress. Create a stronger relationship between electoral outcomes and policy outcomes. That way, if a legislator wants to preserve his role in the process, he's forced to find a policy that works for everybody, including his constituents, not a policy that works just for his constituents, even if it helps nobody else.

Also worth noting is that this solution -- let's call it the parliamentarian solution -- is actually superior to installing some sort of Imperial President. That's because imperial presidencies embody all the failings of paternalistic majoritarianism. While a legislature in a parliament is equally responsive to local and national problems, a president is responsive only to national problems. Even with all my technocratic tendencies, I still balk a bit at any system that assumes an enlightened despot knows best, even if you call him a president and elect him every four years.

Practically speaking, the United States' most significant institutional malfunctions are baked into the cake. I don't think, for instance, that we'll be abolishing the Senate anytime soon (though not for lack of wishing on my part). But there are certain things that we can do. For instance -- and you knew this was coming from the very start -- please please please let's just get rid of the #@&% filibuster already. That would be excellent first step.


  1. It is a shame that healthcare spending decision makers benefits from cuts collectively but bear the burden of cuts individually. If only there were some mechanism of paying for goods and services that would allow the benefits and burdens of choices in product quality to be fully internalized by the individual decision-makers.

  2. You realize that costs in the individual and private health care markets are growing even more rapidly than in Medicare, right?
    Individuals buying health care for themselves and their families are even more susceptible to the collective action problem dynamics than Congress.

    If you don't control cost growth, you'd just be giving everyone a Hobson's choice and calling it a market. Saying "Here, YOU make product purchasing decisions" is somewhat less attractive when it's followed by "Oh, and by the way, all the products are 100% of your monthly income."