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Archive for April 13th, 2011

Is our Legislature really that bad?

I often get tired of hearing various people whine about the government, politics, and our congress. While one side of me sympathizes with dissent of professional politicians such as many members of the Utah legislature, at the same time they are simply doing their job in an economically rational way. Not that I have any answers, but their is an overproduction of negative criticism and underproduction o no, or misleadingly easy solutions to our countries problems, to add an economic flair.

A sentence on pg. 254 illustrates the incentives well, “While those seeking elective office certainly hold other, more laudable goals, some linked to desired legislation in furtherance of the public good, public choice theorists observe that politicians cannot achieve any goals unless they are successfully elected and reelected.” As much as our nation as a whole would benefit from certain policies which further important, national goals, politicians who truly advocate such (I hate to use this word in such a conservative class) change generally cannot even get elected. We would much rather (voters in any area) elect the eloquent, credit claiming, pork barreling, harded nosed ideaological representatives of Utah, Arizona, or any other state.

The box on pg. 251 eerily reminded me of Professor Lyons explanation of why the legislature chooses the courses of action it does. Congress members tend to pass an overabundance of “credit claiming” goals which have no true effect and are easy to get through and under-produce legislation that actually fixes real, detrimental national problems that both parties recognize (national debt, not social issues). It made sense to put the concepts I learned in my legislative politics course under an economic lens here courtesy of Stearns and Zwicki.

We Demand Legislation.

I get so tired of people complaining about ‘the government’ all the time.  I recently came across a document written by the Chinese government (or that was the claim, at least) about America and our poor civil rights record.  People (Americans) were commenting that they were embarrassed to be Americans, that our government institutions led to inequality and injustice, or that we the people don’t have a voice, et cetera.

I’m so bored with these attitudes.  Especially the latter–that we don’t have a voice.  We do.  In fact, usually it is that very voice that leads to government injustices and inequality.  People just like to complain, I guess.  People don’t realize that “politicians cannot achieve any goals unless they are successfully elected and reelected” (Stearns and Zwyicki, 254).  So we have a voice.  We are the demand side of the Wilson-Hayes model, which ‘analogizes’ the legislature to a marketplace.

A fundamental problem is that legislation that benefits the public more broadly is hindered by the ‘free rider’ problem, and “conversely, the demand function for governmental action is positively correlated with the ability of groups to organize…” (252).

Professor Lyons recommends that the length of terms for Representatives and Senators be extended by two years.  Stearns and Zwyicki also allude to the idea that the length of terms may “affect the ability of those in each office to pursue more public interested legislation” (252).  So the problem is not that we don’t have a voice; it’s that some people’s voices are too loud and that the government has to listen.

            I just think the way that the legislature is setup is a perfect opportunity for corruption.  Seems like the only thing legislators are worried about is being reelected and will do so by any  means.  Where it should be the legislators working for the peoples best interest and not their own.  I read an article that in San Francisco just passed a law banning toys in happy meals.  Really, do they really have nothing better to do with their time.   But if they get a bowl of fruit or something they will get an toy.  The meal as to be under a certain amount of cal.  I think this is stupid, it should be the restaurant decision or corporation.  I don’t think it is the city boards job or place to do so. 

All this talk of legislation makes me think of a specific question: Are politicians and elected officials rational and what are the reasons for their behavior?  The obvious answer to this question is that yes they are rational.  If we apply economic reasoning to politicians (yes they are people too) then they will act in their own rational self interest.  All people do that.  So I guess if I am to revise my question I would say what are the reasons that elected officials do the things that they do?  Terrible wording of my statement but you get the general idea.  Do politicians act to just help their country or do they do so to only get re-elected?  I would argue that everything a politician does is to simply get re-elected.

In our day and age being a member of congress is basically a career choice.  Its true that they have their jobs from before, but that is not their main focus.  Because of this they would like to remain in office for as long as is humanly possible.  Now how are they going to do that?  By being re-elected, over and over and over again.  They do this by appealing to different groups of their constituencies.  Despite what you may think about your congressman, both on the state and federal level, they do they things they do for some group of the population.  It is a calculated decision of who they want to please this time and piss of this time.  A politician doesn’t want to alienate a group of their voters but they may have to in order to secure their position for next election.  I’m not saying that I think they are doing the right things.  I am only pointing out that they are acting on their own rational-self interest.  Can you really blame then then?

The Art of Rent Seeking

This chapter really got me thinking about a lot of things that had been discussed in a previous class on public policy.  The legislative process is complex and almost impossible to fully analyze.  The incentives to politicians are difficult to fully understand and observe.  According to the Wilson-Hayes model politicians can be influenced by incentives for political advancement but as a general rule most politicians have the public interest at heart.  This is an argument that I would like to believe, but in practice I think that politicians aren’t as good as we would like them to be.  When I was reading this part, a short paragraph from a religious text kept coming to my mind.  It says the following, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:39).”  I know that this isn’t a theological course but I feel that it applies pretty well to the increased incentives of politicians to deviate from efficiency and their previous views of social welfare.

I believe that the real art is that of rent-seeking.  This chapter gave me some further insights into the practices used.  The authors mention “NOW” and “NAACP” as examples of huge organizations that have established an influence, but mentioned the difficulty faced by free-riding individuals.  In my mind, I compared this to warfare.  If I was just one out of 100 fighting in a battle I would have very little incentive to risk my life or show forth extreme bravery.  However, if I was just one of 5, all incentive to free ride would instantly leave.

I believe that the optimal size of the special interest group could be compared to a Laffer Curve.  If the group is too small it won’t have the correct funding or momentum to have an influence.  However, if the group is too large it would be dynamically inefficient and would be able to achieve the same influence or even a better one with less people in the group.  I wonder if an analytical study of the optimal size of a special interest group has ever been done, or if it is governed solely by the influences of free riding.  Even though I am against special interest lobbyists I think that it might be a fun challenge to be one.

Best reading of the semester!

Well, I sat down planning to read just enough of Stearns and Zywicki to come up with a blog post, but I ended up reading more than fifty pages. (No, I have not yet read the entire chapter, but I plan to.) I absolutely LOVED this chapter. It has caused me to think about legislation in ways I never have before, and all the questions raised within the text are fascinating. I love readings that make me think. And this one sure has! I’m not sure how to organize my thoughts in any coherent manner, let alone, 500 words or less. I’ll just mention a few things.

I really like the Wilson-Hayes Model. Boxes help me understand things, and the four categories of legislation they identify provide an interesting way of looking at legislation. I feel like most of the push and pull in legislation happens between the narrowly conferred benefits/widely distributed costs and widely distributed benefits/narrowly conferred costs combinations. As is mentioned within the text, the widely distributed benefits/widely distributed costs combination is the most public spirited, but the least demanded. I had never before thought of applying the ideas of supply and demand to legislation. I don’t know why, it seems so obvious now. So if we were to envision a spectrum with ‘majority at the expense of the minority’ at one end, and ‘minority at the expense of the majority,’ the ideal balance would be in the middle, which would place us in the widely distributed benefits/widely distributed costs area. The question becomes, how we can create a greater demand for widely distributed costs and benefits legislation? Part of the problem lies in the fact that “legislators are more likely to convince constituents of legislative success with respect to localized items within bills than with respect to nationwide level accomplishments.” (255) Special interests and lobbies weigh down every bill passed. Madison feared ‘majority at the expense of the minority,’ but in many ways, I feel like we have flipped to the opposite extreme of ‘minority at the expense of the majority.’ The way in which ‘checks and balances’ serve special interests is something I had also never previously considered. To increase demand for public-spirited legislation at the national level, perhaps some checks actually need to be removed. Also, it seems like there should be some way to separate state legislators and national legislators. Our national representatives should be concerned with national issues. But it doesn’t happen that way at all, because the national government can be used to further (fund, etc) state goals. I feel like maybe there would have to be some sort of disconnect there, but I have no idea how that could be accomplished, or if that would even ultimately be desirable.

Well, I have more thoughts, but I’ll refrain.

I was sitting at home trying to figure out why the government is so very much inefficient.  You can take most anything the our government is in evolved in and you will find waste.  We know that people respond to incentives so what incentives do they percive to be so inefficient. Ok, so I think our politicians must have an alteriour motive other than what is best for the public.

The power of special interests.

I think that the power of special interest have over our legislators imposes cost onto the economy that out weight the benefits. First off, they are representing a small number of people, and when a legislator votes he may not be voting for the lowest cost opportunity for his constituents, imposing a higher cost on them leaving the economy worse off than before. All because the special interest groups wined and dined him. I will give them credit though if they get something passed that will save them money, they certainly found the lowest cost way of doing that. One of the biggest cost that I think they impose on society is when an industry higher a special interest group to lobby for trade protections. To me these are the worst thing that they can do for the economy as a whole, they are lowering overall consumption. You can look at a tariff or quota, as a tax on the economy, for every one there is an equivalent tax rate that they government can impose to achieve the same result. And with a tax the economy will suffer because there is less liquidity in the system. I think that if the legislator really worked for the people then they would be certainly influenced in a way that would produce low cost outcomes for the people, but I think that special interest groups get in the way of that.

First of all I would just like to point out that chapter five of Public Choice Concepts and Applications in Law was just about the longest chapter ever! Holy cats! By the time I finished reading it I could barely remember the beginning of the chapter. The bottom line is, what does legislation have to do with economics? Of course there is the obvious correlation between economic policies and things of that nature, however I did not catch much of that being discussed in the book. Instead it was all about approaches to legislative interpretation. I did not understand how this concept applies to economics. It makes sense that there would be different methods of interpreting legislation, anybody who has been in poli sci 101 knows that. But what was so confusing to me is how these approaches somehow tie into economic theory. Maybe it is my lack of knowledge about economics , but I thought this chapter was confusing and perhaps completely over my head.

The Art of War. . . . . . . Wait. . . . . . . . I mean. . . The Art of Legislation

I think this is a perfect chapter to read right now with some presidential candidates starting to throw their hats into the ring to run for office. This is especially an interesting topic with all the speculations from the media on the contending sides about what decisions are now electorally driven. The most recent one I seen just within the past couple days is President Obama coming out with his plan to cut the deficit by four trillion dollars over the next 12 years. A deal that if spoke a year or two ago would have had republicans jumping on board with in a matter of seconds; but now with the heat of nominations starting to rise it is just criticized as an electoral strategy. Stearns and Zywicki talk about “The Supply Side.” I think the idea of politicians using legislation to help boost their approval ratings is nothing new to the American people; this can be traced back all the way to Marbury v. Madison and then some. But it only makes me wonder on how bad the use of legislation to get votes really is. I mean that if passing a certain piece of legislation is enough to boast your supporting numbers enough, while satisfying the majority, well isn’t that the whole point of politics? Take our current situation for example, would President Obama have agreed to extend the Bush Tax Cuts if he wasn’t planning on running again for president? Was it in his agenda to agree to those terms in hope of winning some right wing support? I’m not trying to say that the decisions for these actions were purely driven by the hope for re-election, but the thought had to be there. That is exactly my point; is it necessarily a bad thing for politicians to act in this way by swaying to a position they normally wouldn’t have in order to stay in office? To me if making a decision is helping you get votes and pleasing the public then you are doing your job regardless of what side of the fence you are on. And all the criticism is publicized by the opposition to down play an opponent; in the end leaving the American voter even more confused on who is more scandalous. The game of politics is a vicious war that leaves voters in the crossfire, but could we afford to have it any other way at this point? We are too far involved in our current system to go back and change it now. That is just slightly less ridiculous than the argument to rewrite the constitution for our changing times; hell we could barely agree a budget for the 2011 fiscal year.