When Democracy Faces Functional Constraints

Paul Krugman gets pessimistic, noting that despite the intellectual collapse of austerity economics, there doesn’t seem to be any policy change anywhere on the horizon – and more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be a building public outrage for change. Also,

…the overwhelming result from U.S. political studies is that the level of unemployment matters hardly at all for elections; all that matters is the rate of change in the months leading up to the election. In other words, high unemployment could become accepted as the new normal, politically as well as in economic analysis.

So two conclusions – assuming no change to the status quo. First, we may face a US political environment that, when one party has the power to do it, institutes forms of stimulus just-in-time for elections. The opposing party will seek to block these kinds of policies, of course. In both cases, the real reasons pro and con will be suppressed for whatever plausible explanations will test out well in focus groups. We’ve already seen this effect apparently showing its face – but we can probably count on political advisers becoming unanimous in recommending it going forward. We might even see a strange variation of the be-a-deficit-hawk-in-the-boom-not-the-bust Keynesian recommendation. The new, pragmatic recommendation may be to institute austerity in the first half of a presidency so as to fund anti-austerity in the latter-half, regardless of the larger trends.

Second, why doesn’t the US electorate see the situation for what it is? My sense is that the macroeconomic policy positions are so complex that there are far too many people who simply do not understand enough of either position to feel confident in judging which side is better. So many voters revert to simpler, proxy judgments. Stimulus or hard money? Expanded Safety-Net or greater “Personal Responsibility” policy? These questions are just too difficult, resulting in a labyrinth of back and forth facts and seemingly he-said-she-said debates. So far too many voters substitute these questions with alternatives like:

  • “Which policy is more certain to lower my taxes in the near term?”
  • “What did that smart person I trust say is best?”
  • “What policy is the opposite of the one advocated by groups that don’t like groups I find myself in?”

These questions apply to people in both sides of the debate. The problem is that in a democracy, the public is required to be well-informed on the policy being debated if good policy decisions are to be enacted. Better public education would help, but is only a long-term solution (and is not actually supported by many Conservatives – so the long-term resolution of this problem is dependent on near-term choices).

The Founders recognized this problem and it is the reason we are a republic, not a pure democracy. But what we are seeing happen now is political stagnation that is ultimately caused by over-reliance on democracy at the expense of republican frameworks (and it is all the more confusing that it is the “Republican” party that is causing the stagnation in government policy that resembles the stagnation in clear electorate decisiveness, while most “Democrats” have a very clear idea what government ought to be doing, even though the electorate is ambiguous in its support of those propositions.)

Perhaps the problem is the our Constitution effectively implements a one-size-fits-all-problems resolution process – the balance between republicanism and democracy is static, being determined by legislative procedural rules (eg, filibuster, majority-of-majority, etc), constitutionally explicit factors (two 6-year senators per state, 2-year House terms, etc), as well as the state-side rules that result in legislative boundaries. None of these factors tends to change on any short-term time-scale. So it might be useful if, in the face of ongoing electorate ambiguity, automatic rule changes take place so as to increase the effect of republican government so as to drive for some kind of policy change that can then be used as a foil by the electorate to “make up its mind.” In situations like the present, our indecisiveness is extended by our inactivity – like a theorist that is not allowed to test out any theories.

In a world where we could actually enact Constitutional amendments, we might improve our governance by favoring action over inaction during chronically indecisive periods. For instance, rule changes might be to limit the number of filibusters allowed per party per term, with a rollover balance and/or the ability to borrow a filibuster from the next session, but at a cost – a loss of two future filibusters. Also, reduce the votes required to end a filibuster to a simple-majority anytime either party uses too many filibusters in the current term (either hitting a preset limit, or when they have to borrow from future terms). Another might be to allow the Senate to over-ride the House any time the House fails to bring a vote on Senate-passed legislation or fails to pass its own version (like a bicameral veto-override) two sessions in a row. Right now, we have a “Senate and House” rule for determining policy, but maybe we ought to setup conditions where stagnation in the House cannot halt legislative activity. We might also establish rules that empower the Executive branch to serve as “tie-breaker” on bicameral legislature stagnation, not just tie-votes in the Senate.

Why favor the Senate and Executive over the House? Because the Senate and Presidency are more purely representative positions than House members. House members have shorter terms and so are more tied to whims of democracy rather than the deliberative consideration of republican representatives. But, more importantly, House membership is currently strongly affected by State Legislature composition due to gerrymandered House districts. That is why the Democratic House members can gain 500,000 more votes than Republican House members, yet the Republicans still control the House with 33 more members than Democrats. This isn’t a “republican” or “democratic” effect. It’s simply a skewed outcome of an over-reliance on Federalism (State leaders should not be allowed to manipulate districts – districts should be randomly assembled by population alone, or representatives should be determined by state-wide votes, tossing out districts entirely).

The Senate’s two-members-per-state rule makes the Senate free from this kind of party manipulation, as does the presidency’s winner-take-all rule. Despite the distorting effect of the Electoral College and the various ways States assign those votes, in most cases the winner of the presidency still reflected a majority of votes cast. Of course, we ought to fix the Electoral College system since it is no longer a useful institution, but even if that had already happened, the Senate is the more “republican” (representative) institution when compared to the House, and so should be slightly favored when legislative stagnation occurs.

The fundamental point is that we are severely handicapped to bring resolution to policy debates if we are stuck in inaction. We need a little scientific method in our governance, even if it means making mistakes – we (the voters) learn from policy mistakes just as well as from policy successes, but no one can learn from from inaction. No Child Left Behind has generally been seen to be a flawed policy, but we might still be debating it superficially if we hadn’t passed it, and we only fail to fix it now because of legislative gridlock.


About stormculture

In pursuit of reality.
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