Jul 25 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – The First Problem With the Way Things Are: A bad way of selecting our politicians

Category: UncategorizedJames @ 12:26 pm

The summer after my first year at Harvard Law School, I worked at the Office of Legal Counsel for Governor Mitt Romney. At a small private meeting with the interns, an elected official (not Romney) said something that I’ve never forgotten. This politican pointed out that there are two different skill sets to being a politician: campaigning and governing. These two skill sets are different and we choose our politicians based almost exclusively on their skill at campaigning, not at governing. When we vote for non-incumbents, all we can go by is their skill at campaigning. For incumbents, we can look at their prior record when deciding. But few voters do. And even fewer have the intelligence, skill, and wisdom to ably evaluate a politician’s record (more on that later).

Someone who is good at campaigning isn’t necessarily good at governing. A lot of what it takes to get elected is looking good on TV (indeed, many studies indicate that a candidate’s looks influence voter choices, especially for less-informed voters and for voters who watch a lot of TV*), being a good public speaker, and being able to convince donors to give a lot of money to your campaign. Some of these skills can come in handy for candidates once they’re in power, but they are not the central skills to governing well. Having these skills doesn’t really say much about how wise and far thinking you are or about your level of integrity. They don’t show how well you know science, law, economics, foreign affairs, demography, and human behavior to understand what is happening in a society and thus make good, informed judgments to set a future course. For example, physicist Greg Cochran has pointed out that anyone who understood the basic science and engineering required to produce nuclear weapons would have known that the claims in the early 2000s about nuclear programs in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq—which were used to justify the Iraq War—were not in any way credible, given the state of Iraq’s human and physical capital.

When you think about it, it is bizarrely incongruous that we brag about how great democracy is, yet the thing we actually expect politicians to do—govern—requires a separate skill set from what we test them for on the campaign trail. Sometimes we luck out and get a politician who can do both things well. Too often we end up with disappointing mediocrities in power. The modern age of TV and internet makes this problem, which democratic republics have always had, even worse. It elevates form over substance and brings success to campaigners who look good on camera and give good sound bites, but who lack substance. More and more, we have elected officials who are good at campaigning but poor at governing.

The modern age also selects for a worse kind of candidate in a different way, because campaigns have become more grueling and difficult in three ways:

1) More time away from home. The American electoral process has always required that candidates spend time away from their homes and families, traveling and campaigning (especially for elections of the president, senators, and statewide offices). But the convenience and ease of modern travel and communication has caused campaign seasons to lengthen more and more. Thus, candidates are forced to spend ever-longer periods of time campaigning.

2) Increased scrutiny of their private lives and attacks on their character. Modern campaigns subject both the candidate and the candidate’s family to ever-greater intrusive scrutiny and criticism of all aspects of their lives and of their pasts—scrutiny both by the media and the opposition. And often the criticisms are not even true, or only partly true.

3) Fundraising and kissing up to donors. Modern campaigns require that candidates spend inordinate amounts of time fundraising and kissing up to donors.

What kind of person would subject themselves to this? Either someone who is extraordinarily public-service minded or someone who lusts for power, fame, status, and recognition. Which kind do you think most of our politicians end up being?

Even the public-spirited politicians, once they get a taste of power, too often end up going bad, and the bad ones just get worse. Modern research has confirmed Lord Acton’s observation that “power tends to corrupt.” For example, people who occupy positions of power are prone to act with greater hypocrisy. They are more likely to judge others harshly for moral failings, but are less likely to actually follow those same moral requirements themselves—instead they judge themselves leniently for their own moral failings.** A laboratory study found that the more power someone had, the more likely they were to make choices that benefitted themselves personally at the expense of well-being of the group they were leading.*** Another study found that people even naturally became better liars—they got better at deceiving others—when they were given more power.****

To fix our system, we need a new way of selecting our leaders.

* Gabriel S. Lenz and Chappell Lawson, “Looking the Part: Television Leads Less Informed Citizens to Vote Based on Candidates’ Appearance,” Journal of Political Science, Vol. 55, No. 3, July 2011, Pp. 574–589, DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2011.00511.x, http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7536991/looking_the_part.pdf.

**Joris Lammers, Diederik A. Stapel, and Adam D. Galinsky, “Power Increases Hypocrisy Moralizing in Reasoning, Immorality in Behavior,” Pstchological Science, Vol. 21, No. 5, May 2010, pp. 737-744, http://pss.sagepub.com/content/21/5/737, http://epoca.globo.com/edic/616/616_Power_Hypocrisy_Psych_Science_in_press.pdf.

***Samuel Bendahan, Christian Zehnder, François P. Pralong, and John Antonakis, “Leader corruption depends on power and testosterone,” The Leadership Quarterly, April 2015, Vol.26(2):101–122, doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.07.010, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1048984314000800?via%3Dihub

****Dana R. Carne, D. Dubois, N. Nichiporuk, L. ten Brinke, D. D.
Rucker, A. D. Galinsky, “The Deception Equilibrium: The Powerful Are Better Liars but the Powerless Are Better Lie-Detectors,” Un-
published Manuscript, http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/dana_carney/deception.equillibrium.ms.and.ols.pdf.


Jul 14 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – Introduction

Category: books,economics,government,history,law,policy,politicsJames @ 10:45 pm

Many of us feel like something is going wrong. We feel a deep and growing unease we are moving in the wrong direction, that we’re becoming strangers in our own country. This series of blog posts is an extended essay that explains what is going wrong in the United States and what we can do about it.

But first you must realize that the solution won’t come from going back to the way things were. The past is behind us. Things will never be the way they used to be. But we can learn from the past. We can adapt and take from what worked before to make new solutions that fit our present circumstances.

As this series progresses, I may tweak my planned structure a bit, but roughly speaking it will start with a series of 12 posts each dealing with one of our current problems, followed by 12 more posts giving solutions. Finally, there will be some concluding posts discussing a few overlapping ways of implementing the solutions. When the series is all done, I’ll revise and compile it into a short book of about 100 pages.

It may be surprising that a written work about how to solve the most pressing political problems of our day wouldn’t be longer. But, more often than not, correct explanations and solutions are concise. Occam was on to something. And brevity has the added benefit of making this work more accessible and widely read. I provide footnotes for readers who want to explore these ideas in greater depth. If needed, and time permitting, I may follow up with a longer, more academic book that explores these ideas in more detail.

In this essay series, I am frequently critical of various institutions and actors in our political system. My intent is not to single out specific individuals who work within that system for criticism. In fact, I have worked in, or worked closely with people in, all three branches of government. The vast majority are decent, honorable people trying to do the right thing, as they see it. They are no different from the rest of us, and most of us would act the same way if we were in their position. The problem with our current system is not that it is run by bad people, but that the system has serious flaws that bring out the worst in us and encourage counterproductive behavior. The problem is not some nefarious cabal or conspiracy undermining our country, but rather that the incentives in our system lead to pathological results, in spite of all the good people working within it.

This essay might give the impression that I believe our government is terrible and irredeemably broken. On the contrary, our system is quite good. I feel lucky to have been born an American. I think we have one of, if not the best, systems of government in the world. If you look at the full scope of human history, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better time or place to live than the United States in the 21st century.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to make it better. It is not wrong to strive for improvement. Sometimes improvement for everyone only comes when the best strive for better. We have a long traditon of this in the United States. In colonial times, our ancestors enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the entire world, better than those in England and most other countries.* Even taxes were lower in the 13 Colonies than they were in England. In 1765, per capita tax burdens in the American colonies were 25 to 50 times lower than they were in Great Britain and 6.5 to 13 times lower than they were in Ireland.** Taxes were seven times higher for Americans after independence than they had been under the British.***

From a purely economic perspective, taxation without representation was actually working pretty well for the colonists. But, we are not rational economic robots, seeking to maximize our prosperity at the expense of all our principles, and neither were the Colonists.  Things were good in the colonies, economically speaking, but the political system was unfair and rigged against them—it was taking away more and more of their power to govern their own affairs and transferring it to unaccountable elites in far-off London.

The system was unfair and could have been—should have been—better, so our ancestors fought to make it so. As one of the Minutemen who fought at the first battle at Lexington said, the colonists didn’t fight because of taxes or repression but because “we always had governed ourselves and always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”*** The colonists fought to keep their right to govern themselves, because the British had been trying to take it away. And what they did set in motion a revolution in governance across the world. Ever since, the government they fought to establish has been an example to the world showing the way to freedom and prosperity. Let us seek to set that example for the world once again.

The next post will discuss the first problem with our system, a bad way of selecting our politicians.

* Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, A New Economic View of American History: from Colonial Times to 1940, 2d ed., 1994, p. 50 (“[C]olonists in 1775 enjoyed a . . . standard of living . . . [that] made them among the richest in the world at the time . . . . This is borne out in the estimates of the height of Americans fighting in the French and Indian War [often used by econonic historians as a proxy for economic well being, given the relationship of diet to height]. At five feet eight inches, colonists were much taller than those in lower classes who had stayed behind in England rather than risk all in a transatlantic adventure, suggesting few, if any, serious dietary and nutritional deficiencies.” Americans have always been willing to take risks to improve their lot in life, even since the beginning.)

**Atack and Passell, p. 68

***Stanley Lebergott, The Americans, 1984, p. 40

**** As quoted in Lebergott, p. 39.