Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Maybe Policy Matters?

MinnPost has a pretty annoying article up about disagreements and conflicts on the Minneapolis School Board. I say annoying because it's indicative of a lot of whats wrong with political writing these days. That is rather than focusing on the structural realities that drive political disagreement over issues like partisanship, incentives, and interests it treats disagreements on the school board as being caused by "conduct":
Specifically, a majority of the board had opined that its members and the superintendent do not trust one another, work as a team or engage in joint problem solving. To add to the discomfort on display, they also gave each other low marks regarding “demeaning verbal or nonverbal communication.”
But here's the rub. Just a few paragraphs latter the article describes how the board is divided between a largely status quo majority block and a reformist minority block. But rather than explain what these differences are and why they might cause political disagreement the author of the piece goes on to talk about the idea of having everyone taking the, "Myers-Briggs personality instrument" as a way to learn about each others personalities or something.

Well maybe that's the problem, and maybe a round of hand holding and affirmations would help too. But maybe, just maybe, these politicians have different ideas about how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, what district priorities should be, and whose interests should be considered in decision making. Maybe since they don't all agree they come into conflict not because of a lack of personality tests, but because as Bonnie Honig once put it, "To take difference -- and not just identity -- seriously in democratic theory is to affirm the inescapability of conflict."

To put it another way, if you have a school board of two people where one likes charter schools and one thinks charter schools are evil, you are going to have conflict. Even if both people take personality tests before you try to reach an agreement.

Yes I understand that shouting at each other isn't helpful, and civility is a good thing in public life. But conflict is inescapable in a democracy and it's presence isn't necessarily evidence of poor "conduct" or general dysfunction. If you want a system where disagreement is rare go to Westeros, but you probably wouldn't like it there.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Paul Krugman's Stimulus Errors

Paul Krugman has a blog piece up going over (yet again) the legacy of the 2009 economic stimulus. This is ground that has been covered extensively before but I still think Krugman makes a few major errors in his analysis. Basically Krugman think that the stimulus's  legacy is mixed because while it helped the economy in the short term, it also caused major political harm to liberals and Democrats, "...mainly from the fact that the ARRA was too small and too short-lived to do the job, but partly also from a serious mistake in the way the administration sold it."

He's said this a lot over the years, but I think this type of analysis has some major category problems that people like Krugman have never really addressed. First of all Krugman assumes that making ARRA bigger was something that was easily attainable, but unfortunately Obama just didn't do it. To be blunt there really isn't a whole lot of evidence for that, most of the evidence I've seen over the years is that the size of the ARRA that passed was very much on the large size of any potential stimulus. Indeed it was almost twice as big as the initial proposal rolled out by the super liberal Nancy Pelosi. So maybe a more aggressive strategy by the White House Office of Legislative Affairs could have gotten another 20 billion for infrastructure projects or whatever, but Krugman and people like him have never presented any credibly evidence that say a 1.6 trillion dollar stimulus was possible.

Indeed I'd argue Krugman gives away the game later in the post when writes, "You can argue that there was no way the administration could have gotten a bigger plan. Actually, they could have used reconciliation to bypass the 60-vote hurdle; but that was considered too radical." Sorry Paul, the Senate could have passed a different bill via the reconciliation process but there is, and I can't stress this enough, no actual way the President can make the Senate do this. If you have a problem with that take it up with Harry Reid. And setting that (major) problem aside doesn't deal with the fact that it's Congress that has to actually vote for this thing. Christina Romer can write any number down in her briefing materials she wants, but that's doesn't automatically translate into Congress passing it. Even FDR faced considerable Congressional restrains on what the New Deal could and could not do.

Again maybe Obama did leave some money on the table, but there's no evidence that the stimulus could have easily been doubled in size.

Furthermore Krugman really fails to deal with the very real possibility that going for a massive stimulus could have backfired resulting the Congressional Democrats abandoning the plan and running for cover. Majorities seem ironclad until they aren't, and there was always a real threat that asking for a 2 trillion dollar stimulus, as some liberal bloggers have demanded over the years, could have been met with laughter putting the Obama White House in a more difficult position and ultimately getting an even smaller stimulus. How likely was this? I don't know, and neither does anyone else, but ignoring potential downsides is pretty foolish when making political decisions.   

In addition to these errors I think Krugman is really thinking about how voters react to the economy in the wrong way. He seems to think that they would be hyper-rational about the talking points Obama rolled out in selling the stimulus in the lead up to the 2010 mid-terms. But there's no real evidence that this is how voters think. It's very possible that they just ignored the talking points from 2009 on Election Day and voted against the Democrats because voters historically vote against the party in the White House during bad economic times. I, and most political scientists, would argue that this is what probably happened. To put it another way; there's no particular good way to "sell" the economic disaster that befell the world in 2008 and 2009 and a world with a larger stimulus and better talking points would have probably resulted in major GOP gains in 2010 anyway.

There aren't always easy technocratic solutions to problems. Even in hindsight.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Politics Is The Art Of The Possible, Or Something

Ross Douthat recently wrote a long blog post in which he expressed frustration that liberals aren't freaking out over the fact that guaranteeing health care to more people  might allow them to quit jobs they would otherwise have to keep working in if they wanted their health care. Fair enough, we really aren't. But where I think the post goes off the rails is when Douthat starts complaining that in addition, liberals aren't willing to accept a big overhaul of the welfare state in general with the goal of turning the big basket of direct and indirect subsidies that the poor and working class get into just a few large targeted programs:

"But it means that we should think seriously about what else we should be doing, and whether we should be spending as much as Obamacare spends on insurance when there are other transfers that might not offer as many work disincentives, might give a stronger boost to upward mobility, and might do more long-term good."

As a liberal I don't necessarily disagree with this statement, although I would add to it that it might make even more sense to fund transfers that help the worse off not by solely cutting their less helpful transfers but by also cutting the subsidies and transfers we give to the middle class and wealthy in forms of mortgage deductions lower capital gains tax rates etc. as well.

But the problem I do have is that this sort of argument is that it's parameters and prescriptions just don't exist in our political reality at all, not because liberals are saying no to it, but because conservatives are still obsessed with magically taking us back to the health care system we had in 2009 when every thing was great, or something. If conservatives were actually willing to compromise with liberals, over things like short term economic stimulus in exchange for long term entitlement reform or whatever, Ross would have a point. But since they as a movement and the GOP as a party has consistently said "no, no, NO!" to any kind of compromise about basically anything, there really isn't much to discuss.

So yeah, I'm not opposed to a hypothetical idea like this in principle but it's a bit like wanting to solve the various political problems in HBO's Game of Thrones with a UN sponsored peace keeping force. It makes sense from an abstract argumentative standpoint, but it has no bearing on reality and thus is a pretty pointless political argument.