Weak Parties, Closed Government

 Posted by  Fiscal Issues, U.S. Politics  Comments Off on Weak Parties, Closed Government
Oct 012013

The shutdown of the federal government feels like a direct result of the weakening of the political parties.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive to many: after all, aren’t we living in an age where partisanship  and political polarization are at all-time highs?

Sure, but that’s actually a contributing factor.  Remember that the party apparatus isn’t interested in winning any given Congressional seat.  They are interested in winning the entire Congress and in winning the Presidency.  They are only interested in the Colorado 1st district if it helps them achieve those greater goals–and would gladly sacrifice it, if they thought doing so would help them get to those larger goals.  But individual members of Congress don’t think that way.  They want to hold onto their own seats.

But over the last 20 years or so we’ve had a general weakening of the parties.  Law changes and Supreme Court decisions have allowed candidates to raise huge amounts of money without the backing of their own party.  This means that the parties can no longer use the threat of withholding resources from a candidate to curtail their votes on certain issues.   At the same time, many parts of the country have been slowly sorting themselves out by social and political factors–that is, Republicans are moving to Republican neighborhoods, and Democrats are moving to Democratic neighborhoods.  This has encouraged individual Congressmen, and even some Senators, to take ever more radical stances.  Finally, the parties are both getting better at drawing Gerrymandered maps–with the help of more accurate population data and more powerful computers–effectively locking in the winners of many districts to a particular political party.  This means that the most important election for many–most?–Congressman is their party primary, and not the general election.

The combination of those factors means that individual members of Congress are rewarded by their constituencies for perceived extremism, even as the punishments they face for those extreme behaviors are diminishing.

Now you combine that situation with an absolutely absurd “rule”: the so-called Hastert rule.  The Hastert Rule, named after a recent Speaker of the House, says that the Speaker won’t bring a bill to the floor of the Congress if it is not approved of by a majority of the Speaker’s party.  I could be wrong, but I’m guessing this is also an attempt to enforce Party Unity in an era of weakening political parties.

So now we have weak parties, unable to control their own membership, and a membership that is slowly drifting towards extremism–and a rule that allows less than 28% of the House to effectively stop a bill from passing.  (The GOP controls 56% of the votes in the House of Representatives, and a bill has to be approved of by at least half of that 58% to come to the floor.)

Which is why the Government just shut down: the Senate version of the budget bill would easily pass if it were allowed to come to a vote, but the Speaker won’t let it onto the floor because of the Hastert Rule.  And why won’t he violate the Hastert Rule?  Because Boehner is afraid that if he goes against the extremists in his own Party, he won’t be reelected Speaker.  The party leadership has become so weak, that they are afraid of their own back-benchers.

And thus does the governance of the most powerful country on the planet grind to a temporary halt.


Understanding politics is hard.

The problem is that modern-day politicians have two very different tasks.  First, they must maintain their current positions.  After all, anyone’s first duty at work is to avoid getting fired.  For most of us, that means arriving on time, looking presentable, treating co-workers and clients with respect, and doing whatever we’ve been told by our bosses.  For politicians, keeping their jobs means getting reelected.

The other task is to actually run the country: negotiate, compromise, vote, lead, etc.

Of course, as anyone who regularly reads or watches the news can tell you, those two tasks are very different–and in fact, sometimes contradictory.  Getting reelected requires that politicians spend as much time as possible in their home states, raise lots of money, give lots of passionate “no-holds-barred” speeches, and look good on television.  Running the country requires that politicians spend time in Washington, work closely with people that they disagree with, compromise their most dearly held positions, and work long hours behind the scenes polishing drafts of arcane bills.

This creates a situation where everything that a politician says or does has to be geared towards two very different audiences.  Take the current budget battles in Washington.  At the beginning of any bargain, both parties stake out unrealistic positions, and negotiate to a compromise that they can both live with.  You don’t actually expect to pay half price for a new car, any more than the dealer expects you to pay full sticker price–those are opening bids, and you both know it.  Politicians do the same thing in their own bargains: each side starts out with a long list of things that they want, and then they compromise down to something in the middle.

But here’s where that second audience comes in.  Because politicians don’t just stake out positions for the sake of the compromise; they stake out positions that they can run on next election cycle.  For example, Ted Cruz wants to say that he led the charge against Obamacare, so he gives a pointless 21 hour speech on the Senate floor.  And these positions aren’t just staked out in speeches; sometimes they are staked out in press leaks about how the negotiations are going.  After all, both sides want their constituencies to view them as tough negotiators who refused to compromise on the most important points.

So how are we to interpret the hard-line stances taken by Republicans during these budget negotiations?  Are they actually opening bids that they understand are unrealistic?  In that case, we shouldn’t pay too much attention to them, unless you’re really into the nitty-gritty of budget negotiations.  Or are these positions grandstanding for hyper-conservative political constituencies?  In that case, we really ought to be somewhat worried; after all, many of those constituencies will view compromise as defeat.

We don’t know.  And moreover, the answer varies from politician to politician; some politicians are only laying out hard-line position to improve a future compromise, while others will refuse to vote for any compromise at all.  But because both types of people want to be seen as “reasonable leaders with firm principals”, both types will end up saying and doing the same thing… until the end when they have to either agree on a compromise or blow up the negotiations.

All of which is to say that I really have no idea what’s going to happen with the current budget negotiations.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.  But I still hope that there are more politicians, even Republican politicians, interested in getting something done than who are purely interested in grandstanding for the home audience.

NCAA Profiting off of athletes

 Posted by  Uncategorized  Comments Off on NCAA Profiting off of athletes
Sep 062013

There has been a lot of media attention recently to the fact that the NCAA makes money off of merchandise that bears the names/likenesses of NCAA athletes, but the athletes themselves are not allowed to.   Proponents of the NCAA say this is essential because it maintains the integrity of the sport – otherwise boosters would have a back door way to pay athletes to go to a particular college.  Opponents of the NCAA liken it to indentured labor, and claim that it allows the NCAA to exploit and make a profit off of the athletes while maintaining a monopoly on merchandise.

So here’s an idea – continue to require that all sales of jerseys, autographs, etc. to go through the NCAA.  But for every sale of an athletes jersey/authograph/likeness hold some percentage of the profits in a trust fund for that athlete… which the athlete only receives once he/she graduates.  Because the athletes aren’t receiving money directly, boosters can’t use it as a backdoor to circumvent recruitment rules.  The NCAA would also maintain its monopoly on such merchandise.   But the players would now directly gain from the profits that they helped produce, so it would be much less exploitative.  Moreover, it would provide an incentive for players to actually finish college and graduate – possibly improving some of the dismal graduation rates for college athletes in football and basketball.

I acknowledge that this idea has some problems.  For one, there are questions about the legality.  And there would be a lot of details to work out.  But most ideas are rough in their first iteration.  It seems like a more nuanced version of this approach would be a dominant policy over the one currently in place.

Syria Solution

 Posted by  Uncategorized  Comments Off on Syria Solution
Sep 042013

I do not believe that we should intervene in Syria. There are many reasons for this, largely based on the fact that I see no benefits whatsoever to doing so. I don’t need to outline all the reasons against intervention – it has been done many other places quite elegantly, including by Mike here on Leftfielder.

But there seems to be a perception among the political brass that U.S. credibility is at stake. The U.S. drew a line in the sand regarding the use of chemical weapons and chemical weapons were used (although whether Assad was the one who used them is still contentious). If we don’t follow through with our threat then nobody will take our threats seriously in the future – or so the argument goes. And that argument seems, somehow, to be winning. The senate just moved a bill forward to authorize force, and everybody seems resigned to bombing a foreign country, against the auspices of the United Nations.

So, let me propose a counter: The senate could authorize the president to bomb if and only if Assad uses chemical weapons again.

To reiterate, I would prefer a “don’t bomb Syria” solution, but since that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, this is the next best thing. If Assad was, in fact, responsible for the first chemical attack, there is a chance that he would decide not to do it again – especially given that there was no reason for him to do it in the first place (he was winning without chemical weapons) and this threat would be much more credible since authority to bomb would already have been given. If it was the rebels who were trying to frame Assad, there would be a chance that they either wouldn’t be able to access chemical weapons again, or that some intelligence agency (US, UK, France, Russia, etc.) could catch the rebels in the act since intelligence services would be looking for it. In other words it creates a plausible deterrent, maintains our credibility for future threats, and reduces our likelihood of bombing from ‘near certain’ to ‘possibly not’.

I see this as a dominant option to authorizing bombing flat out. The former commits us, the latter gives us a chance of not bombing. The only downside is that it does allow for the possibility of one more chemical weapons attack. While this would be tragic, right now people are dying from more traditional weapons, and that is just as tragic. And a bombing campaign would only increase that tragedy, both in terms of prolonging the war, and in the deaths it directly causes.

Please congress, don’t send us to war. Give us a way out.

The Merits of Inaction

 Posted by  Foreign Policy, Israel and Palestine, Middle East, Obama Administration, Terrorism  Comments Off on The Merits of Inaction
Jun 182013

There is a certain arrogance with being the world’s only superpower.  The United States can project military power anywhere on the globe in a way that no other country can.  That power is both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that we are able to defend American interests (both economic and strategic) and stop human rights violations wherever and whenever we need to.  The curse is that we are constantly tempted to do so… and often the best thing we can do is nothing at all.

Syria is, I believe, one such case.  In particular, in Syria there are basically four options on the table: Continue reading »

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