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18 July 2011 @ 03:02 pm
Why Can't Johnny Compromise?  
So here is the fundamental question: do we lack a Henry Clay in today's world, or if Henry Clay were transported to the modern world would he shrug his shoulders? Was finding common ground between those who believed slavery was a moral blight on the nation and those who believed it was an economic necessity really easier than debating the appropriate scope of government activity?

I should admit that the comparison is a bit odd, because at least with the slavery issue a geographic solution was possible. (Ahem... "solution," I could say, since it didn't really prevent war, but it did delay it for decades, which is still a pretty decent accomplishment.) You can't just copy his approach and paste it into the current conflict.

But the question remains: even if we can't find common ground, why can't we find a place to live that we both hate equally? Without getting into the specifics of what a compromise should be, I'd like to look into why we can't get there.

I want to mention one theory on the collapse of compromise which I find interesting but incomplete. This theory says that decades of gerrymandering has created centers of ideological purity. Since the general election is a foregone conclusion for a certain party's nominee, the trick is getting that nomination. Far from trying to find a centrist position, a successful candidate must pass ideological purity tests, and show themselves as even more viciously against the other party and for their party.

This is a compelling description because you can see both the cause described and the effect, but the relationship between the two is a bit more opaque. Certainly this could be part of the story. But if that's the case then we would expect the senate, whose districts cover much more area and cannot be so defined by a single community or localized philosophy, to be the leaders in the area of compromise.

But where is the plan the gang of six has come up with? If the senate were to come up with a plan that had strong bipartisan support, the president and the house would be hard-pressed not to fall in line. But no such plan has emerged.

So clearly this goes beyond a problem of factional districts.

Nor are the issues at hand impossible to compromise on by their nature. Financial numbers are, in fact, some of the easiest things to compromise on, and every day millions of people are negotiating compromises in the marketplace. You say you'll sell me something for $10, I say I'll pay $5, and we agree on $7.50.

By now we all know that the issue isn't an exact dollar figure, but rather a vision for the scope of government. It appears that there is not a government which will be small enough for small-government proponents while being big enough for big-government proponents. So there is no "price" which will make everyone happy.

Our government is specifically designed so that in this case, where not enough people are happy, the government does nothing. In a sort of political Hypocratic Oath, if the government cannot agree on a course, it does nothing and the status quo remains. In many areas this is good. In the past these problems have been pushed down the line. Small-government proponents have succeeded in reducing the tax burden and therefore government's negative economic footprint. Big-government proponents have succeeded in creating new programs. The negatives--program cuts and tax increases--have been avoided through debt.

I think it's pretty clear that the debt "crisis" has been manufactured. The U.S. is clearly capable of handling its debt load for now. The economy is still sputtering, so the time to increase taxes or cut back on programs is clearly not now. Tax increases and spending cuts are different names for the same thing, in terms of the broad impact on the economy. The specific impact of each is different, and clearly there are strong philosophical disagreements between the two as they are directly tied to the size of government, but either one would be harmful to the economy. And of all the creditors who could take on or hold debt within our economy, the federal government naturally should have a better credit rating than any bank, or corporation, and certainly better than private citizens.

However, a manufactured crisis is still a crisis. The credit rating of the federal government is in question not because we've borrowed too much against our assets, but rather because no one has faith that the government can work out a compromise about its appropriate scope. And clearly that concern is legitimate. From the point of view of a bank looking at a creditor, it doesn't matter how much money the creditor has in the bank or what her monthly income is if she's unwilling to write the check to make the loan payment.

But to say that the short-term problem is manufactured is not to say that the long-term problem does not exist. The problem here is that we alternate between Keynesian economic theory during bad times and tax reduction in good times. This means we take out debt during bad times and then reduce taxes during good times. This is the best of both worlds, and obviously that's quite popular. But that cycle is unsustainable, so of course both sides wants the benefits the other offers to be sacrificed. The big-government Keynesians say we should increase taxes during good times so we can pay off the government debt incurred to soften the bad times. The small-government tax reducers want to avoid spending and taking on debt during bad times so we can avoid tax increases. And while both can point to the economic benefits, the policies are in service of the larger picture: big or small government becomes the result of each policy.

The compromise has been big debt. And that's clearly not sustainable for the long term. So while the crisis is manufactured, we need to figure out a real compromise at some point, and if a crisis is required to do so, then let's take the manufactured one as an opportunity.

So if this is such an opportunity, why can't our government seem to take advantage of it? If elected officials hope to keep their jobs working with the other side seems to be a liability. So the concern for politicians to avoid being seen as weak is real, and compromise typically comes up in campaigns as a sign of weakness. We could say that a real politician will make tough decisions that might not get them re-elected, but do we really want politicians to ignore their constituencies when making hard decisions?

I think there are two reasons why compromise is harder today than it has been in the past. The first is that politicians today are more answerable to their constituents than politicians in the past. Previously, it was party bosses who decided the candidates who won the nomination. Well, perhaps not party bosses in all cases. But certainly it was people who were entrenched in the party system. It is easier to make deals and arrangements with a set of people who are used to power--individuals who can make deals, build trust, and gain networks of supporters through back room deals. In the worst case, you find corruption, but corruption is all about compromise and negotiation.

Of course, corruption means using politics to the benefit of the party leaders rather than the constituency. Our solution to this problem has been to increase transparency. Rank and file members now have much more power to pick candidates, and while they are still able to be influenced strongly by the leaders of their party (witness the Colorado democratic senate primary where Bennett won over Romanoff in part due to the president's influence on the race) they can also decide to buck the party's ideals and pick someone without any party support (witness Colorado's GOP primary for governor where Maes upset the party's pick McInnis).

Back room deals, however, are often how compromise gets made. On big issues, you often have to consider the unconsiderable in order to reach a deal: in the current debt crisis, that's entitlement changes and tax increases. You have to be able to say things like, "Let's say I'm open to a tax increase... what could you give me in return?" Saying something like that in a public forum immediately brands you as willing to increase taxes. If the process were allowed to be completed behind the scenes, and only the final product put forth, the process of give and take could happen without using its interim steps as campaign weapons later.

So our efforts at transparency and people-power have indirectly led to negotiation being much more risky for politicians. But the other side of the coin is that all this has made us care way too much about political philosophy.

Let me put out a statement that may leave some folks scratching their heads: it's more important that government functions than that it functions any particular way.

Some people imagine apocalyptic images of medicare and social security becoming privatized. Others a government whose scope is too broad and too powerful. But neither of these scenarios is worse than a government which is shut down and discredited.

Allowing someone to take government to the brink of collapse and then give them what they want is much like negotiating with terrorists. Giving into the demands results in encouraging others to do the same, but perhaps hold out even longer for what they want. Ultimately, every politician can hold the government hostage for their own particular concern. That's not "how the game is played." That's irresponsible.

I certainly have my own views on how government should function. But so long as the end result weighs appropriately toward the median of views of those in power, is appropriately visionary, and really addresses problems, you have to consider it. Pledges to avoid certain policy choices entirely are short-sighted and ridiculous. You need to reconfigure your policy to fit the people sitting around the table--not your personal policy, but the policy you believe best represents the government that was elected.

That policy exists today regarding debt. It's out there, but we'd need to let go of our fears and dogmas--I'm not speaking here of elected officials. I'm speaking of all of us, who give those people their jobs.

In order to live together we have to find a way to be passionate about what we believe and respectful of others' right to think differently. That respect means not only letting them think differently, but letting those ideas we disagree with have an impact on how we live our lives. It's a matter of trust, and it's not easy, but the end result of empty pluralism is a lack of collective will followed shortly by paralysis.

Beemer: Beem-Ur the Destructordr_tectonic on July 20th, 2011 05:29 am (UTC)
There's a lot of truth in your analysis, but I think you're giving too much credit to the contrarians. I don't think the main opponents of compromise are taking a hardline position because they're being true to their constituencies, but because conservative politics has been hijacked by authoritarianism in the service of the wealthy.

What are the driving forces behind our pervasive mistrust and lack of respect for difference? Who's selling that, and who's profiting from it? Who pushes fear and dogma instead of bravery and dialogue?
ng_nighthawkng_nighthawk on July 20th, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC)
I was of course trying to be balanced... perhaps trying a bit too hard to give credit to philosophies I disagree with as being authentic, because it feels too easy to say that the ideologies I oppose aren't authentic.

Having said that, I think agree with you, but I want to drag your point back toward mine a bit: regardless of the source, the reality is that these elected officials can very reasonably believe they will not get re-elected if they compromise. Because the forces you refer to are not manipulating party bosses, but rather the general population.

Which still comes back to the fact that driving our politics down to a grass-roots level and increasing transparency has not, as one might expect, led to more balanced politics. I don't mean to say that it's worse. I'm just saying that the remedy many folks have been promoting since the 60s has been power to the people: legislation by referendum, primaries instead of caucuses, term limits, and of course constant exposure to the political process. A webcam in the sausage factory, so to speak.

And I don't think any of that has really helped. I'm not going to go so far as to say it hurts. I think it ends up being a wash. But my gut tells me there's another solution to this, and that's not muzzling the media, or solidifying power even more into an elite class, or trying to get people disengaged from their government (in other words, reversing the trends I was describing above). Those seem like good things. It just seems we're missing a component that could prevent people from being manipulated just as easily as corrupt party bosses were in previous generations.

I don't know what that is. Campaign finance reform that doesn't get its feet cut off by the courts? I dunno. But this doesn't seem to be working.

One update: suddenly it does seem that the Gang of Six is offering the best hope, and as predicted if they come through the House is going to be in a tough spot rejecting it. So maybe there is more to the gerrymandering argument than I gave credit for earlier this week.