Thursday, January 15, 2009

Welcome my son, welcome to The Machine

This is the third (and last) of a series of three posts on the Health Of The Republic. The first post is a review of Stephen Holbrook's book on the Founders' view of the Second Amendment. The second post is about the Tragedy of the Commons and why it leads to larger, more intrusive government.
A congressman has two ends,
A thinking end and a sitting end,
And since his job depends upon his seat,
Why bother friend?

- Yip Harburg
The Tragedy of the Commons happens because benefits are private and costs are shared. It's easy to understand why a private citizen would be interested in this - in Economics jargon, this is an Externality, and cost-benefit analysis won't work correctly. Indeed, this is the classic argument for government controls to reduce pollution - to account for costs that were otherwise not accounted for.

It's also pretty easy to see why government would like this game, too. The government - more correctly, some people in the government - gains, even if the public loses through a Commons Effect.

So what's the gain, and who benefits? It's not the GS-11 bureaucrat that benefits, at least in any meaningful way. The gain certainly isn't enough to drive the big government regulatory machine. Gator in the desert has a suggestion that is pretty hard to argue with:
Politicians don't care about the real cost-benefit analysis. Cost isn't the issue, and the only benefit they're concerned with is how many votes this program/law/regulation will get (e.g. buy for) them in the next election. They may start out with good intentions. But if they stay in office long enough, most will become drunk on the money, power, and social status.
Unlike the opening quote of this post, the politicians are indeed using their heads. Votes are part of the equation, a necessary goal. But votes don't explain the mechanics of the Big Government Regulatory Machine - it's quite a diffuse argument to make to the voters that the politicians will make someone else pay for the benefits offered the voters. Sure, the politicians say this all the time, but none of the promises are remotely plausible enough with a big enough group of voters to explain the political situation in, say, Chicago. The voters know that the system - and the pols - are corrupt. There just isn't enough swag to bring a majority around. Voters in 2006 and 2008 supposedly were in a mood to "throw the bums out" - why is Mayor Daley still called "Hizzoner"?

To make sense of the mechanics of The Machine, we need to know what drives it - what its energy source is. As it turns out, there is a stunningly useful analysis framework for this, developed by Geoffrey Moore and first introduced in his book Living on the Fault Line: Core vs. Context.
When investors look at management's use of their capital, they have but one wish: please use it in activities that have at least a chance of increasing stock price. From the investor's view those are the activities that are core to the company's operations. Everything else is context.
Consider a company like Microsoft, for example. No matter how well run the company cafeteria is, it will never add a penny to the share price of MSFT. Moore's book is a fascinating view into the business of high tech, but we're looking at The Machine. What's core for it?

Gator nails the end goal: money, power, and social status. This has been the goal since King Sargon beat King Lugal and tore down the walls ot Uruk. We congratulate ourselves on being more sophisticated today, and so the world's first professional army has been replaced by the modern regulatory bureaucracy as the means to this end. But there's a necessary control element, the component that keeps The Machine continuously running, and without which it would sieze up. It's also the explaination for why Hizzoner keeps getting reelected. For politicians, it's what's core. It's what allows The Machine to graze the Commons to the roots.


The pols don't care about the voters. They care about the Ward Bosses, who get the right voters out on election day. The care about the big donors, who provide the campaign contributions that let incumbents carpet-bomb the airwaves in the days before the election. They care about shutting up opponents who bring up uncomfortable subjects in the weeks immediately before the election - out of sight, out of mind. And most of all, they care about how they can use their power to provide patronage to the army of campaign contributors and Ward Bosses who keep them in Washington, D.C.

Exhibit A for the Prosecution is Senator Dodd (D, Banking Committee). Anyone think that silly questions about what did he know and when did he know it about his mortgage will sway the Ward Bosses? And oh by the way - his father was also Senator Dodd.
Welcome my son, welcome to The Machine.
Oh, and Republicans are no different. Exhibit B for the Prosecution is President Bush (R, Big Government), son of President Bush (R, Big Government). The only thing that changes is which cast of characters the patronage rewards flow to.

What's good for you and me is irrelevant. What's good for the country is irrelevant. What's relevant is keeping the top guys on top:
The king must be a generous "ring-giver" too -- that is, he must dish out the spoils of war to his thanes rather than hoard the treasures won in tribal warfare ...
We're more sophisticated today, but we still have our Thanes. They keep The Machine running.

So can we at least slow The Machine? If we can't get rid of the ravenous herd of public ruminants, can we make it less damaging to the Common Weal?

Ronald Reagan tried, sort of. He didn't reduce the size of government, and probably just showed The Machine that the opportunities for plunder were even larger than they had imagined. We're seeing the same thing today with Trillion dollar deficits. The Thanes overwhelmed even as visionary and gifted a leader as he. So a Reagan Revolution seems a poor choice as a strategy. So is electing a different set of bums. Power attracts the corrupt, and the corruptable.

An Engineering solution is to assume that components will fail, and to limit the scope of damage that will result. This is one reason that I like Linux so much more than Windows. Linux will have security vulnerabilities, just like Windows does. What's different, though, is that the applications rarely run with system-level privilege. My browser simply isn't allowed to change the Operating System, so it's much more difficult to get the really nasty spyware.

George Will proposed just such a limit-the-damage strategy years ago in his book Restoration. Hes argues for Congressional Term Limits, for a number of good reasons. A reason he does not describe, but which to me is the most interesting, is that Term Limits would change the dynamics of The Machine. By making turnover so rapid, it would reduce the overall benefit accruing to those at the top (I'm talking to you, Chris Dodd). It would also break down the internal discipline that keeps the Ward Bosses in line, because the benefits to a Boss of a successful revolt would massively outweigh the benefits of remaining a good soldier in The Machine.

As a Public Service, I propose what would be the 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution:
Section 1. No person shall be elected to the House of Representatives more than thrice, and no person who has held the office of Representative, or acted as Representative, for more than one year of a term to which some other person was elected Representative shall be elected to House of Representatives more than twice. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of Representative when this article becomes operative, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of Representative, or acting as Representative, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of Representative or acting as Representative during the remainder of such term.

Section 2. No person shall be elected to the Senate more than once, and no person who has held the office of Senator, or acted as Senator, for more than three years of a term to which some other person was elected Senator shall be elected to Senate. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of Senator when this article becomes operative, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of Senator, or acting as Senator, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of Senator or acting as Senator during the remainder of such term.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.
You're welcome.

God Save This Honorable Republic.

UPDATE 6 April 2009 20:47: Shoothouse Barbie linked. Thanks! Just to point out, though, I'm not a conservative. But her point is an excellent one.


Lissa said...

Ted, I'm in favor. I remember my prof pontificating on this during American Civ, back at Ye Olde Liberal Arts College. She opposed term limits because she felt that voters had a very real ability to set term limits -- by voting the bums out of power. In principal, I agree, and yet . . . seeing Marion Barry elected to a second term as mayor of DC makes me think something's severely wrong with the whole frackin' system.

Borepatch said...

Lissa, good point. And Marion "Da Bitch Set Me Up" Barry is the perfect example.

And in theory, your prof is correct. But one of my engineering profs had a saying that is useful: In theory, there's no difference between Theory and Practice. In practice, this is not true.

Anonymous said...

I'm in.