Institutional Failure

>> Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The bailout is such a rich source of data for any political scientist or civics lover. I wrote yesterday on the bailout as it related to the job of the individual congresspeople in either a capacity as representatives or as a function of direct democracy. Today i think the focus should be on the institutional side of things and how the bailout is really a failure of the model on which our government sits.

I was going to cover this any way but i saw the ezra klein post on it and he had some very good points. hunch is it was a victory for the system. We have a political structure biased against Big Things (this is less true when it comes to foreign policy). Blocking change is far easier than passing it. Health care fails, and so does cap and trade and Social Security privatization and immigration reform and bailout bills and most major initiatives. Doing big things slowly is almost impossible. Doing them very fast is similarly tricky. A lot of the theoretical reasons are well-explained in Sven Steinmo and Jon Watts paper, "It's The Institutions, Stupid." But it's a lesson worth remembering. In any large scale initiative, the odds are against success.

That's one reason most bills come out so badly: if the Democrats could just pass health care or a bailout bill, they'd simply build the bill they wanted to pass, and it would be clean and ideologically coherent. They'd respond to the financial crisis much as the Swedish did, with a plan for nationalization. On health care, they'd shoot for single payer. Instead, they need the president, and a bill that doesn't trigger a filibuster in the Senate, and to attract all sorts of House members who have little to fear from party discipline as the system is regional and entrepreneurial and fractured rather than parliamentarian. This is why I argued yesterday that what we're seeing is bigger than the bailout. No one quite knows how to harness our political system in opposition to major problems. No one knows how to get real health reform through, or pass a global warming bill that could actually avert catastrophe, or shepherd a capital infusion that will avert possible economic collapse. Those problems are all different, to be sure, with different coalitions and different messaging strategies, but much of what blocks action is structurally similar. When it comes to the American political system, you can almost never believe in change.

It is not a new or novel point. Our system is designed to be conservative. Bush might like the theory of the imperial presidency but really it does not fit into the model design for our government. Our system is supposed to prevent rapid change. When originally drafted the entire purpose of the senate was to prevent the rabble in the house from moving to fast or being carried away with some idea for rapid change. One person can hold up everything in the senate.

The congress is supposed to be able to check the power of the president with the power of the purse, the judiciary checks congress and the president through the review of constitutionality of laws and actions. The president checks the congress through his role as the head of executive agencies and the veto power. The system is designed to have numerous delays and bottlenecks in it.

The plurality system of elections is going to lead to a stable two party system according to the spatial model of elections. It is hard to imagine that the balance of power ever gets to out of equilibrium for too long. The parties should roughly split the electorate with a small middle who vacillate back and forth. Of course that all depends on rational actors.

So when ezra talks about the system being biased against big things he is totally correct. It is generally just not possible for one side to totally ran something through without the help of some of the other side. The problem is that one side sees everything as a political issue. Because of this politicization of every major crisis and the nature of the system one side may hold the issue hostage, bog it down, kill it, if it so chooses. This is especially true on the biggest issues and challenges where the legislators have to take some risk. the process becomes more delicate and more easily upset.

So it has become a case where the gop and house republicans can obstruct change and big ideas because the system is designed to be conservative in that nature. Whether they should do it is a totally separate question. Leaving it up to them to be adults and not to blow up the process and instead to do things for the good of the country is asking a lot.

The conservativeness of our system is also embedded in its stability. We run everything on a clock. You get a set number of years in the position and then we have elections and you get that number again. It is predictable and stable and allows for people to do what they want in the period of time between elections. It prevents the italian style failing of every government every two weeks. that would be bad. It also limits our ability to choose new leaders in a crisis or throw out failed ones when it becomes clear they have failed. We have to wait for the clock to run out.

Instead of bush lingering in office and draining confidence in a solution he would be out. He would have been out a long time ago. Instead we are like a ship that sees a big set of rocks ahead but has a rudder to small to turn out of the way. Everything was good in calm seas but when decisive action is needed to avoid catastrophe we have issues.

Until we become a more dynamic system big ideas and radical change is always going to face big opposition. That is why the shock doctrine is so key. There is a window of opportunity in crisis where big ideas can get through but once it closes or the idea fails the going becomes very tough.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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