Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Problems with Honesty

One big problem with government is that it’s much much easier to be a crooked politician than an honest one.  It’s easy to accept money to have lobbyists make your agenda.  It’s easy to come to conclusions based upon how it factors into your pocketbook.  And the hardest part for them is deciding whether or not to accept the money personally (which is riskier) or being magnanimous enough to let their re-election campaign keep it.  

But honest politicians don’t have that option.  They have to earn their money the hard way, and make decisions on their own.  It’s easy to wait for a political machine to bribe you to vote with them, and it’s hard to campaign against a political machine.  There are few job perks for an honest politician and plenty of penalties.  Something needs to change about that.


Adam said...

Fareed Zakaria actually has a lot of interesting things to say about this in The Future of Freedom. Regardless of whether you agree with him politically, the things he has to say about our current political system are uniquely insightful.

The most important thing I took away from the book is that our system as it's built discourages honest politicans because of its openness. Lobbying groups can afford to scrutinize an official's every move on a very specific issue that the general public might care about, but not enough to take action on it.

The way he puts it is that if 10 people spend $10,000 each to hire a lobbyist for $100,000 with the intent of getting a subsidy for their particular industry, say to the tune of $1,000,000, they get a 1000% return on their investment. They could dangle $400,000 in campaign contributions in front of that representative and still double their money.

On the other hand, the opportunity cost for the general populace to ignore that subsidy is just fractions of a cent (one million dollars divided by about three hundred million people). So for the representative, the choice is easy -- slip in a subsidy that's a drop in the bucket and their constituents don't care about, or piss off the lobby. And if they decide to take the high road, all that's going to happen is that the lobby will look down the road for the next challenger who's willing to play ball.

So what happens is that we get a system that forces politicans to vote in a certain way, *regardless* of whether they're "corrupt" or "honest." It lowers the bar so much that the public simply doesn't have the attention to spare to all these tiny subsidies and compromises to attack them one at a time, whereas those advocating for them focus all their energy on these select areas. You can look at the history, and most of the recent budget cuts have been done behind closed doors, simply so that powerful lobbies couldn't hold politicans accountable for their votes. It used to be that the chairman would cut people slack, not putting all the votes on the record and so forth, but now no politicans can make a move without being held accountable for it -- and unfortunately, the only people who use this information are those who want to use it to strongarm them.

Biden has some interesting things to say about this, especially with regards to the Sunshine laws and how they backfired on us.

Duane Gran said...

I would say it is a problem with capitalism more than a problem with honesty. As long as we have a "one dollar, one vote" system we will suffer the effects of the system. I might characterize our political system as one where honesty doesn't pay, but getting caught being dishonest is very expensive.

Adam said...

I think that it's important to distinguish between the amount of money that's available ("one dollar, one vote") and the amount of attention. If we could all pool our money together into one big anti-corruption lobby, it would be worth it, but the problem is just economies of scale. Our bureaucracy has become so unwieldly and at the same time so transparent that it's much, much easier for interest groups to focus on their pet issues than to fight them all at once.

Put another way, most pork subsidies aren't a problem in isolation, and it's hard to argue against them one at a time. It's when you multiple the problem I cited above by a few orders of magnitude that it becomes really scary.

This deserves its own post. I should start a blog.