No, It Can’t Be “Just Fixed”

by John Sides on July 31, 2011 · 8 comments

in Political Economy,Political science

Seth Masket dialogues with Alyssa Milano re: the deficit.  This is Seth:

Here’s why we can’t “just fix it.” There are different ways of fixing it. You could raise taxes. You could cut spending. If you want to raise taxes, you could do it on upper income Americans, or on lower income Americans, or some combination. If you want to cut spending, you could cut the military, social programs, or some combination. There is no one way to fix it. And it turns out that people who want to fix things a certain way tend to group together in parties and elect people to Congress who agree with them. So Congress is filled with people who feel very strongly about doing things a certain way, and others feel very strongly about doing it another way, and their careers depend on them making good on their commitments to the people who elected them. That makes it very hard to quickly reach an agreement. This is the essence of democratic representation.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

See also Jon Bernstein.

{ 8 comments }

JB July 31, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Before we start picking on poor Ms. Milano, it’s worth pointing out that Masket’s point needs to be made to more than just Hollywood starlets venting on twitter. Why voters themselves don’t understand this point — which is really elementary American democracy 101 — is baffling and represents a significant failure on the part of either a.) the media, b.) our education system, or, the most neglected place for blame of them all, c.) the voters themselves.

The voters, after all, are the very ones responsible for elected the Congressmen who probably need to comprehend Masket’s point most of all.

ricketson July 31, 2011 at 10:26 pm

“and their careers depend on them making good on their commitments to the people who elected them”

So, does representation (as opposed to direct democracy) complicate this process? For instance, even if most of the voters aren’t picky about the details of the solution, might their representatives be more stubborn due to the need to assemble a majority coalition in their districts or simply because the representatives tend to be the people who care most about these details.

MP August 1, 2011 at 7:48 am

I think it depends on what “it” is. Fix the economy? Fix the deficit? Yes, these involve a lot of tradeoffs. But in the narrow matter of this debt ceiling standoff, there was a straightforward fix avaialble to both sides: cave now — because no matter how much you dislike what the opposition has put on the table, default would be much, much worst — then take your case to the electorate next year and hope to get a clear majority.

I always expected they’d eventually come to a deal, and they did in the end, but they let things go way to far for my liking. To the extent that I had a dog in this fight (and while I one side was closer to my view, my ideal deal would have taken elements from both sides), I’d have been happier if they’d given in two weeks ago rather than pushing it as far as they did for those last few concessions. In that sense, they could have “just fixed it”.

Steve Smith August 1, 2011 at 8:51 am

Seth is right about policy making by elected representatives, but that is not the only way policy is made in a democracy. Many people, including elected members of Congress, seek institutional and procedural solutions. They sometimes choose to delegate to presidents, independent commissions, line agencies, central banks, etc. They sometimes choose to short circuit the normal legislative processes by limiting debate and barring amendments for particularly important classes of legislation, like budget measures, super committee reports, and resolutions of disapproval. They require annual appropriations for some things but not others, insert sunset provisions for some programs but not others, create automatic debt limit increases at some times but not others, and so on. This variety is, too, the “essence of democracy.” The range and degree of the messiness of democracy is not fixed. Expect people motivated like Alyssa Milano to continue to try to improve democracy, just as elected representatives do all the time.

Joel August 1, 2011 at 9:52 am

*essence* or instance?

MSS August 1, 2011 at 2:25 pm

If only we grouped ourselves into more than two parties. Or had a system with fewer minority-veto provisions…

Tom August 1, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Both great articles underscore how people misunderstand the messiness of democracy. This kind of basic misunderstanding of a basic ingredient of democracy makes me wonder why I did not learn about Bentley and pluralism in school. It’s why the notion of third-party that can “fix it” seems very popular and even makes it into mainstream newspapers: http://www.cjr.org/campaign_desk/tom_friedmans_radical_wrongnes.php

However, to really gain an understanding of why we can’t just “fix it”, I’d really like to know how legislators negotiate among each other. What goes on behind closed doors? Who is talking to who? Is it done systematically and fairly (i.e. would Fisher and Ury call them effective negotiators?)?

Any studies or inside accounts of the how negotiations are conducted would show why value conflicts and differences in policy preferences prevents legislators from just fixing it and if the quality of negotiating skill hinders/helps create compromise would be fascinating. Let me know if there have been any studies of legislative negotiating. It would go a long way towards helping people understand why the “wicked problems” of democracy cannot just be fixed.

SFOtter August 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Yes, it can be just fixed. They voted to spend the money, the debt ceiling just lets them posture about it. Eliminate the debt ceiling and move the fight to the budget where it belongs. Currently it’s like they ate the meal but don’t want to pay the check.

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