Tuesday, November 30, 2010

They are Millionaires - that's why

I'm going to propose a hypothetical scenario which I would like you to picture.

In this scenario I am a law maker, and I am appearing on a tv show. When I go on the show I hand the reporter a briefcase with tens of thousands of dollars in it. I say:

"Here, I really think you do a great job and a great service for the country. I think you should have this."

Then we continue with the show. I don't ask anything in return, there is no quid pro quo, I just think s/he should have it.

Would such an event be notable? Would people be aware that it happened? Would everyone scream 'bias!' and 'scandal!' at the top of their lungs?

Why should they? I haven't asked for anything in return. No one can point with exacting specificity to incidents of the reporter treating me any different than others.

But we would want to know about exchange, and rightly so.

How much do you think the Bush tax cuts are worth to the big names in the country? Left, right, and middle. Hannity, Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, Coulter, Brian Williams, Jon Stewart, Letterman, almost any name that we would recognize in the media. Thousands and thousands of dollars at stake for them personally. Sure, they have a ton of money already, but does that matter? Did it matter in my hypothetical scenario? If someone walked into Fox News and handed OReilly a briefcase with $50,000 in it, would our reaction be "big deal, he has millions, this won't affect his opinion"?

So now what if it was a bribe? What if I gave a Senator a briefcase full of cash, but only if they vote a certain way. Would that be news? Would we want to know who was being offered the money and who wasn't? Would it be headlines in the papers, at the top of every news hour?

So what about the lawmakers? The list of millionaires on capital hill is too long for me to list here. What about their friends? Their family? Their political consultants?

Why are bribes wrong?

It seems like a silly question at first. But really, what's the answer? The exchange of money alone doesn't prove anything at all. Yet, if I walk into a Senator's office and hand him or her a bunch of cash, and then walk out, a whole hell of a lot is going to be presumed.

Because money perverts our intentions, it twists and bends our thoughts to the oddest rationalizations.

Have you ever had a decision twisted by the offer of significant money?
A higher paying job far away from the family?
A settlement offer to avoid a law suit?
A request from a charity for you to make a donation?

If you have then you have felt the subtle manipulations that money can bring to our thinking. "With more money we can afford to take more family vacations" - even if you won't have the time
"Those charities keep most of the money for administration anyway" - do you take the time to find ones that don't?

We know that money can overtly or subtly twist the way we think. It's why we work so hard to purge it from our systems of justice and lawmaking. It doesn't require a quid pro quo, it doesn't require a direct exchange. We might not even be fully aware it's happening ourselves. It's why we put so many restrictions on lobbyists gifts, on wining and dining on capital hill. Will a Senator trade a vote for a $1,000 meal? No way. Will a Senator get caught up in the allure of $1,000 meal and have his ear twisted in a unique way by a well funded lobbyist? That we could see happening.

So you know where I'm going. Tax cuts.

The debate about taxes in this country is currently centered around the $250,000 cut-off. You know who makes more than $250,000? Virtually every single person involved in making this decision.

The lawmakers, the lawmakers' friends, the top lobbyists, the big name pundits.

Take the fiscal commission as an example. The Fiscal Commission which was established to create a proposal for deficit reduction had 16 commissioners. 12 elected and four from the private sector.

9 out of the 12 elected officials on that Commission are multimillionaires. The private individuals' finances are not public record (as far as I know), but I'd take a bet that at least three of them are over that $250,000 line in the sand.

What does all of this mean?

It means that all of these people have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars at stake in this decision.

Does this make a difference? I don't know.

Should it be talked about a lot more? Absolutely.

We work so hard to figure out the politics behind these decisions.

"Why would Democrat ___ say/do ____?" And we search for political answers, but none of them quite make sense. Maybe one is kind of close here or there, an idea that could be twisted into a reason to resemble a motivation.

Would we be twisting together these justifications if there were briefcases full of cash in the offices of these officials? Or would we jump to the obvious conclusion, and make them prove otherwise?

In my original hypothetical it didn't matter if the reporter getting the money could be proven to be biased. We would all consider it vitally important to know that s/he received the money and how much it was. Where there is money we assume bias, it's only natural in every part of public discourse. Except tax law?

I want to know exactly how much money the Bush tax cuts mean to each law maker on a personal financial level. I'd like to know it about public talking heads. It should be talked about at every point.

DISCLAIMER: I am not claiming that any politician or reporter is taking a certain course of action for personal financial gain only. I am saying that the personal financial gain their actions bring them is newsworthy. It seems very newsworthy.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Politics as a Game

The fact that the new Majority Leader is being asked political horse-race questions, and not about policy, got me thinking about the political 'game'.

When I was in Middle School some friends of mine tried to invent a strategy role-playing game. Part of the premise is that the players would act like ancient demi-gods, building worlds in competition with other demi-god characters, like mythological ancient Greece. The game was pretty fun for a group of creative 12 year olds, but there turned out to be a structural flaw in the game: it was much easier to destroy than it was to create.

This was a product of us trying to be realistic. The reality is that in the world it is easier to destroy than it is to create. As a result we have to create artificial costs for destroying things. It's pretty easy to burn a house down, but then we send you to jail. It's not something we usually think about, but if burning a house down somehow cost more than building a house (and filling it with stuff), then arson wouldn't be a problem.

But, the game my friends created was about demi-gods, there were basically no repercussions, there were no higher ups to enforce a set of rules. This was because whoever was 'winning' was the de facto higher up.

The problem in the game wasn't discovered for awhile. Several of us played the game in good for quite some time. Focusing on building cities, continents and worlds. That was, after all, the 'purpose' of the game. But, eventually we added new players, and a couple of these new players identified the 'flaw.' They didn't try to create anything at all, they only focussed on destruction, and it was impossible to compete. The end result was they 'won', but I'm not really sure what they won, because we all just stopped playing the game.

It seems to me that we face this in today's politics. Like the rest of the world, it is easier to destroy political ideas than it is to create them. It's no mystery why the Republicans refused to propose a health care law of their own during the Obamacare debate. Some of use seemed to hope that there would be repercussions for these tactics. That a refusal by the right wing noise machine to create anything would eventually cost them something. This is because we are used to our world operating this way, like the arson example. However, the political scenario is more akin to my childhood game. Because the winners get the set the rules.

If destroying things gets you tv ratings and political seats, then who will administer the repercussions? Not the media, because it's best strategy is also to destroy. Not the politicians, they also should be destroying.

I could run a rant about how people should do this, or need to do that, but I'm trying not to end political thoughts with a generic desire that the world needs to be different. Instead, we should consider what structural changes might solve these problems. What policy do we implement in order to encourage policy creation?

One idea is to require more from the minority in the form of bill proposals. I'm not sure why both parties in Congress shouldn't be required to propose a budget.

A second idea I have been pondering is the possibility of bracket style policy decision making. What if some policy decisions were made as a decision between A and B, instead of between A and nothing. One possible way this could work is through a series of brackets. Congress decides on a particular issue like Healthcare. Political bodies propose eight main healthcare bills, after consideration. Then these bills are voted on as competing alternatives, in a series of votes, that works like a tournament.

Clearly, this couldn't be used in every case, but I think serious political gridlock requires a re-thinking of some aspects of the system. It's pretty clear that a group of people have figured out the flaws in 'politics'. One of those flaws is that you can sit back and attack without any genuine repercussion.