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    Default Democratic Sclerosis

    Anyone curious as to why cuts are needed, and why we need Gov't budgetary reform generally should read this great article from Huffpo believe it or not about Democratic Sclerosis:

    Democratic Sclerosis By Edward Corcoran

    As the size of a community increases, democracy inevitably transforms into representative democracy, which brings a number of immediate problems. Many people, for example, become represented by persons they voted against. Government also becomes more remote, with individual citizens unaware of many of its intricacies. When a community is composed of irreconcilable factions, democracy is hard pressed to produce good governance. But mature democracies in which leaders balance competing views and compromise on issues can provide competent and respected governance.


    Unfortunately, several intrinsic elements undermine this potential, particularly:


    Representatives have their own self interests, including personal interests and political interests responding to the local constituent majority that elected them. This affects elected leaders as well as legislators, and ultimately the staff and bureaucracy that supports them. These interests may encourage neglect of local minority elements and can pit strong constituent concerns against measures that promote the overall community good. Tensions between local concerns (often short term and pressing) and the overall social good (often long-term and vague or uncertain) are unavoidable. Local concerns can easily be given precedence - after all, an elected official's position depends on maintaining support of her or his constituent majority.
    The situation is often complicated by capitalism which intrinsically has everyone pursuing their own individual interests. An open market manages some of the undesirable results of such free-for-all competition, but regulation has proved essential: anti-trust, minimum wage, and anti-discrimination laws are only a small and highly visible part of this system of controls. The more complex a system becomes, the more complex the regulations working to control or moderate it.
    Every decision has winners and losers. More vocal constituents naturally get more attention. So do favored groups, ranging from family (outright nepotism is avoided) to friends to associates to general supporters to brokers - persons whose support is contingent on obtaining specific favors. Ultimately, thousands of individual decisions provide thousands of benefits to thousands of favored individuals and groups. Regulations and procedures become so intertwined that it is very difficult to change many of them in anything short of a crisis situation.


    In the end, all politics is not only local, but personal, with decision-makers understandably reluctant to take actions which hurt them individually and inclined to "trade favors" with others. Democratic institutions become more and more encrusted with legacy procedures and democracy becomes more and more unresponsive to the general welfare. This is sclerosis, a disease characterized by increasing difficulty in performing routine tasks - the body's systems simply become hardened and no longer function efficiently. This clearly is applicable to democratic bodies as well as human ones.







    The US Situation



    The United States is now experiencing an economic recovery that is disturbingly superficial. Many basic indicators are doing well, but unemployment remains stubbornly high, so for millions, the recovery is no recovery at all. Against this background, the US legislative system has become increasingly dysfunctional and polarized. We have reached a point that the accumulated entitlements and favored treatments are weighing heavily on the system.


    There is no simple description of the problem; rather it is a culmination of long-standing trends:


    The society and its embedded economic system have become so complex that they are difficult to manage coherently. This is obvious in the response to the economic recession - no one really knows just what to do. Widely varying programs are proposed. Some are implemented. The economy gradually recovers, but no one knows exactly why or how to address the unemployment problem.
    The massive set of laws and regulations, including the Tax Code and the Code of Federal Regulations (all 50 titles), include thousands of individual favorable treatments - many initially put in place with good justification, but all of them resistant to reduction.
    Economic problems mean short term considerations have a higher salience. Policy changes often have a direct impact on individuals, who will loudly defend their own specific privileges. But they have only a diffuse impact on the general public, so there is often no one to speak for the common good.
    Political power and economic power are interlocked. The costs of political campaigns have reached exorbitant levels. Interests with strong financial support get represented in the public debate; those without financial backing have difficulty even getting public visibility, much less support.


    Every day the news includes dozens of examples of groups, big and small, strongly protecting their own favored positions without balancing voices speaking for the general welfare - a few random examples:

    A new push to strengthen mine safety faced determined resistance from coal mine owners;
    Although most farm subsidies go to farms with average annual revenue exceeding $200,000, reducing them is extraordinarily difficult;
    Even though an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been opposed by both the Bush and Obama administrations, it still enjoys broad bipartisan support in the House because it provides jobs for constituents;
    Junk mail supposedly pays its own way, though it is hard to understand why it cost 75 cents to deliver a three-ounce letter but only 11 cents to deliver a three-ounce catalog.
    Unions are intimidating companies to eliminate secret ballot requirements in union-organizing elections.


    Vested interests naturally resist change. But the core problem is that this does not simply apply to a handful of rich or powerful constituents, but to thousands, millions, of everyday people who also protect their own individual interests, particularly personal, short-term interests - their organization sends junk mail, or their job depends on a government program, or their own small subsidy is more important to them than the outsized subsidy to someone else, or their company profits are squeezed by some regulation.



    The problem of course is exacerbated by economic difficulties which put pressure on all favored treatments, and thus provide incentives for large numbers of people to focus on defending some specific program rather than promoting the general good. Politicians naturally see this as an opportunity; in an atmosphere of growing personal insecurity, it is much easier to get votes with attractive slogans and simplistic answers to complex problems than with thoughtful programs which cannot be explained in a short paragraph. The result is that the government pays for or requires thousands of programs which are inefficient. Collectively, these programs significantly undermine the ability of the economy as a whole to function efficiently. Although some of the programs provide benefits to a wide range of everyday citizens, most all of these lesser benefits go to the middle class; few of them trickle down to the lower classes. Perhaps the starkest example is the $100 billion that the federal government spends annually to subsidize homeowners. Renters get no breaks; homeowners get tons of them. Such unbalanced support is particularly important now that the traditional route to upward mobility has stalled. Almost 100 years ago, facing the rise of Facism and Communism, Harold Laski warned of the problems created by those who "have too small a stake in the present order to make its preservation a matter of urgency to themselves," characterizing Lenin's view of the state as simply a "method of protecting the owners of property." Such disaffection in Europe led to decades of upheaval, war and misery.


    But, because of sustained growth, America was able to avoid this upheaval. Immigrants provided an underclass, but growth made America the Land of Opportunity, where they could work themselves up into the middle class, with the underclass replaced by still newer immigrants. Now globalization has undermined this upward flow; many more people have been tumbling down the ladder of success than climbing up it. Immigration has become a weakness as immigrants are basically consigned to a permanent underclass; merging with the chronic unemployed, they form a growing disaffected population. The highest incarceration rate in the world starkly attests to this disaffection, as do continuous reports of murder, misery and mayhem. America is becoming a Land of Stagnation, with members of the underclass pushed into increasingly desperate and often irrational violence. The 1965 Watts riots strikingly demonstrated the power of pent up frustration; two aspects are notable: the rioters burned their own neighborhoods and the events did not spread. In the contrast, the recent Occupy movement rapidly spread nationwide, though it did not erupt into any significant violence. But now one can easily imagine, for instance, not only unruly mobs firebombing upscale neighborhoods but the example spreading to other localities. On another scale, the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington showed how just two determined individuals could terrorize a city for an extended period, while the recent onslaught of a single angry arsonist caused widespread turmoil (and several million dollars damage) in Los Angeles. It is such internal disruption that could devastate the nation, as it devastated Europe starting a century ago.



    The central economic problem remains unrecognized: the Era of Economic Growth is grinding to a close; the economy needs to be realigned to function in a steady state-condition. Such a basic economic realignment would be difficult enough without a sclerotic government whose dysfunction is much more deeply ingrained into American society than is generally recognized. The conservative focus on smaller government directly addresses economic imbalances. But the challenge is to identify those pieces of the government which are less important (or even detrimental) to the general welfare. Any significant rebalancing would involve trimming thousands of programs which will adversely affect millions of vocal and influential voters. This is unlikely to happen without widespread, coherent electoral pressures from the lower classes or growing violence leading to a major crisis situation. Economic crisis meets democratic sclerosis.

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    Any thoughts?

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    We need to create a task force that every so often, say 5 years after a given law or regulations passage and every 25 years thereafter, takes a look at that law or regulation and asks 3 questions.

    Is this law doing what it was intended to do?

    Has the funding required by it been efficiently used?

    If you were the write the law or regulation today, what would it look like?

    If a law fails either of the first two questions, or the law could be rewritten to take into account changing global circumstances (for instance the birth of the internet) then you would have one of two options.

    First, completely rewrite the law or regulation to reflect changing global circumstances.

    Or secondly, take the law off the books as an inefficient use of tax payer dollars.

    EDIT - Anyone feel free to interrupt the conversation I'm having with myself.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DiscoBiscuit View Post
    Or secondly, take the law off the books as an inefficient use of tax payer dollars.
    This would be a great first step, in my opinion. Most people don't even have a clue how many laws there are that are completely unnecessary or otherwise antiquated. One of the reasons the government is getting so out of control is that it never seems to cut programs or laws which are no longer necessary or useful...
    ...

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tyrinth View Post
    This would be a great first step, in my opinion. Most people don't even have a clue how many laws there are that are completely unnecessary or otherwise antiquated. One of the reasons the government is getting so out of control is that it never seems to cut programs or laws which are no longer necessary or useful...
    The problem is that small vocal constituencies benefit from each law and regulation, and they will viciously fight to keep their preferred program.

    Conversely, the country at large will benefit from rewriting or repealing such regulation, but no one group benefits enough to fight for the repeal.

    This problem is why the review process by which laws or regulations would be rewritten, repealed or retained needs to be automatic, and overseen by some sort of independent body not influenced by the clamors of the populace (maybe similar to how SCOTUS justices serve for life and are to remain deaf to the whims of the people).

  6. #6

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    I dont think this is happening at all, I dont think there is a maturation in democracy towards a model underpinned by classical liberal ideology and capitalist vested interests, if anything it is the pressure of bureaucratic managerialism which has caused this.

    If a bureaucratic, managerial politician, their staff, their constituents in the shape of particular departments and officials have to choose between services to the public and their own wages, benefits and interests they will choose their own wages, benefits and interests 100% of the time.

    The rationalisations provided by Rand et al and these sorts of formulations about government provide them with vindication for pursing their own good. Exclusively.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lark View Post
    I dont think this is happening at all, I dont think there is a maturation in democracy towards a model underpinned by classical liberal ideology and capitalist vested interests, if anything it is the pressure of bureaucratic managerialism which has caused this.

    If a bureaucratic, managerial politician, their staff, their constituents in the shape of particular departments and officials have to choose between services to the public and their own wages, benefits and interests they will choose their own wages, benefits and interests 100% of the time.

    The rationalisations provided by Rand et al and these sorts of formulations about government provide them with vindication for pursing their own good. Exclusively.
    What distinction are you making here?

    That the problem exists but has different causes not related to the preferred legislative interests of monied and/or vocal constituencies.

    I'm not really following, and it seems like you are contorting yourself as far as you need to to get in another dig at Ayn Rand.

    How is bureaucratic managerialism not part and parcel of the arguments laid out in the article?

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    Quote Originally Posted by DiscoBiscuit View Post
    What distinction are you making here?

    That the problem exists but has different causes not related to the preferred legislative interests of monied and/or vocal constituencies.

    I'm not really following, and it seems like you are contorting yourself as far as you need to to get in another dig at Ayn Rand.

    How is bureaucratic managerialism not part and parcel of the arguments laid out in the article?
    No contortions necessary.

    The article suggests that representative democracy, ie democracy with the classical liberal limits and capitalist interests, is needed to curtail bureaucratic managerialism, I say its bureaucratic managerialism which makes the trend towards so called "representative democracy" possible because it involves elites behaving selfishly without regard for voters.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lark View Post
    No contortions necessary.

    The article suggests that representative democracy, ie democracy with the classical liberal limits and capitalist interests, is needed to curtail bureaucratic managerialism, I say its bureaucratic managerialism which makes the trend towards so called "representative democracy" possible because it involves elites behaving selfishly without regard for voters.
    That's a tenuous link you draw.

    Also when you said I don't think this is happening, do you mean that accumulated legislative burdens aren't holding back our ability to govern in the 21st century?

    The main point of the article is that we are in need of legislative reform. Do you disagree?

    Getting into a chicken and the egg argument about democracy vs bureaucracy doesn't really address the issue of reform at all now does it.

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