Risky Business: Lessons In Political Psychology From the Shutdown Scare
By Jared Crum '11, Columnist
On Friday night, as the deadline for avoiding a government shutdown loomed, I walked over to the White House. I left the lecture series I was in town for to gaze into the eye of the political storm. I stood with other citizens, peering through the iron gates, visualizing the flurry of meetings and phone calls and e-mails all directed at saving the country and the government from a sorry admission of failure.

That failure never came. A deal was cut to fund the government, and not a moment too soon. The more I thought about it, the more I realized why everyone decided to step back from the brink that night.

For both Obama and the Republicans, a shutdown had political upsides and downsides. The problem was no one could figure out which would come to the fore during the shutdown. In the days leading up to Friday’s midnight deadline, the political upsides seemed apparent. The Republicans riled up their base voters with small-government rhetoric. Obama tried to boost his standing with independents by portraying a shutdown as a shock to the economy and job creation. But once the possibility of a shutdown became more real, Washington started pondering the downsides.

Would a repeat of 1995 occur, with the Republicans getting blamed for partisan pettiness and extremism? Or would the president get pinned with obstructing the small-government policies voters seemingly endorsed in the midterm elections? With the answers unclear, political actors reverted to their default position of risk aversion.

Resolving our current fiscal mess and broader political quagmire requires understanding this risk aversion’s role in political behavior. We already know politicians avoid politically risky decisions. They rarely draw outside the acceptable political lines. In a blue district, you vote blue, no matter what, and the bluer the better to avoid a primary challenge.

We are therefore faced with two types of potential political reform. One type recognizes that politicians face incentives — built into the political system — to avoid risk. Risk aversion leads to the gridlock and partisanship we see in Washington right now. Incentive-aware reforms attack underlying structural problems to change incentives. The other type of reform is incentive-blind. It wisely addresses the problems most readily visible to the eye but has nothing to say about how those problems came about.

One such example is the ethics reform legislation Obama sponsored during his Senate tenure, which banned lobbyists from buying officeholders meals. It was designed to eliminate sit-down dinners where lobbyists press their cause on their guests directly. The loophole? The purchase is perfectly legal as long as you’re standing up instead of in a sitting position.

It’s obvious that Obama’s legislation was much-needed and a step in the right direction. Laws like these are the small beginnings of bigger reforms. Our political system is probably cleaner for Obama’s efforts. But other, better reforms can be passed as well.

These better reforms would begin altering the underlying incentives surrounding political fundraising. Members of Congress spend a third to half their time chasing donors and dollars. Enacting a more comprehensive system of public campaign financing would give politicians less incentive to spend this amount of time asking special interests and big business for money (in exchange for favorable legislation). Government would improve when officeholders are asking tough policy questions, not asking for money.

Reforming the redistricting process is another change that takes advantage of incentives and behavior. If districts weren’t gerrymandered and instead were drawn up by independent panels, a system California is perfecting, more politically diverse districts would result. This would give politicians more reason to play to the middle, shun the extremes, and cut deals to advance legislation instead of killing it. Compel officeholders to show their worth and they will try and do so.

These reforms and others are strong because they use insight into and observation of political behavior. It’s not an obtuse or unintuitive understanding. It’s savvy and smart and tackles our political dysfunction at its root by making the risk-free, safe bet the one that’s also in the public interest. There’s a potential concern, however, that these reforms reduce democracy.

When you take redistricting power away from elected legislatures and vest it in a panel of, say, retired judges, you remove one more finger the public has around the political leash. When you lessen the significance of private donations to political causes, you run the risk of lessening citizens’ ability to use all the tools of citizenship at their disposal.

But our democracy’s allegedly democratic instruments have already been captured in many instances in undemocratic ways. Campaign finance is a good example of this. Big business is able to exploit its largesse in ways that make ordinary citizens less powerful in politics. Reforming this would enhance democracy.

Still, to ensure their own political survival, incentive-aware reforms should focus on ideas that are both democratic and make democracy more vibrant, like increasing public broadcasting funding and providing tax credits to news outlets that behave more like PBS than Rush Limbaugh. Ideas like these leave people’s control over government intact while improving our political discourse.

Making reforms structural and making them incentive-aware seems like an elementary point given what we all know about politicians’ behavior. But this insight has trouble breaking through the fog of the national political circus. If it does, the White House I stood before may truly become the people’s house.

Issue 22, Submitted 2011-04-13 04:27:03