2013/08/25

Mark Leibovich's This Town

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital, by Mark Leibovich

I spent two years on Capitol Hill 1970-72 and witnessed the same kind of behavior presented in this book. The names have changed, but the pattern has changed only in having more money to play with, and do so in a way that brings far greater risks to our country and civilization if we don't get it right. But then as now there is little sense among the political class of the grave responsibility they all have. The one factor that did sober them then was the risk of global thermonuclear war, which has now receded as a perceived danger, even though it still is. The threats now are more abstract, complicated, and difficult for the mediocrities in the political class to understand.

This book does not provide much analysis and no recommendations. It is mainly written to be entertaining, even if it happens to be enlightening as well. However, it does provide evidence that we can analyze, and that we can use to develop reforms. Liebovich is a reporter, and he reports. The rest is up to us.

So what can we provisionally conclude?

1. With almost no exceptions, our leaders are not intellectually deep persons who value ideas or principles, or get their satisfaction from delivering good governance as an art. They are mainly salesmen, good at making connections and deals, who compartmentalize their thinking so that they can live in a bubble of enablers that is separated from reality and responsibility. No Jeffersons or Madisons among them, and those are the kind of persons that the situation requires. But the system does not allow such persons to ascend to those positions, because they can't be controlled.

2. It is not that our leaders are not representative of the people. They are all too representative. They are not much worse than most of the rest of us. But they need to be much, much better.

3. They behave that way because the structural incentives cause them to do so. Replacing them all would not change the incentives, and even much more talented and virtuous persons would probably mostly succumb to the corrupting influence of those incentives, and purge the system of the few who resist. We need to look at fundamental structural and procedural reforms.

4. The problem depicted is common to most countries that choose their main officials through popular elections. The voters are mostly rationally ignorant and willing to be influenced by the kinds of marketing money can buy, allowing public choice pathologies to prevail. The only alternative to that, other than dictatorship, is sortition, selection at random, like juries, but in a multistage process that alternates with filtering for aptitude and character. The Republic of Venice used such a system from 1268 through 1797 to select their doge, or chief executive. A similar process could be used to select legislators at all levels who would serve for only one term, and have no career path. Staffers could be similarly reassigned at random, preventing them from building empires of influence. There would be a stronger incentive to select persons of greater aptitude during the filtering phase of the sortition process. Without a stable poll of legislators and staffers, the influence of lobbyists would be somewhat
 dispersed.

Remedies

I have a proposed Tax Reform Bill that contains the following provision:

10. The President, each member of Congress, and each federal judge or presidential appointee, shall agree to, and have imposed on him, a 100% tax on any and all of his earnings other than his government salary or pension, or on any funds or property received, after he commences his office, except only earnings on investments made before he takes office, or on investments of his government salary or pension.

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