Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A Healthy Corruption?

Instead of appointing a formal conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate health bills, a handful of Democratic leaders will now negotiate in secret by themselves. Later this month, presumably white smoke will rise from the Capitol Dome, and then Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and the college of Democratic cardinals will unveil their miracle. The new bill will then be rushed through both chambers with little public scrutiny or even the chance for the Members to understand what they're passing.

Evading conference has become standard operating procedure in this Congress, though you might think they'd allow for the more open and thoughtful process on what Mr. Obama has called "the most important piece of social legislation since the Social Security Act passed in the 1930s and the most important reform of our health-care system since Medicare passed in the 1960s."
Does this Congress seem ever more corrupt? Or, perhaps it is tyrannical?


Tim Canon said...

Just for fun: Let's assume this bill is going to be really good. Let's also assume that people are, as Caplan described it, "rationally irrational." Let's also assume that what seems to be general public opposition to much of the current reform being pushed through Congress is a result of this rational irrationality.

Assuming all those assumptions are true, can it be efficient, perhaps, for senators and congressman to engage in such backdoor lawlessness? Particularly if we assume their backdoor lawlessness has no effect on the law and order of the rest of the nation?

I guess what I'm getting at is this: If this were a good bill, and if people really are rationally irrational, is there a relevant and realistic tradeoff between government transparency and policy efficiency? In this case, I think public opposition is a good thing. But are there situations where the more the public knows, the worse a bill gets economically speaking? I'm thinking primarily of Bill Clinton's late 1990's negotiations with China over free trade.

Larry Eubanks said...

Excellent question. I don't remember details about Clinton and China, so I'll stick with the present.

Let's also bring in rational ignorance. Given rational ignorance, perhaps we can say that often the workings of Congress are effectively not "transparent" in the sense that few voters are paying attention any way. In most cases I will venture to guess, if a conference committee's meetings are made apparent by being televised on CSPAN, very few would pay attention anyway.

Given that, it seems to me the present circumstances are atypical. I think many more are watching what is going on in Washington on Obamacare. Many who would ordinarily not be paying attention are deciding not to be ignorant on this issue. And, I'm thinking the reason the Congressional leaders want to try to hide their negotiations is exactly because they don't like so many voters to be paying so much attention.

I'm thinking that in the past when an issue becomes controversial and many more voters than usual are paying attention to the issue, Congress has dropped the issue. I believe at least one illustration of this is the recent illegal immigration reform efforts.

Caplan argues that because the median voter "picks" the policy outcome, the response to rational irrationality (and ignorance by implication I think) is to seek to reduce the irrationality of the middle 5% to maybe as much as 15% of the voters. I'm thinking that in the present situation, this middle group of voters, most of which supported Obama in the election, have for the most part been paying "close attention" and are switching to the other side and against Obamacare.

So, I'm thinking that because of rational ignorance and rational irrationality most often government's work is effectively not transparent to the voters. When an issue becomes sufficiently controversial the voters that are paying attention will not fit either ignorance or irrationality as modeled by Caplan, and at the same time government transparency is effectively increased. If so, then efforts by our representatives to hide themselves from our view are likely not to be "efficient."

Tim Canon said...

I guess I hadn't thought of separating the voter groups out like that. For the present issue, that seems like a good application of Caplan's model.

I still wonder whether some of the effectively not transparent bills (the ones nobody really cares about) might be better off with or without public scrutiny. I'm tempted to automatically say "with," but I'm not sure if that's always true.

Larry Eubanks said...

I certainly understand a reason for representative government that sounds something like your question. That is, voters will not, cannot, become as informed about policy tradeoffs as an elected representative. So, either because of rational ignorance or irrationality, if our representatives only voted as they discovered "the people" wanted as revealed by polls, we should probably not expect good results in general.

But, this view would not seem to suggest that our representatives should attempt to hide themselves from public view. If our elected representatives are willing to lead, even if they later become diselected, then I'm thinking that is likely to be about the best we can get with representative government. When party leaders choose to hide, especially when the President (the supposed top party leader) campaigned on making this specific "debate" transparent, I think we are not likely to get the best of representative government.

So, in general the effective lack of transparency because voters aren't really paying rational attention to their representatives, is probably fine. After all, in that circumstance the representatives need not actively try to hide. When an issue becomes controversial enough and many more people are watching and becoming as informed as they want to be, then representatives wanting to hide seems to me unlikely to fit the terms of your original question. After all, isn't there a reason these Congressional leaders are trying to hide their deals from public view? And, if so, does it seem likely that reason fits with "we don't want to be transparent because on this issue the median voter must be wrong?"