Political Problems or Economic Problems?

Often we hear about the dysfunctions of Washington: the gridlock, the partisan mindset, the lack of any progress on better governance. But the media, largely ignorant of economics, seldom points to the root causes. Instead, most of them either get dragged along for the ride, or at best throw up their hands (and their lunch) in disgust.

The occasional wisp of truth of the economics comes through, but we forget and buy back into the partisan pie. We find the lie more valuable to us, that the partisan divide puts us in a battle of good and evil. The truth that we could likely solve partisanship with a few well-timed PBS-style pledge drives on behalf of our representatives does not sit well. Well maybe that’s not 100% true; pledge drives don’t share that big industry donations do.

We want to believe permanent the stain a wrongdoer wears. Their character flaw, their fault. Nobody wants to see that a bribe-taking congressman that follows an insane policy line that would, if enacted spell doom for the entire planet, is a good person. That their real motivation for staying in congress is the small, but tangible help they are able to give to the small business owner or single parent or high-school athlete that calls their office for help. They don’t care about the big stuff, and only vote as they do to keep them there.

Which is not at all to defend bad positions. Only to point out their origin is in the economics of that person’s life, not out of malice and sometimes not even out of being brainwashed by lobbyists.

That bad can be done due to economic constraints. We drive elephants and rhinoceros to smaller and smaller numbers for purely economic reasons. Human trafficking exists for purely economic reasons. The underlying motivation, be it ivory or horn or sex, is all based on delusion, often fostered by the marketplace.

Doctors don’t like to admit they can’t help. If for no other reason, they need to maintain the credibility of their profession. But for purely economic reasons, they will prescribe drugs that don’t work (at least not as they would have you believe), or have unmentioned side-effects. And pharmaceutical companies will sell them. And the FDA will approve them. And the media will advertise them.

We stop having the best companies leading the market. The fitness function stops being ability to provide the best good or service. It transforms into the best at lobbying, or the best at bringing doctors on board to sell/prescribe, and so on. Just as journalism stops being about the story, and becomes a game of keep your audience bewildered, afraid, vigilantly watching those advertisements for the answer.

We have economic problems. How do we change the government to stop poisoning representatives against the task they are elected for? That may sound like a call for campaign-finance reform. But as long as they have the power to award economic benefit to individuals or corporations, the perverse economic incentive will prevail. Trying to limit the flow of campaign money repeatedly proves fruitless. We need to find another way, that focuses on the economics of congress and government.