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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Lessons in Civics

Originally Posted: November 7, 2005 -- 12:00 AM
Fool Boards Link: http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=23265728

This post describes some key philisophical concepts that most Americans seem to have ingored when voting for the past quarter century.


A post on 10/27 (http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=835266) asked Democratic supporters to "take a stand", "be something besides negative", "start offering options" and "decide what your party believes is good for America".

Okay, I'll bite (again).

I consider myself "independent" and don't claim to (or want to) speak for the Democratic party. However, when Republicans control all three branches of government and the current political climate makes independent candidates unlikely to win office to introduce centrist policies, I feel obligated to point out flaws in majority thought that I feel are doing MAJOR long term damage to the country. I'd love to see people suggest SPECIFIC policies and provide SPECIFIC examples of HOW those policies will produce the desired result with minimal side effects. In fact, I think I've already done that on economic issues:

http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=22823833 (Problems with the Economy)
http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=23172927 (Bankruptcy and Game Theory)
http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=21919387 (Hidden Danger in Privatizing Social Security)

To really change the direction of the country and combat the toxic political climate, voters are going to have to think more philisophically about the role of government, problem solving strategies and how to use the levers of government to ensure officials in the government stay within those frameworks. We're not talking about voting for president of your high school student council. We're talking about voting for people who control nuclear tinker toys with OUR FLAG on them. This is kinda important.


Since 1980, the most consistent element of the Republican Party platform has involved the need to lower any and all taxes. When the economy is going well, tax rates need to be lowered to make it go better. When the economy is poor, tax rates need to be lowered to produce the proper incentives for investment, etc....

Part of the position is based upon a "moral" argument that says taking money away from individuals and giving it to a remote, unresponsive government is just wrong. It flies in the face of American individualism to have a government providing so many of our needs. More cynically, this position is supported as a way to "starve the beast" as a recognition of the fact that attempting to solve problems like poverty, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, etc. simply produces more of the problem.

Americans need to CAREFULLY consider this low-tax philosophy. If lower taxes are ALWAYS better no matter what the circumstances, what does this theory REALLY say? It says that the optimal amount of government is ZERO. That implies that economic growth has no upper limit and the tide floating all boats would continue to rise unbounded as taxes trend towards zero.

Do you REALLY believe in unlimited growth?

When analyzed like an economist, I think there is a fundamental upper bound in real GNP growth that can be achieved in any given year. The economic limit is directly related to a limit on human creativity and our ability to absorb change. No matter how brilliant an idea, the economy can only incorporate so much change per year without speculative bubbles overreaching the true consistent value being produced by the idea. Look at the hundreds of dot coms valued at tens / hundreds of millions that disappeared OVERNIGHT. Would lower taxes from 1996-2001 produced MORE growth? More REAL growth? No way. They would have simply fed the bubble and squandered BILLIONS laying thousands of miles of fiber optic cable to hundreds of failed businesses selling dog toys on a website.

More importantly, do you really believe in ZERO government?

What DO you think the role of government should be?

Before voting for a candidate who aims to cut government and return those dollars to you, shouldn't that candidate be able to identify the role they expect government to play? For me, government's responsibilities boil down to the

  1. protecting the borders of the nation from military threats

  2. faithful, consistent enforcement of all existing criminal / civil laws

  3. operation of a legislative body to create / amend the laws

  4. operation of a judiciary to settle criminal / civil disputes
    regarding existing law using consistent precedents and rules
    of evidence

  5. operation of sound, transparent systems for running elections

  6. management of a sound, unified, stable currency (store of value)

  7. operation of schools to ensure ALL citizens are provided equal
    opportunities to participate equally in the civic, ecomonic and
    cultural life of the nation -- this function also involves the
    responsibility to communicate the laws of the land

  8. providing "public goods and services" such as roads, sewers,
    immunizations, etc. where non-government market incentives fail to
    produce behavior deemed in society's best interest

  9. protecting society from "market failures" where normal economic
    forces fail to prevent private business from producing results
    detrimental to society as a whole -- things like rollover-prone
    SUVs with exploding tires, houses that burn down due to shoddy
    electrical work, etc.

Come up with your own list but please, make sure any candidate you vote for is bright enough to identify their list, suggest policies in sync with those priorities, and that a majority match yours.


Many of the problems introduced by government legislation result from people trying to solve problems without a clearly articulated philosphy of problem solving. An incoherent strategy produces incoherent policies that either fail to produce the intended direct effect or produce side-effects that often cancel out the main goal. Just once, I would like a politician of either party to explain their problem solving approach along the following lines:

  1. the government doesn't pick winners and losers (by giving
    tax breaks or enacting regulations that help or hinder
    specific business segments, technologies, etc.)

  2. the government ensures an even playing field by uniform,
    consistent enforcement of laws and regulations but
    is NOT responsible for ensuring "fair" outcomes

  3. when the government has to provide incentives to private
    industry to produce public benefits, those incentives
    should only be based on achievement of measurable
    criteria and provide the incentives in sync with or
    after the benefits are produced - no lump sum giveways
    PRIOR to the public seeing any benefit

  4. any proposed solution should produce at least two direct,
    measurable, related benefits to ensure we understand
    enough of the problem and its causes to create a
    sound, effective solution


I'm a big fan of the Founding Fathers. There is more insight into human behavior baked into the checks and balances of our Constitution than could fit into a thousand books on pyschology and economics.
However, the Founding Fathers didn't design an absolute fool-proof set of checks and balances. They don't function by their mere existance on paper. They only function in the presence of voters who understand how their government works and understand the intent of those checks and balances.

EVERYTHING about those checks and balances is designed to keep the overall "idea output" of government in the middle of the political spectrum. (Not the simple left / right or Democratic / Republican spectrum, but the full spectrum of political thought.) We have three branches of government with powers that allow any two to check the power of the third. We have powers delegated directly to the people EXCEPT where explicitly assigned to federal, state or local government. We have elected officials with terms designed to allow for quick (within 2 years) changes in popular opinion while imposing some inertia (6 year terms) to prevent short term panic changes in the direction of policy. The process doesn't rule out or prevent gradual movement of "the center" over time but ensures the government cannot swing one way or the other overnight.


I don't think they designed these balances merely to protect themselves at the time from the "tyranny" of their opponents because they didn't think they were assured of controlling the government for themselves. I think they actually had enough humility to understand no one philosophy would always be "right" and that a collective society and government that could remain open to ALL ideas would produce, in the aggregate, a better direction for society than allowing any one extreme color in the spectrum from assuming all power and excluding all other ideas.

If you understand this idea and believe in it, current trends in our elections and the day to day operation of our government (all branches) are of great concern.

Voters in both major parties have repeatedly engaged in "single issue voting" on specific hot button issues, failing to take into account or even acknowledge other positions of those candidates. What happens?

You have candidates for COUNTY government running on pro-life or pro-choice stances. Do you really think abortion issues are going to be decided at the local level? Shouldn't you instead be paying attention to that candidate's position on Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or emminent domain, which could DIRECTLY affect you based upon issues that county official can actually influence?

You have candidates for FEDERAL government winning elections on wedge issues (abortion, taxes) who do NOTHING in office for those issues or while providing them lip service, aid passage of other legistlation that does equal or more harm in other areas.

Both Republican and Democratic voters often state that their choices are often (always?) the "lesser of two evils" rather than a vote for someone they actually POSITIVELY like or agree with. In general, I agree that a "lesser" vote is better than no vote in that, at a minimum, it ensures our elected officials know we ARE paying some attention. However, Americans need to pay attention to the design of our government when making these "lesser" choices.

On a scale of 0 to 100, if you are a "50" voter and see party A publically suggestion solutions at "45" while party B suggests solutions at "60" and you try to pick the party closest to "50", voting for "A" consistently over time will not result in government policies in the "45" range. Why?

After 2 years, 4 years, 6 years (okay, 12 years at most) party A will control both the legislative and administrative branches, giving it the power to swing the judiciary, giving party A control over all three branches. At that point, it won't be the "45" policies that come out of party A, it will be the extreme positions ("0" to "20") since most party functions are controlled by the extreme base of the party. Having control of all three branches of government means more of those 0-20 policies will become law. Not exactly what you wanted, huh?

More importantly, single party dominance of all branches virtually assures the failure of the checks and balances within the government. Much of the daily functionality of our government (committee rules, debate rules, etc. in the House and Senate) are NOT dictated by the Constitution but by tradition and informal rules voted on by the members. If you distort the membership, you distort the rules that dictate how those bodies act.

Is this just my speculation on what could happen with an unchecked Bush administration? No. This is EXACTLY what happened when the Democrats controlled all three branches in the 60s. Drunken sailor spending (Great Society), broken checks and balances on information used in government decision making (Gulf of Tonkin), and misguided military adventures abroad (Vietnam). Single party government is bad regardless of the party in control.