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January 26, 2007

More on Polarization

Thinking about Krugman's piece on the relationship between polarization and economic inequality, I've been flipping through Polarized America, which has lots of interesting things to say on the subject. Among them:

To see that the moderates had vanished by 2003, consider the ratings of the Americans for Democratic Action for that year. The possible ADA ratings rose in five-point steps from 0 to 100. Of the twenty-one possible ratings, nine were in the range between 30 and 70. Yet only eleven of the hundred senators feel in one of the nine middle categories. In contrast, ten Democrats got high marks of 95 or 100 while fourteen Republicans got marks of 5 and 0. That is, more than twice as many senators (24) fell in the four very extreme categories as fell in the nine middle categories.

Now, I'm not sure that's quite as illuminative as the authors think. The ADA has fairly simple positions on American politics, and if you agree with them, you'd be likely to vote for most of them. Ending up in the middle demonstrates incoherence as easily as moderation. But it's interesting nonetheless. Then there's this:

[P]oliticians enact policies in a very unique institutional setting. Specifically, the American government is not majoritarian. The separation of powers and bicameralism require that very large majority coalitions, typically bipartisan, must be formed to pass new laws and revise old ones. Thus any policy response to the economic and social factors that lead to inequitable economic growth will be muted by the gridlock of our institutions...immigration policy, social welfare, and tax policies have been especially affected by the gridlock created by polarization.

It's far easier to take this country to war then to significantly raise its minimum wage, or reform its tax code, or fix its health system. The President, particularly in recent years, can conduct military actions without anything approaching oversight or institutional opposition. Even minor social policy changes, conversely, need a majority in the House, 60 votes in the Senate, and a favorably inclined executive.

January 26, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Yes, and that's a good thing. The primary function of government is the protection of its citizens from physical attack. In the dangerous world that we inhabit, a proactive US military is a safeguard on our liberties. Interfering in its citizen's economic lives whether by setting maximum wages (as in WWII - which lead to the current disastrous linkage of health insurance and employment) or minimum wages is not a legitimate government function in a free society.

But the concept of liberty is outside young collectivist Klein's worldview.

Posted by: Stuart Browning | Jan 26, 2007 1:26:32 PM

Paul Krugman is generally a pretty smart guy: one may have differences with his political/ideological preferences, but he usually gets the basic facts down fairly well. That's why it's odd to read a quote from him like this:

Specifically, the American government is not majoritarian. The separation of powers and bicameralism require that very large majority coalitions, typically bipartisan, must be formed to pass new laws and revise old ones.

which would seem to be contradicted by the legislative history of the last dozen years - since the so-called "Gingrich revolution" brought a new and different sort of Republican to power in Washington.
In fact, I think the hallmark of the Republican-led Congresses of late has been the exact opposite of the principle Krugman cites: the "50%+1" theory, in which bipartisanship - or even the semblance of bipartisanship - is rendered irrelevant by the greater level of party discipline on the part of the majority - however thin their margin. And the modern Republican Party has been (at least until the 2006 elections) really BIG on enforcing party-line discipline, especially in the House.
How many major legislative initiatives of recent years have edged through the House by razor-thin margins - enabled by Republican near-unanimity (and abetted by parliamentary trickery like late-voting)? Paul Krugman may be right in articulating that "bipartisanship" has been, and/or should be, a feature of American politics - but he should know that that principle has been flouted more than honored in recent years.

Posted by: Jay C | Jan 26, 2007 1:29:40 PM

First, the ADA has a partisan agenda, which makes it likely to pick and choose bills based on how close the vote on them was to a strict party line division. In 2001, it included the vote on confirming Ashcroft, but not on the Patriot Act.

And second, anyone who knows anything about comparative politics will back me up here: the US has a very majoritarian government. It's less majoritarian than the classic example of majoritarianism, Britain, but it's still far closer to Britain than to Switzerland. In particular, note that Clinton raised taxes with one vote majorities in both houses of Congress, and Bush cut taxes with only slightly bigger majorities.

Posted by: Alon Levy | Jan 26, 2007 1:44:44 PM

Stuart Browning said: "In the dangerous world that we inhabit, a proactive US military is a safeguard on our liberties."

Are you sure you've been inhabiting the same world as the rest of us for the past 5 years?

It's clear to most Americans now that there's not been nearly enough congressional oversight over Bush's disastrous war. If you were happy about how Vietnam ended up and happy about where we're at in Iraq and happy to go for broke and invade Iran, then yes, I guess it's a good thing that the president can go to war at the drop of a hat.

Is this satire? My confidence in sniffing it out has been shaken by the Donnie Davies business.

Posted by: yave begnet | Jan 26, 2007 2:39:15 PM

happy to go for broke and invade Iran

With what, the Coast Guard?

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 26, 2007 2:46:29 PM

Yave - Actually "going for broke" would be not invading Iran.

Posted by: Stuart Browning | Jan 26, 2007 3:21:58 PM

It's far easier to take this country to war then to significantly raise its minimum wage, or reform its tax code, or fix its health system.

So true and so tragic.

I guess Stuart Browning thinks that only libertarians know what freedom is. I guess his corallary is that the founding fathers didn't know what freedom is either, since it is clear that they thought that the war power was so dangerous to liberty that they intended that the war power ONLY be exercised by the Congress, subject to the same majoritarian requirements of passing legislation. (and spare us the cant that the President takes an oath to preserve and protect the Constitution: each member of Congress takes the same oath).

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jan 26, 2007 3:34:29 PM

Somebody who confuses 'going to war' with 'protecting liberty' isn't a libertarian, although he might call himself that.

Posted by: Barry | Jan 26, 2007 7:30:15 PM

I never called myself that.

Posted by: Stuart Browning | Jan 26, 2007 8:32:23 PM

I'm not so sure this is saying what you think it's saying. President Bush did, after all, get Congress to pass resolutions supporting both the War in Iraq and in Afghanistan; it's simply not concievable that he would have gone to war without those resolutions.

I mean, is it not true that U.S. military actions also "need a majority in the House, 60 votes in the Senate, and a favorably inclined executive"? Clearly there are vast differences between the IWR and an increase in the minimum wage. But the structural foundation of the government is pretty much the same in both cases. It just so happens that it's more politically possible for Congress to authorize a war than it is for Congress to raise the minimum wage. That's a matter of politics, though, and I don't think it has much to do with "gridlock" or "polarization."

The fact is that the Republicans have governed for the last 6 years without "very large majority coalitions," actually with quite slim ones, and yet they've been pretty damn successful in pushing an ambitious and hugely polarizing agenda anyway. I don't really think Democrats can do the same--as Barack Obama says, universal health care is harder to accomplish than cutting taxes--but it's theoretically possible.

It's not the system, it's just the political climate. Fortunately that climate seems to be changing nowdays.

Posted by: Korha | Jan 26, 2007 8:37:54 PM

I'm not so sure this is saying what you think it's saying. President Bush did, after all, get Congress to pass resolutions supporting both the War in Iraq and in Afghanistan; it's simply not concievable that he would have gone to war without those resolutions.

I mean, is it not true that U.S. military actions also "need a majority in the House, 60 votes in the Senate, and a favorably inclined executive"? Clearly there are vast differences between the IWR and an increase in the minimum wage. But the structural foundation of the government is pretty much the same in both cases. It just so happens that it's more politically possible for Congress to authorize a war than it is for Congress to raise the minimum wage. That's a matter of politics, though, and I don't think it has much to do with "gridlock" or "polarization."

The fact is that the Republicans have governed for the last 6 years without "very large majority coalitions," actually with quite slim ones, and yet they've been pretty damn successful in pushing an ambitious and hugely polarizing agenda anyway. I don't really think Democrats can do the same--as Barack Obama says, universal health care is harder to accomplish than cutting taxes--but it's theoretically possible.

It's not the system, it's just the political climate. Fortunately that climate seems to be changing nowdays.

Posted by: Korha | Jan 26, 2007 8:38:04 PM

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Posted by: JUDY | Sep 26, 2007 4:19:40 AM

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