Monthly Archives: October 2013

At the end of this interesting Guardian piece on privatization in the UK is a good crystallization of an argument I’ve made, or tried to, in a few blog posts:

Markets are in the end man-made devices for utilitarian purposes, not a force of nature that we should not try to resist.

Most of us in the West like to think we’ve moved far beyond the atavistic proclivity of seeing spirits, or agency, in the moon, stars, and wind.  But if you listen closely, and without deference, to what you hear from economists and pundits, you’ll soon realize we haven’t come as far as we might think.  You’ll find we’ve traded shamans for economists, and it’s the markets that are the spirits in need of appeasement.

And only the economists know the spells.  Take this passage from Satyajit Das’ Traders Guns & Money discussing former chairman of the Fed Alan Greenspan’s elocutionary powers:

Greenspan’s regular congressional testimony attracted financial analysts, journalists and linguists in equal numbers.  An industry in interpreting Greenspan’s prognostications has developed.  Without a hint of self-parody, Greenspan himself provided guidance to interpreting his pronouncements.  ‘I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant’ the Maestro once offered as explanation.  He further clarified his position with unusual directness: ‘If I have made myself clear then you have misunderstood me.’

Does that sound more like a scientist trying to explain and elucidate, or a shaman befuddling with large arm movements, attempting to keep his place at court?

And it’s only the power that we give to the magic juju of our modern shaman that can explain why the last sentence of the Guardian piece isn’t maddeningly, heart-breakingly obvious to, and accepted by everyone:

If [markets] end up serving the interests of only a tiny minority, as is increasingly the case, we have the right – and indeed the duty – to regulate them in the interest of greater social good.


I’ve never had any particular interest in the arcana of parliamentary procedure.  Any sentence containing the word ‘cloture’ is guaranteed to make my eyes gloss over, and what the hell is President pro tempore supposed to mean anyway?  Of all the books that exist in the world, Robert’s Rules of Order might literally be last on my reading list.  Even despite some fairly recent evidence to the contrary, I’ve taken for granted that the gears of government will grind on, even if slowly.  That there is something in the mechanics of the process of governing that will prevent it from going off the rails.  Sort of like how you take for granted that your engine will start whenever you turn the key.  Until it doesn’t.

And on October 1st, the beginning of the fiscal year, the Federal government, or at least a lot of it, shut down.  So it seems I’ve lost the luxury of taking a base operational state of the US Federal Government for granted.  Was that luxury ever justified?  Forget the why for a moment, how does something like this happen?  Did a slight majority or minority in one half of one branch of government just shut the whole thing down?  How is that possible?

Well, as I said, I’ve been complacent and disinterested in matters of governance and legislation so I have no idea.  Perhaps our most august journalistic institutions can help.  This New York Times piece from September 30, Government Shuts Down in Budget Impasse looks like a good place to start.

What looks clear is that the dispute involves funding for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, with the House passing a bill that will defund or otherwise delay enactment of Obamacare, and the Senate refusing those measures.

In the hours leading up to the deadline, House Republican leaders won approval, in a vote of 228 to 201, of a new plan to tie further government spending to a one-year delay in a requirement that individuals buy health insurance.

So a chamber of the Senate can do that, delay the enactment of a law though the budget process?  Apparently so.  But the bill the Democratically controlled Senate wants to pass is clean, i.e. no “funny stuff”, as Lebowski’s nihilists might put it.

Earlier Monday, the Senate voted 54 to 46 along party lines to kill the previous House plan immediately after ending a weekend break. Senators then sent the House a bill to finance the government through Nov. 15 without policy prescriptions.

But House leaders would have none of it, again demanding a significant hit to the health law as a price for keeping the government open.

But why are there ever ‘policy prescriptions’ in funding bills at all?  Is that a new thing?  Some historical context would be helpful.

Maybe the Washington Post can help, let’s start with the hopefully titled So far on Capitol Hill, no end in sight over shutdown.  From early in the piece:

The GOP decision to attach the language to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act to the stalled spending resolution was a tactical one pushed by conservatives, who think that the spending bills represent their moment of greatest leverage with President Obama.

Well I suppose that makes some sense, the GOP doesn’t like the ACA and, since it is now law, and since they only control one house of Congress they can’t repeal it, so mangling it during the budget process would be the only option…I guess.  But I still wonder about precedent, and appropriateness.

After nearly three years of jumping from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, Democrats want to establish a different order. They would like to make temporary funding bills, such as the one the Senate passed last week to keep the government funded, and regular increases to the debt ceiling perfunctory matters that are routinely approved without bringing Washington to the brink of disaster each time.

And that makes sense…or at least more sense than re-fighting legislative battles all over again during the budget process.  And fighting them to an impasse that incapacitates the federal government.  This all still seems muddled and messy.  But then, that could be because it is muddled and messy.  But as far as a way through, this is towards the end of the piece:

Despite the heated talk about gutting the health-care law, Republicans have been quietly trying to coalesce around a set of goals that could win support from Democrats in a bipartisan pact that would resolve the annual spending bills and increase the debt ceiling. In exchange for lifting the debt ceiling, the possibilities floated include smaller cuts to the health law, including repeal of a tax on medical devices that funds a portion of the law but is unpopular even among many Democrats. Additionally, Republicans might push for a repeal of a medical advisory board that conservative critics have called a “death panel.”

Most likely, Republicans want to focus on reforms to entitlements, including a change in how the inflation index is measured for adjustments to Social Security benefits, and some other tweaks to mandatory spending. If those were adopted, Republican advisers said, it would pave the way for relief from the automatic cuts imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

All of this could be accompanied by vague language calling for the tax-writing committees in Congress to engage in a rewrite of the tax code.

It’s good to have goals, hopefully realistic goals.  I don’t know what that last paragraph is supposed to mean though…would the language have to vague for some reason?  Is this just meant to suggest that accomplishing all that is discussed could potentially be easy, not requiring specifically worded legislation?  Still muddled.

And still searching for some historical context, I found the Washington Post WonkBlog.  Like with geek, I’m generally a bit suspicious of those who self apply “wonk”, but sure enough there is a post with exactly the historical context I was looking for.  The piece lives up to its title, listing all the previous government shutdowns, why they happened, and how they ended.  Or at least, all the shutdowns since ” the modern congressional budgeting process took effect in 1976″, though just what the modern congressional budgeting process is is not explained.

The upshot to me is that mixing of policy prescriptions with funding bills is not new and unprecedented.  It’s brought the federal government to loggerheads a number of times in the past 40 years, whether over abortion, Contras, or nuclear powered aircraft carriers.  So it does seem like a systemic problem.

The same WonkBlog author, Dylan Matthews, explores that in another post titled The shutdown is the Constitution’s fault.  Stating early on where the fault of the shutdown lies:

If you’re a congressional process nerd, you’ll blame a budget process that has stopped working, if it ever did work, and which asks Congress to take far more actions every year than it can be expected to take in its currently hyper-polarized state.

That may be fair as far as it goes, but it does let the legislators, the actual people who have responsibilities and make decisions that they should be held accountable for, off the hook.

Ultimately, the wonk and presumed congressional process nerd, blames James Madison.

Madison is also wrong about how best to safeguard democracy in a diverse republic. The thesis of Federalist 51 is that elections alone are insufficient to guard against the possibility that a government will encroach upon the rights of citizens, either by a majority faction oppressing others or through all-out tyranny. “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government,” Madison writes, “but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

It’s unclear exactly what Madison was so wrong about, apparently the need for “auxiliary precautions” in addition to elections to guard against tyranny.  And it’s not explicit what those unnecessary “auxiliary precautions” are, but since the piece goes on to talk about systems in New Zealand, Norway, and Israel that all have unicameral parliaments whose leader serves as the executive, presumably those precautions are the checks and balances to be had between separate executive and legislative branches.  My speculation seems to be borne out a few paragraphs later:

But it’s not just that Madison’s system is unnecessary. It’s potentially dangerous. Scholars of comparative politics have shown that presidential systems with a separation of executive and legislative functions, like America’s, are considerably more likely to collapse into dictatorship than are parliamentary systems where the executive and legislative branches are merged. That’s because there are competing branches of government able to claim democratic legitimacy and steer the ship of state at the same time — and when they disagree profoundly, there’s no real mechanism for resolving the dispute.

That’s a bit scary.  But, circling back to the previous article on past shut downs, that list started in 1976 when the modern congressional budgeting process (whatever that is) took effect.  Couldn’t that be the problem, the budgeting process and not necessary the whole separation of the executive and legislative?  Rather than re-writing the constitution, couldn’t the budgeting process be fixed?

I mean, at least the federal government would be funded, wouldn’t it?  Though it does seem we have a tough row to hoe with the apparent lack of feeling that Americans, despite serious ideological differences, are involved in a common project.  Maybe it’s rose colored glasses, maybe things have always been this way, but the parties do appear to be extremely polarized, and only getting more so.  This paragraph is worth contemplating:

It’s important to be very clear about what’s scary here. It’s not any one instance of disagreement or brinksmanship. It’s the emergence of the sustained, structural problems that have harmed other countries with similar presidential systems. To believe that the U.S. won’t eventually face terrible consequences from the mixture of polarized parties in a presidential system is to believe that the clear trends in our political system will, for reasons that are currently unclear, reverse themselves. That would be nice, but as they say, hope is not a plan. And the problems of our politics have something of a built-in defense mechanism against meddlesome voters trying to impose sanity on the system.

The piece ends with:

That’s James Madison’s fault. It’s the Constitution’s fault. If you’re mad that American democracy has gotten to this point, don’t just blame Boehner or Obama or Ted Cruz. Don’t hate the players. Hate the game — and think about how to change the rulebook.

I’m pretty sure you can hate both.