04 May 2009

Cognitive Capture

Why has Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner taken a top firm bailout approach he has to the financial crisis, despite the fact that it creates an appearance that the federal government is catering to executives who get rich bonuses?

One blogger has pointed to Tim Geitner's close personal ties to powerful people on Wall Street play an important role and then gone on to note a commentator who states that "the cognitive capture theory (as opposed to the corruption theory)," best explains his actions. (Hat Tip to Steam Powered Opinions.)

The observation is an important one with practical implications.

Most efforts to regulate political influence, sponsored by organizations like Common Cause, implicitly or explicitly rely on a corruption theory of political influence. Politicians, the theory goes, act contrary to constituent best interests because they have been bribed to do so with campaign contributions or personal gifts. Remove this financial bias from the system with viable threats of criminal or quasi-criminal punishments, they argue, and politicians will serve the public good.

But, nobody informed about the fact argues that Geitner is corrupt in the conventional sense. He is a political appointee who probably spent less money getting his job than the average Colorado General Assembly candidate courting a vacancy committee and was entirely self-funded in that effort. He turned down opportunities to make multi-million dollar bonuses himself as a big bank CEO. No one is suggesting that he has received inappropriate personal gifts. There is not even any evidence that he has carried out his duties in anything other than earnest good faith. Yet, he has also not acted as progressive proponents of good government through reduced corruption would expect him to act in the absence of corporate influence.

If cognitive capture is a more important factor in explaining political decision making, than corrupt influence, then the sensible solutions for advocates are much different. It explains, for example, as courtiers and lobbyists have known since before the feudal era, why face time and access are more important in the influence game than financial resources. The task is not to prevent financial influence of decision makers, but to expose decision makers to alternative, independent ideas in an effective way. It is to make appointments to positions of power in a way the selects people who can empathize with ordinary members of the public whom the appointee stands in for vis-a-vis a particular industry. It is to recognize that that the team players with a shared view of how the world work that are so effective when working together on a board of directors for a company, may fall prey to group think and complacency in a regulatory role.

There is more to decision making than the behavior of the economic rational actor. Anthropology matters as much as econometrics. If one wants to have influence politically, one needs to get one's memes into the world of political thought, and get those who give those memes some credibility into positions of power. Moreover, in the big political picture, one has to stop criminalizing politics and demonizing your potential allies, with a discourse of corruption, and instead figure out how to engage in a discourse that makes powerful people more wary of the risks of cognitive capture.

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