16 October 2013

Does our terrifying and crazy system work?

There have been eighteen or nineteen shutdowns of the federal government since the 1970s when the current budget process was adopted.  This one lasted sixteen days.  The longest lasted three weeks and came on the heels of another seven day shutdown.

But, every time, despite the fact that there was no change in the political players involved, a deal was ultimately reached to reopen the government in fairly short order before really serious harm was done, with the help of the notion that "essential" federal government workers could stay on the job (uncompensated in the short run) in the meantime.

Unlike the rules of parliamentary procedure in a unicameral parliament with the executive power vested in a prime minister elected by a majority of that body, where deterministic rules force a majority decision inevitably, nothing in our political system with separated powers structurally and institutionally insures that the President, a majority of the House, and a majority of the Senate, will always be capable of reaching consensus on "must pass" legislation needed to prevent the collapse of the federal government.  And, yet, time and time again, always, eventually a mutual written agreement committed to the exact wording of a specific written piece of legislation by at least 269 out of 536 people is ultimately secured.

The miracle that such a consensus always seems to be reached before too much damage is done is absolute necessary for the ongoing survival of the Republic, despite the absence of any formal process for forcing these people to agree.

Even more miraculously, the winners and losers in these standoffs, in which any participant has the power to derail an agreement, very reliably tends to track public opinion and the views of the median representative, just as it would in a more deterministic parliamentary process.  This is so despite the fact that intuition would suggest that the participants who hold veto power that have the most intense views usually win these games of chicken, this isn't what usually happens.  In the recent budget standoff, the Tea Party Republicans who forced the crisis had very intense views and showed every sign of a willingness to stand tough, but their party's leadership in the House ultimately sold them out even though they had accomplished none of their real goals.

Similarly, despite the fact that juries hearing court cases must be unanimous, their verdicts overwhelmingly track the views of the median juror and not the extreme juror who theoretically has the power to prevent a verdict that he or she initially disagreed with from being reached.

One must go much deeper than the formal legal rules of the game and plumb into the "quantum mechanics" of human psychology to understand why this miracle comes through and works again and again.  But, ultimately, this miracle does seem to deliver the goods and bring about action from deadlock extremely reliably.

The business world works much the same way - the parties to a deal reach consensus or nothing happens, and usually when a business deal makes sense, that consensus is indeed reached.

In our bicameral system with separated powers and a Presidential veto power, consensus reached by parties with mutual agreement rather than a deterministic parliamentary process is the norm rather than the exception when it comes to passing legislation of all kinds.

I'm not terribly fond of a system that depends upon this miracle, which uses artificially created deadlines and games of chicken routinely to force consensus.

Yet, if it works, who can call it fundamentally flawed or conclude correctly that reform is really and truly necessary?

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