10 Feb 2010

Mike Munger and Art Carden Need to Study Incentives

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Wow! I can’t believe it! In the Washington Post a writer got away with this hard-hitting analysis:

We’re very familiar with a model of Congress in which legislators disagree over policy and that causes them to vote against one another. We’re much more concerned by the idea that they don’t disagree at all, but are simply trying to win the next election.

But the latter does a much better job explaining how congresspeople actually vote. It’s impossible to offer a principled explanation for Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit but attacked the deficit-cutting health-care reform bill as too profligate. Similarly, Republicans routinely raised the debt limit when they controlled the Senate, but they hammered Democrats when they did the same thing last month. But the debt, of course, is the product of many presidents and many Congresses (what’s up, Bush tax cuts of ’01 and ’03?), and Republicans don’t think we should stop paying it.

The problem with believing that Congress runs on ideology rather than electoral interests is that it perpetuates the harmful misconception that legislators of good faith can get together and agree on policy, and that when that doesn’t happen, something has gone wrong, or the policy in question is terribly extreme. We tell the public to expect agreement and then tell them to be disgusted when that agreement never manifests. It’s a recipe for cynicism, and it’s not accurate.

This is how Congress works: The majority party wants to govern. The minority party wants to make the majority a failure at governing. If you want to predict congressional outcomes, you’d do a lot better sticking to those two principles than following the optimistic statements of the media and the bipartisan hopes of the commentariat.

Amen, brother! What do you kids think? Was it Walter Williams? Perhaps a letter to the editor from the indefatigable Don Boudreaux?

Nope, it was Ezra Klein. (Maybe the focus on Republican hypocrisy gave it away.) So how does “our side” respond? Well, we could pat him on the back and give him a Scooby snack, knowing full well we’ll have to spank him tomorrow. Or, we could comb through his archives when he’s been quite naive regarding some obvious lie from Obama or Harry Reid, and bust him on his hypocrisy.

Or, we could be upset that he didn’t explicitly mention the term “Public Choice,” accuse him of getting his silk prancing pony boxers in a slip knot (when in fact it was the person Klein was criticizing who had been upset), and then accuse Klein of being ignorant of economics when I could have written just about every word of Klein’s actual article.

To drop the cute stuff, here’s what happened: Ezra Klein wrote a perfectly fine analysis of what motivates (Republican) Congresspeople. Klein was using a Public Choice analysis but didn’t explicitly use the term. So Mike Munger and Art Carden bit his head off, thinking that Klein believed he was inventing the approach.

I don’t read Klein much, but it wouldn’t shock me if he has heard of Public Choice theory. I certainly didn’t get the impression that Klein thought he was the first person in history to assume politicians are self-interested actors and don’t care about the things they publicly claim to care about.

The reason I’m trying to play fair with Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias is that they are still young and impressionable. If we can just get some solid economic theory into their hands before they get drivers’ licenses, we just might convert them. Talk of overly tight panties and ignorance (when the post was the exact opposite of these things–Klein wasn’t the one who was shocked by McConnell’s vote, and Klein’s post wasn’t ignorant) will only push the young bloggers into the clutches of the compliment-bestowing Keynesians.

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