Sunday, March 27, 2022

How Politicians & Citizens Do Government (Part 1)


Truly, we can be proud of ourselves even if our only political activity is knowing our preferred political party and candidate--and then voting. That’s all I did for many years. Pretty average. But we can also become inspired to do better and add more power to our votes.
Concerning politics, average voters often have strong negative thoughts about politicians (such as, “They lie a lot.”) and some very strong feelings such as, “I can’t stand that candidate (such as Biden, or Trump, or Hillary Clinton).” 
But to get more power to our votes we must learn more about POLITICS because:
  • It exists in our personal relationships
  • Family and extended family relationships
  • Social relationships at school, work, church
  • Anywhere there are people
Politics is a serious reality in everyday life, just like money or food, goodwill, or crime. If this statement is hard for you to believe, go to Dr. Hersch’s book, Politics is For Power, and read a few of the stories about average citizens who realized …They had to get political to make useful changes in their circumstances.
In any group of people, young or old, some are getting more of something and some less. If they become aware of having less they will sooner or later try to get their fair share. If they are fortunate in having more than others, they may feel the need to protect their surplus from social welfare legislation. The unequal distribution of good or bad stuff gets noticed and becomes a problem that citizens react to. This leads to compassionate responses as well as aggressive self-protection. The resolving of such problems between the “Haves” and the “Have Nots” is what politics is all about.

In preparing this blog I looked for a workable definition of politics and found a good one:
  • “Politics is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status. The branch of social science that studies politics and government is referred to as political science.” (Wikipedia
  • This definition is good because it’s short and summarizes decision-making, power, and distribution of resources.
From my research and attempts to more fully grasp how politics works, I break things down further into five Political Parts of the Whole. The five parts have different causes and function differently. The better we understand them as distinct parts of a whole, the more we can see how multiple parts jostle and impact each other—resulting in what is called politics.
Here are the Five Political Parts of the Whole:
1. The “machinery of government” refers to the local, state, and federal offices (for example, president or governor, or mayor, or representative or senator, etc.). The machinery also includes when and how these office holders meet, do their work, and how many years they serve.
  • There are a total of 542 federal offices which include President, Vice President, 100 U.S. Senators, 435 Representatives, and a few officials from DC, U.S. territories, and Puerto Rico.
  • There are about 750 state officials in the U.S.
  • Not including the federal and state governments, there are about 87,500 local government political entities at the county, city, township, school district and special purpose level (judges, utility districts, fire, police, etc.). So, there are well over a hundred thousand local elected officials. We should aspire to vote in more state and local elections.
  • The machinery of government itself produces side-effects which explain some of the weird outcomes. 
2. The office holders themselves with their values and specific beliefs and agendas.
3. The Republican and Democratic Parties and their political agendas.
4. The amount of campaign money provided to candidates by individuals, the Parties, and Corporations.
5. The citizen voters with their individual beliefs and values.
The above five, separate political parts are distinguishable; they should be studied one by one; and then studied in combinations. Beware, it’s mentally overwhelming to try to comprehend them all working together over time. 
With people inhabiting the machinery of government, it all comes alive. Some would say it’s noble and others might say it’s a can of worms or a bag of snakes. Whereas people in politics and government try to look noble and worthy, politics is about conflicts of who gets the most good stuff and the least bad stuff. 
To have and express political opinions is to have conflict, and when the votes are tallied there are always winners and losers.
I’m next going to share with you some actual events which illustrate the workings of first two political parts.

In 1992-1993 the Congress passed President Clinton’s Economic Recovery Plan (ERP). Clinton came to Congress after serving several terms as governor of Arkansas. He was an attractive, likable, smart (Rhodes Scholar), and he sincerely liked the challenges of political process. He actively marketed the ERP to Congress and the American people. Note: The sources of this information come from two books: The Agenda: Inside The Clinton Whitehouse (Woodward,1994) and Advice and Dissent by (Blinder, 2018).
Clinton’s Economic Recovery Plan (ERP) after many, many changes did the following:
  • Became law.
  • Increased taxes on incomes above about $200,000 but did not greatly increase tax on middle incomes.
  • Paid off a significant portion of the federal deficit.
  • Stimulated the economy through increased government spending in specific areas.
  • Studies have shown that the ERP did result in a deficit reduction, holding down interest rates, and stimulating the economy.

Part 1: Illustrations About “The Machinery of Government”
Clinton submitted the ERP to Congress and it became what’s called a bill. Only after a long, torturous process of review by multiple committees, resulting in negotiations and amendments was the bill voted on. Because the ERP had to do with money, energy, income tax, clean air regulations, on and on, the ERP was evaluated by about ten different committees. In each committee, there were representatives and senators wanting changes in the bill to satisfy the wishes of their constituency (i.e., the body of voters who elected them) back home.
The ERP bill led to a political fight over an energy tax on environmentally damaging fuel use (called the “BTU energy tax”). It would affect the use of coal (the dirtiest fuel) the hardest. The coal industry, of course, was represented by congressmen to protect the coal lobby interests. These self-interest groups caused large reductions in the BTU energy tax to the point that it no longer could be used as the necessary income source for the ERP. Negotiations went round and round until the BTU tax was abandoned. Instead, a five cent tax on gasoline replaced it. This was a loss for the effort to rein in pollution from coal.
Next we look at important machinery of government side effects due to the two-year terms of office in the House of Representatives. 
Legislation takes a long time. So there is a mad rush to push bills forward as fast as possible to avoid interruption from the next election process. It is said about bill passage that “timing is everything.” Bill Clinton introduced the ERP in a presidential address, his staff provided information to the media, and at least a dozen of his staff met with, phoned, and heavily lobbied to get support for the ERP. Many congressmen and women were interested in the ERP because it usefully addressed serious problems; or, they were interested in undermining and killing the bill. And some of the politicians chose to vote either yea or nay as a favor to some other politician. It seems to be the case in Congress that votes can be bought and sold in a currency of what is referred to as “political capital.” For example, “I’ll vote for what you care about if you vote for what I care about.”
Some congressmen and women did one or more of the following with the ERP:
  • Agree to support the bill early on for a favor, and later on after they got their favor, vote against it to suit some other agenda. Two ways to win with treachery and betrayal!
  • Agree to support the bill only at the final vote and only if their vote would successfully pass the bill into law. This circumstance did occur. The ERP passed because Clinton’s staff and Clinton himself offered favors to Representative Margolies-Mezvinsky if, at the very end of voting her vote would pass the bill. She didn’t want to vote yes on the bill because it could be political suicide. In fact, during the first but not final votes on the bill she did vote no, and her opponent dropped out of the next race. But for the Clinton Administration she agreed, “I won’t let (the ERP) fail. I’ll vote last, but if you need me, you will have my vote.” And she was good as her word. It is worth noticing that Clinton used a strategy of having her vote last, just before voting was closed; this made it impossible for any other representative to halt the vote and allow votes to be changed (Woodward, 1994, page 300-302). In Congress, votes are electronically posted for all to see who voted yea or nay. Voting can be paused so congressmen and woman can change their votes based on whether the bill it going to pass or not.
  • At many stages in a bill’s passage, success or failure comes down to an hour or even a few minutes or seconds. Down to mere seconds was the case for the ERP.
Part 2: Illustrations About “Office Holders Themselves”
Blinder (Blinder, 2018) was one of the three economists on President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He is a brilliant advisor of numerous presidents, the author or coauthor of twenty books, and has served as vice chairman of the of the Federal Reserve Board.
Blinder’s book gives a very credible analysis of why simple-minded slogans dominate in political campaigning and the legislative process. 
Personally, I’ve never heard a politician explain any economic idea. Blinder provided the Clinton administration with valid economic theory to help them make a realistic plan to help the economy recover from a recession; Blinder also understood that the job of educating the public and passing a bill into law is a job, not for economists, but for the politicians. 
Politicians understand that slogans are all that the public will listen to due to their very limited attention spans. Even though slogans are gimmicky, often based on wrong information, ignorance and ideology, they are what works. He states, “And accuracy doesn’t matter. In a political marketplace like that, complexity sells poorly—if at all.” 
It was said of Tyson, the chair of the Clinton Administration Council of Economic Advisors, that “Unfortunately, she realized, it was difficult, if not impossible, for the public to understand the connections between Clinton’s program, lower deficits, lower interest rates, more investments, higher productivity, and a better standard of living. As Alan Blinder liked to say, it just didn’t fit on a bumper sticker” (Woodward,1994).
Clinton’s plan was multifaceted and consistent with the best economic theory available. But any politician might have reason to oppose Clinton’s plan because of self-interest. So, they would send out their own dismissive slogan’s to their constituents. The Republican slogans were designed to spook voters by suggesting the EDP would increase middle class taxes or that the EDP was only a deficit reduction bill, a topic voters did not understand and did not care about. So, in the same period when Clinton was making speeches all over the country telling people the details of the EDP bill, the Republican side was misinforming the voters. The Clinton campaign continuously measured the voter knowledge and whether they supported the bill; and the results weren’t good. He knew the public didn’t understand much of anything about the EDP. 
But Clinton was famous for never giving up during a political battle. The end result was that the Economic Development Plan (EDP) bill passed into law.

In our next blog we will discuss the remaining three Political Parts of the Whole:
  • The Republican and Democratic Parties and their political agendas.
  • The amount of campaign money provided to candidates by individuals, the Parties, and Corporations.
  • The citizen voters with their individual beliefs, knowledge, and values.


        For references, see the relevant page on the website.

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