(Some) politicians might be more rational than they appear.

by orthonormal2 min read4th Oct 20105 comments


Personal Blog

The following excerpt from an NPR story on TARP makes me feel that while the world is mad, I might have overestimated how much of that madness comes from our political leaders:

[Neel Kashkari, the Treasury official running TARP] became a sort of punching bag for legislators during his appearances at congressional hearings.

"When I went to testify, I was now one of the faces of this program. I had to do my best to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it, but I also had to represent us and show that I understood the American people's anger, I understood how deeply unfair this crisis is," he says. "But we had to stabilize the financial system, because if we failed, it would be the American people who bear the consequences of that."

Oftentimes, it meant he just had to sit there and absorb their verbal lashings.

"It was an opportunity for members of Congress to vent the anger they were hearing from their constituents. And because I was a young man at 35 years old, I think they felt it was appropriate for them to take it out on me — which is fine. I sat up there, I think, in total, for 25 hours of testimony — most of which was exceedingly hostile."

Throughout the testimony, Kashkari says one particularly biting moment sticks in his memory.

"I remember when Congressman [Elijah] Cummings from Maryland asked me if I was a chump," he says. "I remember just scratching my head, thinking to myself, 'Did he really just call me a chump? Or did I just imagine that?' "

But when the hearings were over, Kashkari says their attitudes switched from critical to congenial in a matter of moments.

"Oftentimes afterward, when the cameras were off, they would take you into a back room and tell you that they really appreciate how hard I was working or our team was working; that they support us and our programs, and let us know if they could be helpful," he says. "It was a 180-degree change from what they were showing in front of the camera. That obviously surprised me, but eventually I got used to it."


As for whether he'll go back to Washington? He's undecided for now.

"I am of two minds. On one hand, I am cynical of Washington and the politics and people more focused on maintaining their popularity or getting re-elected than doing the people's work," he says. "At the same time — in the depth of the national crisis in September of 2008 — I saw Washington at its finest. I saw and I was a part of Democrat and Republican leaders coming together to do something deeply unpopular but yet absolutely necessary for the sake of our country and for the sake of the American people.

"I've seen Washington work, and I know that it can work at least in times of crisis," he says. "I hope we can make it work in other times as well."

The import of this, as I see it, is that many lawmakers are pretty cognizant of the relevant issues, and that their irrational grandstanding is often a facade for the sake of the voters who think more tribally than quantitatively. The incentives are mad, but at least for now overt hypocrisy (and actual competence) is more common than sincere idiocy in Congress.

Of course, that's not completely reassuring, because if an important (but not immediately urgent) bill is unpopular, it's worth it for one party to actually oppose it and thereby gain political points. It's only in a genuine crisis that you'd see both parties actually do the right thing. (I leave it for your consideration whether TARP was indeed the right thing; but at least now I understand Harry Reid's claim that this was one of Washington's finest hours– a claim that Jon Stewart skewered mercilessly at the time.)


5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:20 PM
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I agree with the main point of this post.

Still undecided about whether so strong a statement as

The incentives are mad, but at least for now overt hypocrisy (and actual competence) is more common than sincere idiocy in Congress.

is true (don't have enough data to know), but could easily imagine it being so.

[-][anonymous]11y 2

Has anyone considered the idea that perhaps most politicians are quite apt at pleasing (manipulating) people and that they simply do what they do best when the audience shrinks to their previous target of convenience?

Absolutely. Great politicians are known for projecting the illusion to each group that their true loyalty is to the current audience, and all the policy moves that audience dislikes were forced by political pressure.

"The world is mad" is primarily about the general failure to solve collective action problems: just because something would be beneficial to the world, don't assume that people will do it without individual incentives.

This makes sense when you consider the fact that getting elected to Congress is not easy -- hence members are likely to be significantly more intelligent than average. Given a fairly high prior on human hypocrisy to begin with, combined with the severely diminishing social returns on overtly displaying intelligence, hypocrisy is almost always a better explanation for recognizably "idiotic" congressional behavior than actual idiocy.

(This is not to say that Congress is especially competent; but their true incompetence tends to be of the sort common to many groups of people -- the kind that later explains failures, rather than the kind that would make them the object of contemporary derision .)