Sunday, November 4, 2018

Handouts in Averting the Fiscal Cliff: The Price of Politics?

What is that nebulous thing called politics? Might it be that the practice is essentially exploiting or creating what are known as principal-agent costs? That is, might politics boil down to a skill in the agent (elected representative) in putting his political or economic interests ahead of doing the bidding of his principal(s) (i.e., his constituent body).  
In the U.S. Senate bill in early 2013 to obviate the “fiscal cliff,” for example, the Democrats may have agreed to benefits for the Republican lawmakers’ campaign backers in exchange for going along with a more progressive federal income tax system. Among the added provisions were special expensing rules for certain film and television productions—no doubt those made by particular campaign contributors. The provision for tax-exempt financing for the New York Liberty Zone around the former World Trade Center may also have been a favor to a particular someone. Lest it is wondered what an extension of the American Samoa economic development credit was doing in an expedited measure to obviate the “fiscal cliff,” the answer may have had to do with a particular Republican lawmaker’s relationship with someone having an interest in American Samoa. I can only speculate here, as I was not privy to the actual relationships and negotiations. However, the sheer strangeness of such provisions in such a bill suggests that the particular political or economic interests of particular Republican lawmakers may have been the culprit.
 Is money the language of politics?
Such interests need not stem from particular relationships. To get the Republicans to “move on principle” regarding progressive taxation, the Democrat negotiators may have agreed to give on particulars on another law—in this case, Obamacare. The bill also contained a provision to remove the Community Living Assistance Services and Support program, or CLASS, which was proposed to enable millions of elderly and disabled people to stay in their homes rather than be placed in institutional care.
Generally speaking, the pattern involves essentially “buying off” particular lawmakers so they will “shift over” on a larger principle—in this case, progressive taxation. Give a bit on Obamacare and include a provision financially beneficial to a particular Republican lawmaker or one of his or her financial contributors or patrons—anything satisfying a particular interest of a particular lawmaker—so he or she will move from the preference of his or her constituents. The agency cost is the difference that a lawmaker (agent) skirts for his own political or economic interest from doing the bidding of his or her official constituents (principals).
If the skill called politics involves a politician’s particular interests at the expense of one of his or her principles or official duties (i.e., to constituents), then negotiation cannot be expected to be confined to compromising on the merits of the bill itself. Rather than merely going back and forth on numbers for the upper income subject to the Bush tax cuts, a Republican negotiator might propose an unrelated provision benefiting one of his or her friends, business associates, or campaign contributors. Granted the provision, the negotiator would then give on the numbers. One might ask whether the inclusion of particular exogenous interests is necessary to negotiation on a given policy. Wouldn’t the final product in terms of the policy be better were the unrelated benefits kept out of the mix? That is to say, is their incorporation a decadent or inferior form of politics, or an essential element that cannot be removed? Perhaps the answer lies in whether negotiation on a given policy, such as deficit reduction, can be done without the negotiators bringing up their particular interests (as a means of shirking their principles or duty). Perhaps ethical leadership in politics involves refusing to enable (or exploit) another’s “agency costs” by incorporating the unrelated provisions, in which case politics itself could find higher ground and the resulting policy would more closely match the preference of the body politic.  


Reuters, “Fiscal Cliff Bill Proposed By Senate Packed With Mix of Handouts, Takebacks,” Huffington Post, January 1, 2013.