How the Nation Really Works

The subtitle for this (what I consider to be cleverly titled) blog is “Adventures in Reason, Reality and Politics”. It has to be admitted that expecting those three words to co-exist is certainly an exercise in suspension of disbelief. The first two rarely, in America, exist within the third. The first two rarely exist together anywhere, much less in any context involving the third. It’s the combination of the three that is interesting – at least to this writer.

In order for me to give you yet another ‘how the world really works’ opinion, some starting points need to be established. In the interests of expediency, the defense of these points will be kept to a minimum in this post. Defense and/or explanation of these points will be left to subsequent submissions and are certainly subject to change dependent on information available in the future.

The first point is that there are no grand conspiracies. Most of what people consider conspiracies are simply the products of the way things function. If you think about it, how often do ‘grand’ plans ever work, anyway? To give credit or credence to these conspiracy theories (9/11 is a perfect example of an event around which they have targeted) is to say that while most above the board, public attempts at grand plans fail miserably, all of these underground, back-room conspiracies succeed marvelously. Studies show that the brain produces endorphins while it is thinking about or discussing these theories – because they are fun. The truth is much more often bland and sort of pointless. People want to believe in conspiracy theories because they want to believe at some level – there is control. Even if they can’t control their lives, someone can. That is a comforting thought.

Second, the president of our country (whomever that is at the moment) has far less power than is attributed to him. He can do little without the Senate and Congress agreeing. Oh sure, he can sign Executive Orders and invade countries and the like, but substantive change is out of his hands. The recent State of the Union address called for an end to subsidies for oil companies. Both sides of the room stood and cheered. The last two SOTU addresses called for the same thing. Both times, both sides stood and cheered. The reality is that following the speech, both sides blocked any changes to those subsidies. Those same guys cheering voted against what they cheered for. They’ll do it again this time, too.

Third, the most evil, and yet most banal, group in this country are the corporations.

Fourth, individuals are trying to do right. Groups end up doing wrong. That isn’t to say serial killers are doing right – but it is saying they think they are. Groups don’t talk to themselves at 800 words per minute backing up their actions or at least trying to rationalize what they’ve already done – individuals do that. Groups do wrong because they want to do right by everyone. Or worse, for just those they stand for.

Last,  for now, is what America is. It’s a representative republic. It’s NOT a democracy. Our founding fathers never wanted that. The representatives are NOT there – and that bears repeating – ARE NOT THERE – to do our bidding. The FF were as smart as everyone gives them credit for being. Instead, the representatives are there for ALL of us. What does that mean? What’s the difference? Simple. The reps are there not to represent the views of those who elected them – imagine if a town of all immigrant mexicans elected a person to represent their needs in a county meeting. Pushing just their needs, he votes for a bill that requires all residents to be mexican. Far fetched? Look only to the post Civil War nation for clear examples. The reps are there not to vote as their constituents would vote but rather for the better of all. Without that edict, our nation would be still be all Northern European. Without that directive, all the freed slaves would now be living in Liberia.

So, we’ve established some compelling items here: our representatives in Washington and our state and local capitals are doing correctly when they vote for the common good, rather than the specific wishes of those who sent them there, the president is NOT the most powerful man in the world; by and large people think they are doing the right thing, there simply are no great conspiracies; and lastly, corporations are the great evil.

So how does this relate to how the nation really works? Let me show you…

Most of us assume that: someone runs for office, we vote that someone in, (we now know) they work for the good of everyone and everything should get better. It is supposed to work that way – but it doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t. You wouldn’t read this post if it did and there’d have been no reason to write it in the first place.

Oh yeah, there is a sixth item for background, and after all those above, it’s perhaps the most important to understand: People respond to Incentives. In every endeavor, every day in every way, people respond to incentives. Read it again a couple times. Maybe highlight it or copy it to a text file to refer back to when things get complicated. It’s going to be at the heart of everything else. Along with the fact that, for the most part, people think they are doing right, people respond to incentives is the simplest way to understand why people (and hence countries) do what they do.

Read that again, I’ll wait.

OK?

So, Johnny wants to run for city council. Billy, the guy in there now, is a jerk and just can’t seem to do what the people want. Johnny thinks Billy has violated the 4th (doing what is right) and 5th (do what the people want) rules. Really, what Billy has done is succumbed to the second part of the 4th rule (where crowds are concerned) and might be following the actual meaning of the 5th rule (do what’s best for all). More likely, Billy is doing the 4.2 and a combination of 3 and 6. 3 being that corporations are evil. 6 being that people respond to incentives. That could be rewritten as corporations are incentivizing Billy and he’s responding.

That could mean he’s outright taking bribes. More likely, he’s listening to lobbyists and taking campaign donations. After all, in Billy’s mind (4.1), he’s doing right by staying in office. After all, he became a councilman to affect change – make something good happen. Just like Johnny is planning, once he drop-kicks Billy out of office. One of the first people Billy met after he booted the corrupt Kenny out of office was a nice man from a company who wanted a tax break to move his company into Billy’s town. Billy isn’t too keen on ABC company moving in, because he knows of the pollution they’ve left behind in other places. He tells the nice man just that.

The nice man chuckles a bit and adjusts his tie. But Billy, he says, ABC brings jobs to Townville. Jobs mean happier, more productive residents and hence, voters. ABC pays more than the companies you have here now, so they will have more money. ABC will have more money. Citizens who are happy and have more money and like you will help you stay in office. ABC having more money and owing you a debt of gratitude for bringing us here will help you stay in office.

While it’s sounding a bit like bribes to principled Billy, he continues listening.

And you came into office to make a difference, continues the man as he straightens his pocket-chief. You can’t do that unless you are in office. In order to stay in office, you need campaign money. Those happy working citizens who vote and have more money because you helped ABC will provide that money.

Seems so logical, doesn’t it? And though it smacks of something, well, less than honorable, the logic is solid. At least according to rule 4.1. So Billy says to himself, self, it’s not the worst company you could help and they will create jobs, good paying jobs. That will make happy citizens. And while it will make some mad, rule 5 says do the best for the most. So he does.

Perhaps, in the back of his mind, or while in a town meeting, some voices speak up and say that ABC is not good, but very evil and that we should make them clean up their act first, Billy doesn’t really listen. Perhaps, when that nice man had first visited, Billy even voiced those opinions. You’re right, says the nice man. We should clean up the mess we make. Our new XYZ machines DO cut down the pollution. So there will be less. But if we need to get it down further, well, Happyville up the highway has said we can run in their town with the new XYZ machines. And they have even more folks out of work and the house prices are cheaper, so we can pay their citizens less. Billy doesn’t want that, of course. Plus, the man continues, we wouldn’t be able to help you stay in office and help your citizens. They wouldn’t have that money from working for us, so they couldn’t help, either. Isn’t that why you wanted the job – to help people?

Ha! Billy is locked. Was there a conspiracy? No. Once ABC gets in and builds their plant and hires the town people, well, a few things change. We couldn’t get the XYZ machines at a price point that allowed us to make money, says the nice man. We had to go  with older, less efficient technology. Since we had to use those older machines, we don’t make as much and now we can’t pay your citizens as much to work for us. We’ll get those new machines next year, though!

The citizen of Townville, working for ABC, who voted for Billy over Kenny, sees only that nothing has gotten better. Billy brought in a polluter who pays the same as the old job, has fewer benefits that cost more and they built an ugly building that blocks the view of the mountain. Johnny, that new kid running for office, surely will do better.

This is quite obviously the simplest form of how this works. Maybe Billy stays in office ten terms. By now, he’s on powerful committees making decisions that affect lives. Everywhere he goes, he gets preferrential treatment. Restaurants get him the best table. All the country clubs want Billy as a member. Hotels comp him rooms. Billy doesn’t want to go back to being a citizen working for ABC. Now he’s wiping away of lot of the abstraction-layer talk and asking for dollars from ABC to fund his re-election. ABC’s less than nice man is saying they want to exchange those dollars for just a little more pollution in the stream and a bit more crap in the air. Done and done.

Now move this to Washington, where elections cost tens of millions of dollars. Where the relationship between Senator Billy and that guy from ABC is much more intertwined. Where Billy’s incentives include free, luxury flights all over the world. Promises of books written, Boards of Governors beckon, speech tours wave in the wind. All he has to do is get ABC a federal tax break or allow just a little bit higher emissions or help lower the minimum wage or break that union. Billy has huge incentives to keep doing (or do even more) of what he already does. He tells himself the bad that is done is outweighed by the good he is doing. The crowds yell and scream, but in the end vote cause he put his name out there more than Tommy did. The brand recognition he paid 100 million dollars for worked. The convict going through the revolving door printed indelibly on the voters minds. The word CHANGE convinced them that all the negatives they’d heard were mere whispers in comparison to that magical word.

Now, in his eleventh election, the tides have turned and ABC is telling him, look, we’ve made all these donations to you. We helped build your house for half of what it would have cost, we got you a low interest loan when no one else got one, we have those pictures of you. We want you to stay in office and help us. Billy still has incentives to do these things, even if they are born of fear rather than hope. Remember, people respond to incentives.

That is how the nation works. And the world, she keeps spinning.

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~ by Mad Prophet on January 28, 2012.

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