Blame Games

Politics isn’t mainly about policy, but when policy comes up politicians mainly want credit for appearing to do what voters embrace, while avoiding blame for appearing to do what voters reject.  Actually doing something everyone likes is very hard; it is usually easier to modify how things appear, and who appears responsible.  Republicans do this as much as Democrats, but since Democrats are now in charge, they offer current examples.

Since the Democrats gained control of the US Presidency and both houses of Congress, they have been getting a lot of what they’ve long wanted.  They didn’t patiently wait to get it slowly, but have been grabbing as fast as possible.  Even so, Democrats don’t want to appear fully in control, because then they could be blamed for the negatives as well as the positives.

On the financial crisis, the Democrats loved the stimulus idea as an excuse to spend lots on favorite projects, but emphasized that the spending was forced on them by the credit crisis, which they blame on Republicans.  Democrats also loved overruling bankruptcy law to give [Chrysler] to unions at the expense of bondholders, but again said the crisis forced their hand.

On global warming, the Democrats want credit for cutting carbon, but don’t want blame for higher energy prices.  A carbon tax would make price blame clearer, so they are going with tradable permits, which also lets them play more favorites with who gets permits.  Permits also make it harder to notice if they actually cut carbon, vs. preserving business as usual.  They hope to get credit for creating a process that will cut carbon if future politicians set low permit levels.

On medicine, Obama says it is his top priority, and debates now assume Democrats will get much of what they’ve long wanted.  They are happy to propose and take credit for expanding coverage, prohibiting denials for pre-existing conditions, etc.  But they don’t want blame for raising taxes or encouraging medical spending growth. So they first said only that they were considering many revenue and cost-control options, hoping others would step to take “credit” for such issues.  Their most concrete cost-control proposal has been for new agencies, which they could take credit for creating, which would result in cuts if future politicians choose to cut.

For example, when Tyler dared Obama to propose concrete cuts now, liberal Ezra Klein complained that Tyler should instead tell Republicans to take charge of controlling costs:

Tyler Cowen’s critique of health reform is the right one: It is certainly plausible that the final bill will include a pricey expansion of coverage paired with a speculative and uncertain set of cost controls. But it is baffling to watch him blame this on the Obama administration. As he himself says, the White House is firmly behind … efforts to tie Medicare’s reimbursement rates to the cost-effectiveness of different treatments and initiatives to give MedPAC the power to aggressively reform Medicare. But those policies are not certain to exist in the final bill.

What stands in the White House’s way is Congress. And, more often than not, it’s the Republicans in Congress. … Fiscal conservative[s] could resign themselves to the coverage expansion and offer their support in return for stringent cost controls. … it seems pretty likely that the White House would deal. …

Cowen, of course, is one of the nation’s most respected conservative economists. … It’s surprising to me that he chooses the quixotic strategy of convincing Barack Obama to abandon health reform, rather than convincing the Republicans in Congress to improve it.

Yup, Democrats can by themselves do all the stuff the public will like, but when it comes to doing stuff the public won’t like, they can’t do it alone and need Republican help, and it would be best really if Republicans took the lead there.  Democrats want credit now for getting these things started, while leaving the really unpopular pains to be imposed by future politicians.  Arnold Kling is right:

Democrats will first go for expansion of coverage in a way that alienates Republicans, and then come back and ask for bipartisan help with cost control. I call this the “dessert now, spinach later” strategy.

This whole blame game helps to explain why government policies are often so complex.  Policy complexity not only offers more ways to favor supporters over others, it also offers more chances to favorably split credit from blame.

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  • komponisto

    Wow — that’s the way to write about politics, if one must. Both insightful and non-inflammatory. Well done.

  • kevin

    Great post. Still, I wonder if even a neutral, cautiously balanced meta-criticism like this can prevent the inevitable political/tribal flame-war.

    This site is better than 99% of sites in this regard, but not even OB is completely immune.

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    Of course, there’s no point in getting angry at the politicians for behaving this way; they will continue to do so for as long as people prefer to vote for those who say they’ll “make tough choices” over those who actually do so. What can be done to change it?

  • mattmc

    Wow, very clearly explained. It sort of leads me back to the position where a split government is actually better for the country because it can do less harm. I’d like to see a spending rule that says we have to pay some percentage of what we’ve already bought before we add new spending.

  • http://liberalvichy.blogspot.com/ Vichy

    Interesting post. I think a lot of the reason these plans are all flash and no bang, though, is that the systems which produce them are kind of blind and incestuous. A lot of them probably think their hacked-together legalese is “better than nothing” or “a good attempt”, if they’re even close enough to the ground to realise it doesn’t work.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Robin, what fraction of GM’s assets are owned by unions now that GM has been given to the unions?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    komponisto, kevin, mattmc, Vichy, thanks! I wouldn’t have guessed that this post is clearer than most.

    g, 55% I heard.

    Paul, I’ve made my proposal.

  • luke

    WOW I never knew the Dems were so smart. Thanks for exposing their evil genius. Now I am torn. I want Government to be smart which was not the case with the Bush Administration but being ruled by super genius Dems might be just as problematic.

  • Zachary Skaggs

    Really enjoyed this post as well.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    Robin, CNN Money says “Taxpayers will end up with a 60% stake in GM, with the union, its creditors and federal and provincial governments in Canada owning the remainder of the company.” (Presumably “taxpayers” is a positive-spin way of saying “the government”.)

    The Guardian says the US government gets 60%, the Canadian government gets 12.5%, and “unions and bondholders” get the rest.

    Reuters says 60% for the US government, 12%-ish for the Canadian government, 17.5% for the UAW, and 10% for bondholders. It also says that the deal had the support of the majority (though a slender majority) of bondholders.

    CNN Money (another story) has the same numbers plus some further details: it’s not the UAW as such but a fund for its retired members’ pensions (which to my mind puts quite a different spin on it); the UAW has the right to buy another 2.5% (presumably from the US government), and the bondholders have the right to buy another 15% (ditto).

    Are these all disastrously wrong? Or does “give GM to unions at the expense of bondholders” really mean “give 17.5% of GM to provide pensions for retired GM workers at the expense of bondholders, a majority of whom voted for the plan”?

    (For the avoidance of doubt: I am not claiming that the GM bankruptcy has been handled wisely or justly or efficiently; I don’t know anything like enough about the situation to have an opinion on that that’s worth reading. But whatever its merits or demerits, it doesn’t look as if your description is within a mile of the truth.)

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      You are right that I erred; I should have said Chrysler instead of GM. I’ve edited the post to correct it.

      • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

        Ah, thanks. Looks to me like no one *gave* Chrysler to the UAW (rather, it bought 55% of Chrysler, the price being that the UAW gave up its claim to $10bn that Chrysler owed it for healthcare payments or something of the kind) and it’s perfectly permissible for a company in chapter-11 bankruptcy to sell assets to whoever will buy them. It seems unconventional for a company in chapter 11 to be selling debts that would have lower priority than those of its senior creditors, but it seems to be legal (the case has, after all, been before multiple courts, and none of them has objected). So, strange though the Chrysler deal is, it doesn’t seem to involve “overruling bankruptcy law”.

        Still, just as it’s unsurprising when politicians try to take credit for popular actions and deflect blame for unpopular ones, it’s unsurprising when political partisans try to describe the actions of politicians they dislike in negative terms…

  • Lord

    Fairly accurate except that ‘overruling bankruptcy law’. A government bailout, yes, but otherwise nothing that hasn’t been in numerous other bankruptcies without government intervention. Somewhat sad they don’t provide much leadership and statesmanship, but that is most of politics.

  • andrew c

    > A carbon tax would make price blame clearer, so they are going with tradable permits, which also lets them play more favorites with who gets permits.

    How do you figure that? Countries with a carbon tax will still need to protect trade exposed industries in the short term, so the problem of who gets the tax breaks is virtually the same as the free permits problem.

    > Permits also make it harder to notice if they actually cut carbon, vs. preserving business as usual.

    The ‘cap’ in ‘cap and trade’ makes it dead easy to notice if carbon has actually been cut (illegal emissions aside). That’s the whole point of a cap. Predicting the effect of a centrally fixed carbon price (which is what a tax amounts to more or less) is a much harder problem. You would get the same short term blame dodging with a tax too – start low, forcing future governments to ramp it up in order to meet long term targets.

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