Reform Rate Signals

Current new coverage of Obama’s medical reform seems to focus on the issue of pace; everyone seems to agree that a fast process is a good for Obama, while a slow process is good for his Republican (and other) opponents.   I see two key reasons for this:

  1. Insiders can see that there will be a lot that the public can object to, once they get time to find out what is in this reform.  A fast process is trying to “pull a fast one” on the public.
  2. The more that insiders dislike about what they see, they less eager they are to speed the process.  So a fast process signals a good program to approve, while a slow process signals that it isn’t so good.

Obviously Obama and allies are pushing the second interpretation, while Republicans are pushing the first.  No doubt both factors are relevant.

From a public policy point of view, this signaling equilibrium is lamentable; it would be better if we could take the time to think carefully about big policy changes.  Perhaps that would mean we made fewer changes, because we’d see more details we don’t like.  But that would probably be worth it.

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  • gwern

    > # Insiders can see that there will be a lot that the public can object to, once they get time to find out what is in this reform. A fast process is trying to “pull a fast one” on the public.

    The influence of the public is, perhaps, overrated. Wouldn’t it be more plausible to suggest that any fast one being pulled here is on Congress, to try to get around how very corrupted & bought by the relevant special interests they are? The longer the plan stews, the more time the lobbyists have to donate, call in favors, and confederate into amending it into being a give-away (a la the last Medicare expansion) or simply amend it to death.

    Given the fate of the last Democratic national health plan, and how recent financial events didn’t represent the wishes of the public with tremendous fidelity, the public is little more than pawns in this political set piece.

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

      Yes, Congress is also plausibly the audience that might be tricked by a fast process.

  • crispy

    Another factor which muddies the water is the typical process of adding a myriad of unrelated provisions to a bill in order to either get passage (in the case of a stinky, radioactive bill such as the first stimulus bill, which failed in the House), or have a small but stinky pet “project” ride the coattails of a bill which is very likely to pass. A recent example is the tacking-on of hate-crimes legislation on a recent defense appropriation bill.

    In these cases, the “signal” e.g. whether the taxpayer should be made to “stimulate the economy”, is swamped by the “noise” of all the special provisions, earmarks, and set-asides.

  • Unnamed

    Do you have any citations to Democrats pushing the signaling interpretation? Everything that I’ve seen has them favoring the causal interpretation: moving the bill quickly increases its chances of passing. Or, as they usually put it, delaying the bill hurts its chances. For instance, Peter Orszag has said “We have to remember: there are some who are advocating delay simply because they don’t have anything to put on the table. The typical Washington bureaucratic game of — ‘if you don’t have a better alternative, just delay in the hope that that kills something’ is partly what’s playing out here.” Matthew Yglesias said that delay would “give special interests and the right more time to kill it,” and Ezra Klein expressed similar sentiments.

    Democrats just don’t think that the threat of killing the bill would come from voters becoming informed about a bill and making relatively accurate judgments about its merits, or that allowing Congress to spend more time on the process would tend to improve the bill.

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

      The question is what is the explanation for delay causing disapproval. Calling it “causal” doesn’t actually say what the cause is. Yes opponents have more time to work against it, but proponents have more time to work for it. Why does the first effect beat the second?

  • George Weinberg

    I can’t imagine anyone justifying voting against a bill on the grounds that “if it were any good, it would have passed already”. OTOH, it’s easy to justify saying “I voted against this bill because they didn’t give me time to read it.”

    I suspect that for a given bill, usually the longer it is debated, the better its chance of passing. Correlation seems to indicate the opposite because the bills themselves are unequal: the bills that pass quickly aren’t very controversial.

  • Mike

    Could it be that rapid progress is desired by Dems so that benefits can be appreciated in time for the next election, while slow progress is desired by Reps so they can accuse Dems of poor leadership in next election?

  • Robert Koslover

    Well, as I (try to) always ask, what do the data say? Here’s some: Polls show that both Obama’s popularity, and the popularity of his health care proposals are declining (see http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/business/healthcare/july_2009/53_now_oppose_congressional_health_care_reform).
    Based on the slope, every new day is a day closer to Obama and his followers not being able to pass a national health care bill. I think that favors your interpretation # 1.

    • UchicagoMan

      Isn’t this “Overcoming Bias”? I think the mere reality of an Obama presidency speaks to this notion, so F*** polls! ; – )

      In 2000, what odds would you have bet for there being a black president within the next 8 years?

      Anyway, I would put my money on a bill converging before many might claim. In terms of health care political signaling/strategy/whatever Obama has the upper hand here. I don’t think we are going to turn backward, haphazardly or not. Reform must and will begin…

      There is and will remain many Obama detractors (McCain received, what, 46% of the vote? That’s still a lot of folks), so noise and resistance is completely expected, for any bill, good, bad, or ugly. And of course people will blame him for perceived shortcomings in this country while he is president.

      But..I would wager, despite the ups and downs, that the force is strong with this one and will most likely only grow.

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

      I can’t find the article now, but Nate Silver from http://www.fivethirtyeight.com argued early on that Obama started with so much political capital that it could only go downwards, and therefore that he’d probably try to have all the most difficult fights at once early on.

  • Jameson

    Were I in Obama’s administration, I would want the bill passed as quickly as possible so that people would have more time to evaluate its success before re-election time. Creating a large-scale change is going to come with some unavoidable growing pains, but if the net effect is positive over time (as I must believe it will be, or why am I advocating the bill’s passage?), I want people to have as much time as possible to get past the adjustment phase and into the beneficial phase before they have to decide whether to re-elect the president (or Congressional Democrats).