Politics is a unicorn #3: The government
Politics is a unicorn, but government is not. Government actually exists. But we still have a unicorn called “government,” a set of ideas about how things “really” work. You will not be surprised when I say that these things are mostly wrong! They are a kind of mish-mash of outdated civics class basics and the conventional wisdom of pundits, and it is just awfully destructive to how we pursue politics in America. So here are a few things you should know about government:
99% of what the government does is not done by politicians, but by bureaucrats. This is a whole new thing that doesn’t really exist in the Constitution and you never get told about it, for some reason. Politicians do remarkably little. You would be very unhappy if they did more.
Legally speaking, the Constitution is not that important. There are like 200 years of rulings since then that are at least as important, if not more so. Studying the Constitution to resolve legal debates is like studying the four humours to diagnose an illness.
In terms of public behavior, politicians are pretty much as good or as bad as they’ve always been. Whenever you’re tempted to write something like “partisanship is at an all-time high” please remember that partisanship was once so bad that one side decided to start their own goddamn country.
Even though people keep telling you that you need to get informed on the issues, it takes years of specialized training to understand even one of the thousands of arcane areas the federal government has its hands in. It is essentially impossible for you to know what is “really” going on. Whatever you think you know about an issue is just someone else’s interpretation that you’ve decided to trust.
Your desire for the government to be transparent directly contradicts your desire for the government to be efficient, which directly contradicts your desire for the government to be fair, which directly contradicts your desire for the government to be effective. If the government was totally successful at fulfilling one of these criteria, it would either no longer be democratic, or it would no longer be a government.
The government’s most important job is to predict the future (what could go wrong, how could we fix that, how much money will it cost), which is impossible. The hard numbers they put out that are used as ammunition in debates about health care or whatever aren’t even objective. They’re always strategic guesses. Always.
These are a little aphoristic, so allow me to give you an example.
Let’s say Congress is trying to enact a new program whereby the endangered baby kitten population is saved by feeding them live, newborn puppies.
There are hearings about this, and members of Congress say ridiculous things! They try to prove that puppies aren’t animals! They call kittens socialist yarn-mongers! They go off on unrelated grandstandy sea otter tangents! Then pundits, who have hours and hours and hours of airtime to fill every day, say ridiculous things about it too! They talk about what effect this will have on the crazy cat lady vote, and whether Obama is a secret Persian longhair! And then Jon Stewart, who has a half-hour of airtime to fill every day, shows clips of those people saying ridiculous things and we all laugh and feel superior! Look at government, being ridiculous and irrational! Imagine!
But here’s the thing: it’s not like at the beginning of the hearing the chair just said “OK, feeding kittens with puppies…go!” and that was the first anyone had ever thought about it. It probably started with some nerd in a cubicle at the Department of Kittens noticing data that showed baby kittens were dying in increasing numbers from starvation, connecting that with data showing a rise in the national puppy surplus, and putting together a proposal. The proposal then got passed up the line until it reached someone who could promote it to a higher-up (after changing a few details), who decided to include it in a package of proposals to send to the legislature (after changing some things). Then before it was entered into consideration, two or three different budgetary eyes took a look at it and balanced the need to feed baby kittens with the need to provide middle-class kittens with stimulating toys and build large-scale kitten infrastructure projects; at some point, someone made a chart showing how many kittens would die depending on how many food-grade puppies the Department acquired. The proposal got tweaked and changed and modified at every stage. It got passed to Congress, and staffers got in and modified things too before formally submitting it for consideration.
Then they had a hearing about it. And nothing changed.
Nothing changed! This proposal, which has had more changes than Heidi Montag (zing!), emerges from this supposedly all-important event untouched. It passes along a party-line vote and gets altered in a conference committee, but the point is that the moment we pay the most attention to is actually the least important. Almost every important step in getting this program enacted happened in a meeting room somewhere, closed to the public. And those were the only places where anyone could be honest, because once you’re in front of the public, it’s a lot harder to compromise. You will be seen by people who care a lot as “selling out” or “being weak” or some such. And so at the hearing the politicians got to grandstand for quotes and then passed the damn thing anyway, and when the bureaucrats do issue something for public consumption it’s always slanted. So like if the Department of Puppies (DoP) issues a projection it will show that feeding baby ducks to the endangered kittens is actually much more efficient than feeding them puppies, whereas the Department of Kittens (DoK) will put out projections showing the diminished utility of puppies over their lifetimes compared with kittens. Both are essentially made up! They are informed by past performance and experience, but neither one actually knows what’s going to happen. And since both genuinely think their proposal is the best, they fight to make sure it’s enacted. Neither is acting in bad faith, neither is trying to hoodwink anyone. They’re just trying to ensure the best outcome.
Ultimately it’s these people who make the decisions. And thank god! The poor politicians don’t know what the hell’s going on. They can’t! After dealing with endangered puppies, the committee then dealt with otter migration patterns. (Let’s say the poor grandstander was confused.) You can’t be fully briefed on both of these issues. The federal government deals with a gigantic number of things, all of them ferociously complicated. Individual representatives simply can’t know enough about more than a few things. They have to leave it to the experts.
So why even have the politicians then? What’s the point? Well, the point is that they’re the ones who are truly playing the game, and we need to have the game. Because essentially both the DoP and the DoK are correct. It’s a choice between dead kittens and dead puppies, which is not something you can resolve rationally. So people debate furiously (and, mostly, rationally) behind the scenes and come up with the best consensus plan they can, and then if the party in power likes it, they pass it. They’re the ones people elected, after all, so if the proposal fits with their general governing philosophy, and the proposal is uncontroversial enough not to attract any strategic meddling from the other side, then why not pass it? Doesn’t that reflect the popular will reasonably well? What better approach is there? If there wasn’t the untransparent debate behind the scenes, then nothing would ever get done. And if there wasn’t the silly grandstanding in public, then no one would ever know what was going on. It doesn’t make sense, necessarily, but it seems to work.
Most importantly, however, it’s fundamentally important that all this ridiculous stuff happens in public, because otherwise the ritual of lawmaking would not get fulfilled. Because if politics is a unicorn, there’s no other way to deal with it besides a ritual. And rituals work! We gather an elect group together in a vaguely religious-looking building on a central hill and have them all affirm that something is now a law, and then we have one person sign a paper version of that law, and then it changes how everyone has to behave. That doesn’t make sense, but it works. Rituals are weird but old and have persevered through the enlightenment because of their effectiveness. Despite our reliance on rationalism, human behavior is squishy and confusing and unpredictable, and so when an action requires a change in human behavior to be real, we need to cater to whatever odd thing happens inside our brains to make us behave the way we do. Rituals do that. We clasp hands, we form a circle, we chant certain words, and the deed is done. Now things will be different, because we’ve said they will be different. When you enter into the basilica of politics, you leave you pretensions to rationalism at the door. Maybe you pretend like you haven’t. Maybe you still walk as if you carry that burden. But when you speak, you must know that it no longer encumbers you. To think otherwise is to willingly take on a handicap in the most important pursuit there is.