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The System

The forces of change on the US legislature

As of 2012, the major forces operating on the legislation of the US government are, unscientifically speaking:

  • 60% path dependence
  • 20% regulatory capture
  • 10% marginal progress
  • 9% political posturing

Everything else, I’d guess, is a rounding error that fits in that last 1%.

Path dependence, in short, means that once you decide to do something, it’s difficult to unwind all the decisions that follow that original decision. Once you build a military-industrial complex, farm subsidy program, or medical program for the elderly, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop doing those things. You’re invested.

Regulatory capture is a phenomenon where a regulated industry, say telecom, becomes sufficiently cozy with the institutions regulating them that they can manipulate the regulators to ease the boundaries they must operate within, or even impose rules making it difficult for new competitors to enter the industry. To some extent, the prisoners run the asylum. Barring an extremely jarring event, like a financial emergency, the regulated can grow their profit margins, comfortable knowing that competitors are increasingly unlikely. More often, regulatory capture is about protecting the golden egg. Path dependence, in the form of subsidies and existing contracts, often goes hand-in-hand with regulatory capture.

Marginal progress is exactly what politicians are not rewarded for. They are rewarded for having strong ties to those with strong ties, for saying the right things, and staying out of the public eye. Politicians don’t enhance their career by doing what they tell their voters they seek to do.

Political posturing is what legislators are rewarded for. If they fail to accomplish what they’ve told voters they will do, they can always blameshift it away: not enough political will, distasteful political advesaries, more pressing problems elsewhere.

This seems cynical, but I’ve got my reasons:

  • I find it helps to understand the forces at play before you try to figure out what to invest optimism in.
  • Understanding a system is the first step towards making meaningful changes within it.

Actually, that’s a pretty good way to summarize my approach to understanding the systems of the world: understand the forces, learn the mechanisms, figure out how this system is interconnected to the other systems. The interconnections are the fun parts!

By Adam Keys

Telling a joke. Typing.

2 replies on “The forces of change on the US legislature”

One question is whether 10% marginal progress is sufficient. It could be that a much higher amount of marginal progress could be unpredictably dangerous. If you think about the government as a code base it makes you realize that slow change might not be such a terrible thing.

To carry the metaphor through, there are two kinds of changes to make: tweaking to reach a local maximum, and wholesale change to escape a local maximum in search of a much higher peak.

The forces I’ve described on legislature are a microcosm of the problems that our legislature intends to solve but won’t. Politicians had almost completely explored the bounds of the system and optimized their operations for it. The Citizens United ruling drastically changed the rules, moving the bounds, and now politicians are seeking new ways to exploit that.

It seems to me that many of the problems that we face today which are appropriate for a government solution require escaping local maxima and finding a new set of tradeoffs to wrestle with.

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