Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Bruni on Rule of Law in Regulation

I found Frank Bruni's opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times noteworthy on the whole question of rule of law in regulation:
Hillary Clinton as New York City mayor?

Imagine the fun:  City building inspectors start to show up daily at Trump Tower, where they find a wobbly beam here, a missing smoke detector there, outdated wiring all over the place. City health inspectors fan out through Trump’s hotels, writing citations for clogged drains in the kitchens and expired milk in the minibars. 
The potholes near his properties go unfilled. Those neighborhoods are the last to be plowed. There’s a problem with the flow of water to his Bronx golf course, whose greens are suddenly brown. And the Russian Consulate keeps experiencing power failures. It’s the darnedest thing. Clinton vows to look into it, just as soon as she returns from the Hamptons.

..His [Trump's] hometown is her fief. She’s the boss of him whenever he’s in the Big Apple, and he’s in the Big Apple a whole lot.

...I’m fantasizing, yes, but with a glimmer of encouragement....there are so many scores she could settle, so many ways she could meddle. ...above all there’d be the torturing of Trump...The city’s Mexican Day Parade would be rerouted, from Madison Avenue over to Fifth, right past Trump Tower. A new city zoning experiment would locate detention centers in the strangest places. And in the city’s libraries, “The Art of the Deal” would be impossible to find, while upfront, on vivid display, there’d be copies galore of “It Takes a Village” and “Hard Choices.”
There is no indication that Bruni is kidding, that any of this would be both monstrously illegal, unethical, and a disaster for New York, and no disclaimer from his editors.

As far as I can tell, Bruni is a middle of the road Democrat, and a fan of large-government regulation.  (Like the rest of the Times, Bruni seems currently in full-tilt Trump Derangement Syndrome, with 11 out of his 14 columns since the election criticizing Trump, rather than policy, so if he's really a free-market deregulator, let me know.)

So how fascinating that Bruni -- and his Times editors -- seem to think it so natural that regulation and public services they admire -- building inspectors, muncipal water and power, zoning, even the public library -- should naturally be bent, far beyond legal limits, to partisan political service. Building inspections are used to punish political enemies, but we're supposed to trust that the IRS, Obamacare, EPA, FDA, NLRB, and Dodd-Frank are not?  Or is it just that illegal abuse of power is just fine and normal in the hands of their friends?

And how deeply naive. Really?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Leaders vs followers?

The Jan 9 Wall Street Journal had this nice graph, accompanying an article by Josh Zumbrun, "Top Economists Grapple with Public Disdain for Initiatives they Championed"

The question is this: Should we understand politicians as assembling coalitions of voters with fixed policy preferences? Or should we instead regard politicians as leaders, who give voice to general dissatisfaction, and their followers picking up ideas?

Most political analysis takes the former view. People are mad about China, the TPP, immigrants, or whatever, and Trump comes along, listens, and represents these preferences, and wins. Easy models of political preference put preexisting policy views on a line, and then think about where leaders choose to place themselves.

The article echoed the common view too
Surveys from the Pew Research Center have documented dwindling support for free trade. In 2014, 60% of Democratic voters and 55% of Republican voters supported such trade agreements. In an October survey, however, support among Democrats had fallen to 56% and support among Republicans had nose-dived to 24%.
I'm coming to a different view. Yes, people are unhappy. But the average American is busy with a real life, and doesn't think a whole lot about cause and effect in public policy. How many have read NAFTA or the TPP, or have any idea what's inside?  How many have thought about automation vs. regulation vs. trade as the source of industrial decline?

It seems to me the ideas come from the leader, giving voice to their voter's frustrations. Policy views then become general signals of team allegiance. Witness how many Trump supporters, interviewed, supported him despite not because of policy stances.

And witness the graph. How could it possibly be that in two years, opinions on the value of free trade among Republicans dropped by half, while virtually unchanged among Democrats? Surely, this is not a change of view independent of candidates, that Mr. Trump was just quicker to recognize. Surely, this represents the opposite -- candidates, especially Mr. Trump but also many of the others, denounce trade, and followers follow.

The good news is that ideas held lightly and as a badge of support can more easily change.   And other leaders can channel the same discontents to more profitable analysis of our country's problems.