Tag Archives: Politician

Would You Rather Pay Fees or Taxes?

A little over a week ago, Matt Yglesias wrote a post on Slate about how to balance the budget while slashing taxes. The solution: call everything a fee.

Well we could solve an awful lot of problems that way. For example, I’d love to see us impose a greenhouse gas emissions fee to internalize the social cost of carbon dioxide. On top of that, I think a small additional fee on the use of gasoline would be justified. And of course road congestion fees on crowded highways. I used to think we should raise the alcoholic beverages tax, but now I think we should eliminate it entirely. Instead, let’s put an “alcohol fee” in place that just happens to be higher than the current tax. Do the same for cigarettes. Legalize marijuana, but subject its sale to a rather hefty fee. It actually turns out that we could replace most taxes on labor and capital with a land occupancy fee, especially if we call it a “land occupancy fee” rather than a “land value tax.”

After reading this post, it made me think of Michael Sandel’s chapter about fines versus fees. Maybe some of the things that Yglesias is talking about in this post should actually be labeled fines and not fees. For instances, if we’re talking about internalizing the social cost of carbon dioxide, isn’t there a moral piece to it? That is, shouldn’t we call this a fine, then? You may disagree, but the nomenclature in this case does matter.

It seems a bit absurd to think that people would be more amenable to paying money for something merely by changing the label from ‘tax’ to ‘fee,’ but labels matter.

While it’s certainly a creative idea to start charging fees and lower taxes, there is an important bit to consider here. Namely, the control of these fees. Have you ever had to pay a fee to get your license renewed? Do you know how much it costs the government to ‘actually’ renew your license? I don’t. But I know that I get charged close to $100 to renew it. Josh Barro solidifies the point:

Politicians tend to regard fees as more palatable than taxes, and more focused too. If a state needs to finance an infrastructure to oversee fishing, why shouldn’t fishermen foot the bill? But groups like the nonpartisan Tax Foundation in Washington worry that governments are now using fees to shore up budget shortfalls rather than cover specific costs incurred by specific users.

“When it comes to paying for bananas, you’ve got the market as a mechanism to make sure you’re paying a fair price,” says Josh Barro, a staff economist at the Tax Foundation. “But when it comes to getting your driver’s license renewed, the government has a monopoly, and you have no idea what it costs the state or what it’s doing with the money.”

The moral of the story: maybe taxes aren’t so bad after all.

Can You Succeed in Politics if You Aren’t Selfish?

From time to time, I like to highlight what I think are important passages in books (Stockdale Paradox, The Art of War, etc.). As I begin my journey through some of the classics, there’ll probably be more and more posts where I’m sharing passages from books. While the passage I’m going to share in this post isn’t from a “classic,” it is highly lauded. Not only has it garnered 116 five-star reviews (out of a possible 161), it’s received glowing endorsements from the likes of: Daniel Pink, Susan Cain, Robert Cialdini, Gretchen Rubin, Daniel Gilbert, Dan Ariely, Martin Seligman, Chip Conley, and many more!

The book I’m talking about: Give and Take, by Adam Grant. In today’s post, I’d like to share with you a few pages from near the beginning of the book. In these few pages, Grant uses a story to support the case that givers can succeed in even the most cutthroat of professions — politics. It is a book that is absolutely worth reading, so I hope that this excerpt compels you to give it a look.

~
[Excerpt Begins]

In some arenas, it seems that the costs of giving clearly outweigh the benefits. In politics, for example, Mark Twain’s opening quote suggests that diplomacy involves taking ten times as much as giving. “Politics,” writes former president Bill Clinton, “is a ‘getting’ business. You have to get support, contributions, and votes, over and over again.” Takers should have an edge in lobbying and outmaneuvering their opponents in competitive elections, and matchers may be well suited to the constant trading of favors that politics demands. What happens to givers in the world of politics?

Consider the political struggles of  a hick who  went  by the  name Sampson. He said his goal was to be the “Clinton of Illinois,” and he set his sights on winning a seat in the Senate. Sampson was an unlikely candidate for political office, having spent his early years working on a farm. But Sampson had great ambition; he made his first run for a seat in the state legislature when he was just 23 years old. There were 13 candidates, and only the top four won seats. Sampson made a lackluster showing, finishing eighth.

After losing that race, Sampson turned his eye to business, taking out a loan to start a small shop with a friend. The business failed, and Sampson was unable to repay the loan, so his possessions were seized by local authorities. Shortly thereafter, his business partner died without assets, and Sampson took on the debt. Sampson jokingly called his liability “the national debt”: he owed 15 times his annual income. It would take him years, but he eventually paid back every cent. After his business failed, Sampson made a second run for the state legislature. Although he was only 25 old, he finished second, landing a seat. For his first legislative session, he had to borrow the money to buy his first suit. For the next eight years, Sampson served in the state legislature, earning a law degree along the way. Eventually, at age 45, he was ready to pursue influence on the national stage. He made a bid for the Senate.

Sampson knew he was fighting an uphill battle. He had two primary opponents: James Shields and Lyman Trumbull. Both had been state Supreme Court justices, coming from backgrounds far more privileged than Sampson’s. Shields, the incumbent running for reelection, was the nephew of a congressman. Trumbull was the grandson of an eminent Yale-educated historian. By comparison,  Sampson had little experience or political clout. In the first poll, Sampson was a surprise front-runner, with 44 percent support. Shields was close behind at 41 percent, and Trumbull was a distant third at 5 percent. In the next poll, Sampson gained ground, climbing to 47 percent support. But the tide began to turn when a new candidate entered the race: the state’s current governor, Joel Matteson. Matteson was popular, and he had the potential to draw votes from both Sampson and Trumbull.

When Shields withdrew from the race, Matteson quickly took the lead. Matteson had 44 percent, Sampson was down to 38 percent, and Trumbull was at just 9 percent. But hours later, Trumbull won the election with 51 percent, narrowly edging out Matteson’s 47 percent.

Why did Sampson plummet, and how did Trumbull rise so quickly? The sudden reversal of their positions was due to a choice made by Sampson, who seemed plagued by pathological giving. When Matteson entered the race, Sampson began to doubt his own ability to garner enough support to win. He knew that Trumbull had a small but loyal following who would not give up on him. Most people in Sampson’s shoes would have lobbied Trumbull’s followers to jump ship. After all, with just 9 percent support, Trumbull was a long shot.

But Sampson’s primary concern wasn’t getting elected. It was to prevent Matteson from winning. Sampson believed that Matteson was engaging in questionable practices. Some onlookers had accused Matteson of trying to bribe influential voters. At minimum, Sampson had reliable information that some of his own key supporters had been approached by Matteson. If it appeared that Sampson would not stand a chance, Matteson argued, the voters should shift their loyalties and support him. Sampson’s concerns about Matteson’s methods and motives proved prescient. A year later, when Matteson was finishing his term as governor, he redeemed old government checks that were outdated or had been previously redeemed, but were never canceled. Matteson took home several hundred thousand dollars and was indicted for fraud.

In addition to harboring suspicions about Matteson, Sampson believed in Trumbull, as they had something in common when it came to the issues. For several years, Sampson had campaigned passionately for a major shift in social and economic policy. He believed it was vital to the future of his state, and in this he and Trumbull were united. So instead of trying to convert Trumbull’s loyal followers, Sampson decided to fall on his own sword. He told his floor manager, Stephen Logan, that he would withdraw from the race and ask his supporters to vote for Trumbull. Logan was incredulous: why should the man with a larger following hand over the election to an adversary with a smaller following? Logan broke down into tears, but Sampson would not yield. He withdrew and asked his supporters to vote for Trumbull. It was enough to propel Trumbull to victory, at Sampson’s expense.

That was not the first time Sampson put the interests of others ahead of his own. Before he helped Trumbull win the Senate race, despite earning acclaim for his work as a lawyer, Sampson’s  success was stifled by a crushing liability. He could not bring himself to defend clients if he felt they were guilty. According to a colleague, Sampson’s clients knew “they would win their case—if it was fair; if not, that it was a waste of time to take it to him.” In one case, a client was accused of theft, and Sampson ap- proached the judge. “If you can say anything for the man, do it—I can’t. If I attempt it, the jury will see I think he is guilty, and convict him.” In another case, during a criminal trial, Sampson leaned over and said to an associate, “This man is guilty; you defend him, I can’t.” Sampson handed the case over to the associate, walking away from a sizable fee. These decisions earned him respect, but they raised questions about whether he was tenacious enough to make tough political decisions.

Sampson “comes very near being a perfect man,” said one of his political rivals. “He lacks but one thing.” The rival explained that Sampson was unfit to be trusted with power, because his judgment was too easily clouded by concern for others. In politics, operating like a giver put Sampson at a disadvantage. His reluctance to put himself first cost him the Senate election, and left onlookers wondering whether he was strong enough for the unforgiving world of politics. Trumbull was a fierce debater; Sampson was a pushover. “I regret my defeat,” Sampson admitted, but he maintained that Trumbull’s election would help to advance the causes they shared. After the election, a local reporter wrote that in comparison with Sampson, Trumbull was “a man of more real talent and power.” But Sampson wasn’t ready to step aside forever. Four years after helping Lyman Trumbull win the seat, Sampson ran for the Senate again. He lost again. But in the weeks leading up to the vote, one of the most outspoken supporters of Sampson’s was none other than Lyman Trumbull. Sampson’s sacrifice had earned goodwill, and Trumbull was not the only adversary who became an advocate in response to Sampson’s giving. In the first Senate race, when Sampson had 47 percent of the vote and seemed to be on the brink of victory, a Chicago lawyer and politician named Norman Judd led a strong 5 percent who would not waver in their loyalty to Trumbull. During Sampson’s second Senate bid, Judd became a strong supporter.

Two years later, after two failed Senate races, Sampson finally won his first election at the national level. According to one commentator, Judd never forgot Sampson’s “generous behavior” and did “more than anyone else” to secure Sampson’s nomination.

In 1999, C-SPAN, the cable TV network that covers politics, polled more than a thousand knowledgeable viewers. They rated the effectiveness of Sampson and three dozen other politicians who vied for similar offices. Sampson came out at the very top of the poll, receiving the highest evaluations. Despite his losses, he was more popular than any other politician on the list. You see, Sampson’s Ghost was a pen name that the hick used in letters.

His real name was Abraham Lincoln.

[Excerpt Ends]
~

Did that story knock you off your feet? It certainly did for me the first time I read it. This story is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s contained in Grant’s book. Seriously, go read it!

Is It Time to Pay Politicians More?

A few months ago, I saw this very argument made in Slate. At first, I’m sure you’re doing a double-take? Why would we pay them more? They are hardly doing the job that we elected them to do in the first place. Why would we reward failure, stagnation, and an inability to get stuff done? That’s absurd!

All natural reactions, yes, but when you take a second to think about it, the idea isn’t that bat-crap crazy. For instance, consider the Governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell. Josh Barro over at Business Insider makes the case that the Governor is underpaid. Why? Well, look to the incentives! The Governor of Virginia has a salary of $175,000, which is in the 90th percentile for Governors in the USA. That’s certainly a lot of money — almost triple the median income in Virginia. So, again, you may be thinking, why would we pay them more?

Well, consider the kinds of people that the Governor interacts with on a daily basis. Plutocrats. Governor McDonnell, on a daily basis, interacts with people who have income/wealth that far exceed the Governor’s “measly” $175,000 salary. You may be thinking, why is this a problem if the Governor got into politics for purely altruistic reasons?

Even if the Governor did do such a thing, research tells us that unethical behavior has to do with the kind of person you are and more to do with the situations you find yourself in. For instance, you may be the most ethical person in the world, but if you happen to find yourself in a bind financially and a whole host of other variables are weighing on you, there’s probably a situation that you may find yourself in where overlooking a conflict of interest may seem like an okay thing to do.

That’s the argument for increasing the salaries of politicians — to remove the incentive to be unethical. Of course, there’s still likely to be unethical behavior conducted regardless of what the salaries are raised to, but it may eliminate some of it. How much, I don’t know. What would be a fair salary?

The article in Slate discussed Sinagpore, which is known for being one of the most efficient governments in the world. He explained that in Singapore, the Prime Minister earns more than four times the salary of President Barack Obama and the President gets $400,000 a year! Government Ministers (akin to cabinet Secretaries), earn over $1 million a year. The highest paid cabinet Secretary (Secretary of the Treasury) gets approximately $190,000. So, government Ministers earn more than 5 times as much as their American counterparts.

I’m not advocating this particular raise, but I think it’s a conversation worth having.

I suppose the other option would be to remove the influential plutocrats from the equation. Although, I don’t know that with the American political system arranged in the way that it is, if that’d be constitutional. Larry Lessig, someone who’s been working tirelessly on the option of getting money out of politics was asked what a question about salaries for Congress. I’ll leave you with the question and his answer:

Question: You advocate in your book that congressmen should be paid much more than what they are right now (about $175,000/year). How much do you think they should be paid to make them lose the incentive to become a lobbyist? Does 250-300k sound better?

Lessig: Oh please don’t out me on this. Ok, but DON’T TELL ANYONE I SAID THIS: They are lawmakers. Why aren’t they paid as much as a first year partner at a DC firm? In Singapore, gov’t ministers get paid $1 million a year. Where is corruption in Singapore. NO-where.

Politicians Are Inherently Good

I believe that people are inherently good and because I believe that politicians are people, too, I also believe that politicians are inherently good. [.] You’ll find many about the topic as to whether people are good and you’ll also find many people in general debating this topic (, , and ). Some people think it’s clear that . You’ll even find academic articles written on the subject of humans inherent goodness ( and ). While I acknowledge the religious component to this debate, from everything I’ve seen of people, I think they are inherently good.

Yes, there are heinous acts committed everyday around the world, but I don’t think that people are doing these things in their “right mind.” That is, I think that there is some form of . I think that people couldn’t do some of the things that they do without being, in some way, detached from what they are doing. While the human condition encompasses a wide variety of human behavior, I don’t think that humans, without being (unaware) to some extent, of what they are doing, that they could do what they do (when they harm other humans).

I am in the process of working on a series of posts where I make the claim that is way behind and while this implicates the politicians who, by the very nature of the system, are directly involved with the writing and publishing of American public policy, I do not think that politicians are deliberately (and maliciously, that’s key) making it this way. I think that because of the way that the system of the American government is set up and the system of the American media, it’s much easier for American politicians to get away with the kinds of things they get away with, but I don’t think there is harmful intent.

Some may call me idealistic, but I believe that (most) humans on the planet, given an opportunity to help a fellow human, would do so. When presented with an , I think that most humans will do what they can to help someone out. More importantly, I think that those who wouldn’t help out are still human, but are expressing what would call, “.”

We can understand this a little easier by looking at some of the things that  has to say: “The thoughts that go through your mind, of course, are linked to the collective mind of the culture you live in – humanity as a whole. They are not your thoughts as such, but you pick them up from the collective… You believe in every thought that arises and you derive your sense of who you are from what your mind is telling you who you are.”

And then pair them with the lens of : “…when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer…”

Inherently people are good. While I understand that some people my disagree, this is a topic that I have a hard time honestly taking a step back and hearing both sides. I think that people always, always mean well. Like I said earlier, yes, there are some “bad” things that happen in the world, but I do not think that its intentionally harmful (and I really hope not, too). I think that psychology’s perspective on the shadow, along with viewpoints from spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie help us to understand why some people may do “bad things,” and still, inherently, be good people.

Lastly, I wanted to offer a perspective from someone who I think has something important to say on this topic. wrote, what I think, is one of the more important books of this generation. It came out in 2010 and it has already been translated into more than 30 languages. He gave (50 minutes), which was then turned into a . The implications are profound and I have included the animated speech below for your viewing pleasure.

Elect Effective Decision-Makers, Not Politicians Catering to Sects

Why do some people get elected and others don’t? Outside of the obvious answer of (more votes), there are oodles of books, articles, and dissertations, trying to answer that question. In fact, some people’s entire career is spent being hired as a because they are an ‘expert’ on getting people elected. They will usually have a very good track record as evidenced by the other candidates they’ve helped to elect. Even though there is so much information on how to get people elected, some people still decide to check one candidate’s box over the other or maybe .

Once the politician becomes an elected member of government (at any level), they are then faced with decisions, decisions, and more decisions. Depending on how high they are in the pecking order of the government, they may have more decisions or less decisions. Most of these decisions that I’m talking about refer to voting, specifically on pieces of legislation. As politicians vote on pieces of legislation, members of the press will inform the general public as to how certain politicians have voted on certain issues. Because of this cycle where the information is disseminated to the public, .

While many people will understand a politician’s desire to get reelected, I wonder if they maybe aren’t doing the public a disservice by going against their conscience and I think this stems all the way back to how it is that politicians are elected. Because candidates are all fancied up by their consultants (mostly because this is what the consultants think the public wants to see), rarely do candidates ever really talk about how they actually feel about one issue or another. So, once they get elected and have to vote on something, instead of having the confidence to vote on what they believe, instead, they vote in a way that they know will make them favorable for reelection.

I think that part of the problem here is that in the cycle of disseminating the information from vote to the people, the information is disseminated in such a way that can paint a particular politician in a certain light. I doubt that this is done in a malicious intent (at least not intentionally), but even still, the public viewing/reading said report would then regard the politician negatively even though they might actually agree with how the politician voted. More than that, when the politicians vote a certain way on a bill because they’re worried about reelection, I think that they may really be catering to a smaller minority of people (based on sets of poll numbers fed to them by consultants).

There are many different reasons to elect one person to an office over another, but somewhere high (if not at the top) of that list should be about their decision-making ability. I don’t mean whether they can pick apples or oranges from the supermarket, rather, how it is that said person comes to a decision. I think it is impossible to know the sorts of issues that will arise during one’s term in an office, so instead of electing someone based on their views of long-standing issues, I think it’s better to elect someone because one trusts in the inherent ability of the candidate to make effective decisions.