Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hollywood and Washington

Oi Oi Oi... I never thought I'd reach the day where I'd say, "James Buchanan (the economist, not the president)... I agree with something he said." A brief primer for those of you unfamiliar with the words and ideas of Mr. Buchanan. He was (and is) one of the leading thinkers in the field of political economy, and, as I garnered in my brief time reading his thoughts, decided to turn the lens of economics analysis on politics. Essentially, all those tried and true "principles of economics" (self-interest, incentives, etc...) are all aptly applicable to politics and its practitioners as well. That should be obvious to most people who take a moment to think about it. Unless you staunchly believe that those who commit themselves to public service are truly above the petty (or natural, as some might call it) wants and drives of the common man, you shouldn't be surprised when your senator accepts a fat paycheck from some lobbyist and votes for some misbegotten bill.

Hollywood, at times, does not seem to buy into Mr. Buchanan's philosophy. Actually, let me clarify, Hollywood observes Mr. Buchanan's philosophy in practice and reacts with outrage and shock. And while I hate to be the person who comments on the "unbelievability" of Hollywood movies, I'm going to do just that. Hollywood takes the slightly corrupt nature of Washington and spins it off into some completely overblown scenario. Essentially all movies regarding political drama involve one politician lying, cheating, murdering, etc... to win power. Already the case falls apart. A quick look at recent political scandals reveals that corruption (perhaps surprisingly) has nothing to do with political "power." Nobody accepts a paycheck from their lobbyist so they can become president. Nobody has sex with their aide so they can become chair of some committee. So, to sound like a true economist, I'll say it, "Money comes first, sex comes second, and power doesn't even matter." But we should actually take solace in this fact. The U.S. government, as we've told time and time again, has a cleverly devised system of checks and balances. There is no all-powerful member in our government, and, in an extreme case, a very popular and charismatic senator can have almost as much political sway as the president. The risk inherent in undertaking some heinous Hollywood-esque scheme to snatch power, is equivalent to robbing a bank to get 200 extra dollars. You don't see political corruption for power because it's illegal (obviously) and it's just not worth it. Many senators have a much higher net worth than the president. When a lobbyist comes forward offering cash for favors, it's not some dastardly scheme to snatch control of the U.S. government. It's one person responding to one incentive. I'm not saying we should rejoice at pork-barrel spending, or corruption of any kind, but it could be worse. In the trade-off between my politicians sleuthing around trying to make a few extra bucks or sleuthing around trying hijack the balance of power, I'll let them keep the cash every time.

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