American “separation of powers” means we don’t know who to blame when things go wrong

A couple weeks ago, Matt Yglesias had a post arguing, correctly, I think, that the current economic conditions in the US aren’t Bush’s fault. Yeah, Bush was president when things went south, but a better government could have done a lot more to fix things by now.

Trouble is, that doesn’t mean it’s Obama’s fault either. By the time we all vote in November, we’ll have had nearly two years of the government being unable to do much of anything because Republicans control Congress while there’s a Democrat in the White House. If you’re a voter whose voting strategy consists entirely of “vote the bastards out when the economy is bad,” which party do you vote for?

Now, before people comment to say people should vote based on something else, let me say that I personally don’t follow the “vote the bastards out when the economy is bad” strategy. But there’s a lot to be said for it. Few of us know enough about economics to vote based on an intelligent analysis of economic policy, and it would be a burden to get enough of us up to that level. But having a bunch of people vote based on the economy gives politicians a very strong incentive to actually figure out good economic policy for us.

Yet that doesn’t work so well when, as is frequently the case, different parties control Congress and the Whitehouse (or different parties control the House and the Senate). I think that’s a pretty big disadvantage of the US system relative to a parliamentary system.

  • Uncle Glenny

    It’s way way way past my bedtime so I tend to be flippant (and can’t spend much time on this and won’t get back for probably 18 hours) so I’ll primarily leave you with this thought: It’s a mistake to consider “who” without historical context. The flippant part:

    Thomas Jefferson
    Emperor Hirohito
    Adolph Hitler

    After WWII we had prosperity, public education, GI Bill, safety nets, regulations, and a substantial manufacturing infrastructure. Not to mention substantially improving public health. Party time!

    See what I’m getting at? As time went by, we had a pretty stable and educated and healthy middle class (vaccines, anyone?). And, cold war notwithstanding, one feeling fairly secure. We don’t need all those pesky regulations – everything’s working fine! (Just like we no longer need those awful vaccines now – no one dies of measles anymore!)

    Later, a larger & larger fraction of our prosperity (GDP) was coming from the financial sector (as opposed to, say, agriculture & manufacturing) and real estate was also a hot investment.

    More temporally close answer: the 0.1%, their courtiers, and Alan Greenspan.

    Gotta go.

    Oh, in the past few years, I hear from some Republicans, it’s all the Democrats fault, because they didn’t block the Republicans. And Paul Krugman, because he’s shrill so he’s not worth listening to.

  • Kevin

    Just a pet peeve, if someone votes based on economics and they don’t know basic economic theory, I think they’re an asshole. Similarly, if you haven’t payed attention to the issues and you’re simply (figuratively) tossing a coin, please don’t vote. I fail to see why people think that voting is a virtue.

    Another pet peeve is the “replace with the other party when something bad happens” voter. I liken it to a baseball manager replacing Derek Jeter with the batboy after having a bad game. It only warrants switching if you reasonably believe the other party could have performed better than the current one. This means that all factors beyond the control of X should be ignored.

    • Jon Hanson

      I’m sympathetic to your view, but the more I read into economics the more I tend to think no one really knows what they’re talking about when it comes to Economics.

  • J. Quinton

    Voting trends is one of the biggest indicators that human beings are irrational. Almost one votes using their intellect, they vote using their gut feelings.

  • timberwoof

    I keep hearing from Rethuglicans that all politicians (especially Democrats) are the same and that Democrats are just as corrupt as Republicans. (Isn’t that the same argument as that atheism is a dogmatic religion?) But interestingly, no one ever tries to argue that Democrats are just like Republicans, or explain why, if they are just like Republicans, I should not vote for a Democrat.

    • Bronze Dog

      One Fark meme my brother introduced to me was a common response to Republicans who did tu quoque arguments about Democrats:

      “Both parties are bad, so vote Republican?”

  • F

    I’m not seeing the significance of separation of powers here.

    But consider also that the very idea that the governments can fix economies and create jobs as needed is pretty fallacious.

    • josh

      The government can’t fully control the sometimes perverse outworkings of human economics, but it certainly has a lot of power if it chooses to exercise it. Case in point: the government CAN literally create jobs. It just says, ‘here’s a job. You show up to work, doing whatever it is we decide you should do, and we pay you at the end of the week.’ And the thing is, governments can print money, so they can always pay.

      Now obviously, there could be problems with that simple scenario due to inflation, corruption, etc. But the government has that massive power and it’s hard to come up with a scenario where there is literally nothing they can do about an economic problem.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    There are things that the President and Congress can do to improve the American economy. However, and this is a major however, they won’t do most of those things for purely political reasons. The President cannot get any meaningful economic legislation through Congress and the legislators are beholden to the people who control the election fundraising purse strings.

    Any competent Keynesian economist could lay out a legislative program which would improve the economy. But why should we bother? The Party of No and the moderate conservative in the White House wouldn’t be interested.

    There’s the further point that the present economy is the result of decades of political gesturing, financial finagling, and propaganda from various groups. There are people whose continued wealth depends on conditions getting worse for the rest of us. These people control both political parties, the media and the economic sector. And no, I am not being hyperbolic.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I think you’re spot on about “Any competent Keynesian economist…” And having a bloc of voters who vote the economy is a powerful incentive for politicians to follow sound Keynesian policy, even if other forces are pushing in a different direction. That’s the point of this post.

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