Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Politics as the Art of Maintaining 'Balance'

Democracy is a system that achieves and maintains balance in a society as well or better than any other system around. By achieving balance I mean that a democracy is able to take all the competing ends that exist within a society and craft a solution that weighs as well as possible all of these ends. And, a democracy can maintain some form of balance over time at least as well as any other system of governance. Now, this doesn’t mean that it always gets the balance ‘spot on’ or that the balance doesn’t change over time, requiring a modification. All that is meant here is that it seems to be the ‘best’ of the imperfect systems that are available to us.

An example can be found in the tradeoff between personal liberty and security that was brought into focus in the United States after the 9/11 tragedy in 2001. Before the events of that day, the United States had achieved and maintained one ‘balance’ of these two items, but after the attack the ‘balance’ moved more toward the goal of achieving security and protection from terrorism and away from personal liberty. In all probability, exactly where this ‘balance’ resides in five years (or in ten years) will be someplace different than it is today.

The crucial element in all of this is that where a society decides to be at any one time changes and the society must be able to adapt as smoothly as possible when these changes are required. Nothing stands still and nothing creates more problems for a society than being ‘locked’ into a certain tradeoff when, in fact, the people desire another tradeoff. But, science changes, technology changes, the composition of a society changes in many ways, in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion, age, and so forth. For example, the advent of cars changed things as did the introduction of television, contraceptives, and stem cell research. These changes affect a lot of different people in a lot of different ways and adjustments must be made, compromises accepted, and relationships maintained for society to go on. And, one could argue that incremental changes are better than discrete jumps.

On the surface, however, a society never really seems to move incrementally. For one, major changes seem to take place in response to specific historical events. The balance of the role government played in the United States was significantly changed during and after the Great Depression. The Second World War cemented these changes or continued the movement toward more governmental involvement in the society. The Cold War had its impact on the location of the ‘balance.’

Another reason why changes seem to be made in leaps is that the people, as a whole, tend to be somewhat conservative in nature. Once a certain balance is achieved, there seems to be a certain reluctance to change what has seemingly worked over time. Only when an imbalance arises and becomes particularly acute does it seem that people move onto a new balance that may be at some distance from where the previous balance had been located.

Yet, there is still a lot of change in the balance of society that does take place incrementally. These are the changes that do not gain so much publicity or that do not raise the emotions of people to the level that other issues do. These kinds of changes add up over time and lead one to reflect, from time-to-time, on the question of ‘How did we get here?’ And, many of these changes are not so much ideologically driven as they just happen to make things work better.

Then there are the efforts that are ideologically driven. In recent years, as the political parties in the United States have become more polarized, these attempts to move the ‘balance’ that exists in different areas to a new location, seem to have gained more prominence in what candidates for office seem to offer. Not only do these candidates promise to change the tradeoffs that exist in certain areas, they promise to do it immediately upon entering office. In a real sense, the timing of these changes are driven by the election cycle in that the candidates believe that they only have about 100 days in which to make major adjustments. After this ‘honeymoon’ period, the politicians move out of the ‘grace’ period the electorate has given them and all chance to innovate is gone. The philosophy is to present all of your major changes early on and then administer the ‘new balance’ in the remaining time that you are in office.

I have two concerns with this attitude toward governance. First, those that are elected tend to take their election as a ‘mandate.’ Even if they have only won with, say, 51% of the votes, they declare that they have a mandate for change. The people have told them that they are to make major changes in where the tradeoffs in the existing ‘balance’ of things are located. So, we the people, see a new President take office and then we observe a frenzied effort to put the new ‘balance’ into place. Then in four or eight years we see another new President do the same thing, attempting to return to the previous ‘balance’.

The second concern I have relates to the ‘game playing’ that is connected with this type of behavior. For example, consider the efforts of a new President to change particular ‘balances’ in society. If this President can move things far enough to change ‘balances’ so as to actually create ‘imbalances’, then even though when this administration goes out of office, the next new administration will have to work out these ‘imbalances’ and not be able to inject a lot of its priorities. If the same party can be continuously in office for an extended period of time, these ‘imbalances’ can even be allowed to grow and this creates tremendous problems for any new President that wants to ‘change directions.’ For a good review of some of the constraints that exist in the current situation see the editorial of David Brooks, “When Reality Bites”: (

There are times when the imbalances leave an irreconcilable dilemma as is the current situation with respect to economic policy. At present it appears as if the American economy is going into a recession. To lessen the severity of recession the government can execute a combination of monetary and fiscal actions. In early 2008 we see the Federal Reserve lowering the target interest rate it uses to conduct monetary policy and the Bush Administration and Congress creating a fiscal stimulus package. The Federal Reserve has had to lower its interest rate target because of dislocations in the financial markets. The fiscal stimulus package resulted from the game playing of the President and Congress, both of whom could not do ‘nothing’ in fear of facing massive criticism in upcoming elections. The dilemma is that these policies are exactly the opposite needed in order to stop the decline in the value of the dollar which has been declining for over five years. The decline in the value of the dollar can be attributed to the deficits created by the tax cuts enacted early-on by the Bush Administration and low interest rate policy followed for two years by the Greenspan led Federal Reserve.

Is this ‘game playing’ a direct result of the electoral process resulting from a democratic form of government? Perhaps this indicates that some ‘balance’ needs to be achieved between the game playing that goes on within a government and the electoral process and the ‘balance’ that is needed within a society in order to function efficiently and effectively.

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