Posted by: Jeff | September 11, 2010

The Bush Tax Cuts and the Mere Humanity of Politicians

As a follow-up to my last post on the Bush tax cuts, here’s a Gallup poll concerning the question (via Ezra Klein):

Across all Americans, it’s 37 percent support for keeping all the cuts, 44 percent for keeping just the under-$250,000 cuts, and 15 percent for letting all the cuts expire.

Now, it would be more helpful if we could compare these results with numbers on how people feel about just extending them for two years. And there’s always the divide between Americans in general, and likely voters specifically to worry about. But still, the implications of this poll are pretty bad, because it indicates a very large majority of the American public is in favor of wrecking the national budget.

And while it’s true that we expect politicians to do the right thing rather than the popular thing, that point has little value in practice. Politicians are only human, and they can only swim against the tide so long before their conviction or energy gives out — or before they’re simply replaced in the next election cycle.

It’s important to remember that politicians — again like all humans — respond to incentives. If you want them to buck what’s popular for what’s right, you can’t just stamp your foot and demand it; you have to reward them when they do. And that’s where the catch-22 comes in, because to reward them you have to first recognize that the right thing is what they’ve done in a particular instance. But by definition, the popular course of action will be popular precisely because most people think it’s the right thing to do. So acknowledging a politician for bucking the popular in favor of the right, and acknowledging them on the kind of mass scale that’s necessary to matter in terms of their electoral interests, comes pretty close to being a conceptual impossibility. At the very least, it’s exceedingly, horrendously difficult to pull off. And that’s not some unfortunate problem with our politics that can be fixed — that’s an inherent and unavoidable consequence of democracy.

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