Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How to fix politics

There has been a minor furore over an allowance of €41,000 that Beverley Cooper-Flynn has been receiving for being an "independent" TD. See here and here. Of course, Cooper-Flynn is not an independent TD but she was at the time of her election and hence is entitled to the allowance for the duration of the current Dail. The allowance is to cover the expenses of a constituency office for the independent TD.

This highlights a key deficiency of the system of government in Ireland - "all politics is local". Why are we giving €41,000 to a TD just because they are not aligned to a political party? People respond to incentives and this allowance serves as an incentive for independents to run on single issue campaigns. Although these are in the interests of the people of the constituency where they are elected, this does not nesessarily hold for the country as a whole.

The issues that lead to the election of many independents should be dealt with within local government and not brought to a national level. Its is also possible that one or two constituencies can benefit in special packages by the presence of having an independent TD who agrees to support a minority or slim majority government. This has been the case for the last two governments in Ireland.

The late independent TD, Tony Gregory has been getting huge plaudits for doing great work for his inner city Dublin North Central constituency. He may have been good for the people of Dublin North Central but he will be remembered in the country as a whole for his most famous "deal" which kept one Charles J. Haughey in power in 1982.

People respond to external incentives and do so to best meet their internal self-interest. The self-interest that drives politicians is very simple - get reelected. The small multi-seat constituencies in Ireland and election quotas of around 10,000 votes lead to what has been stylised as "parish pump" politics. This means that decisions are made in the local rather than national interest.

University of Rochester professor, Steven Landsburg offers some (out there) solutions:
If I could make one change in the political system I'd give everybody two votes per election. You'd cast one vote in your own district and the other in the district of your choice. When a West Virginia senator manages to convert billions of federal tax dollars into pork for his home state, I want him to know that the suppliers of those dollars will have an opporunity to gang up against him on election day.

The problem with democracy is not that politicians kowtow to financiers and lobbyists; its that politicians kowtow to their own constituents, spending other people's money along the way. In other words, the problem is that politicians have little incentive to consider the costs of their actions. Effective reform should supply that incentive.

So for my next reform, I'd redraw the boundaries of congressional districts according to the alphabet instead of geography. Instead of congressmen from central Delaware and northern Colorado, we'd have a congressman for everyone whose name starts with AA through AE, another for AF through AH, and so on. This would make it harder for representatives to bring home the pork. It's easy to invent a project that transfers income to a particular region, but much trickier to concoct a scheme that transfers income precisely to those people whose names happen to begin with Q.

This reform has an important side benefit: congressmem would no longer be able to maintain local offices to provide constituent services, like assistance with cutting through regulatory red tape. A lot of that red tape exists only so that politicians can win points by cutting through it.

Maybe after doing that we should consider abolishing the need to form the cabinet from the elected TDs in the Dail. Lets get experts in the relevant areas to run the Departments. Since 1997 Cork TD Michael Martin has been Minister for Education and Science, Minister for Health and Children, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Minsiter for Foreign Affairs. That's a lot of expertise.

There would still be the Dail where the elected TDs would be required to vote on any legislation proposed, however its makeup regarding party/independent would not be as relevant and certainly €41,000 non-party payments would not be required.

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