The Unintended Consequences of Transparency

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Unintended ConsequencesBefore I get started I want to thank everyone for all the comments on last week’s post, Reconsidering Gift Economies.  I will return to that topic next week with some revised thinking.  This week I want to shift topics, inspired by an interview with election expert David Brady, via Russ Roberts of EconTalk, which suggests some curious conclusions  regarding the benefits of transparency.

The part that captured my attention was a discussion of what Brady calls ‘the personal vote‘.  He is referring to the trend, beginning in the mid 1960s of congressional candidates running more on the basis of their personal characteristics and relying less on their party affiliation.  It is important to be clear, he isn’t arguing that candidates became less partisan…only that candidates increasingly positioned themselves as individuals with unique platforms rather than as ‘the Party X candidate’.  Their messaging became more “vote for me” and less “vote for my party”.

As evidence Brady offers comparative analyses of the voting trends across branches, within the same election:

Prior to 1964, say, the first time we know we can measure this accurately, 60% swing to one party brings that party the President, the House, and the Senate. Post-1964 it doesn’t do anything like that. So you can have huge victories for Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 because Congressmen run individually.

If its not clear from the quote, Brady is pointing out that the landslide presidential victories failed to carry over into the congressional elections.  In all three cases the opposing party maintained control of congress, indicating that voters were splitting their votes across party lines.  We shouldn’t be surprised then that the rise of ‘the personal vote’ coincides with the rise of the independent/moderate swing voter.  According to Brady’s analysis, as candidates increasingly distinguished themselves as individuals, voters softened their party allegiances and increasingly allowed those individual characteristics to influence their votes.

Exogenous Variables

In my favorite exchange of the interview, Roberts offers a preamble describing Lyndon Johnson’s dedicated ties to the democratic party, then poses the following questions:

Roberts: This era is very different, (the) post-1960s era.  What changed?  Was it innovation?  Politicians figured something out?
Brady: Because you are an economist, you always have to have some exogenous variable.
Roberts: Yes, give me one!

I am tempted to change the tagline of this blog:

OnTheSpiral – Identifying Variables Exogenous to the Conventional Model

Thoughts?  Ok, moving on…

Brady placates us economist folk with two such exogenous variables.  First, he suggests that once accurate polling became available candidates de-emphasized their party affiliation if the polls showed their party was out of favor.  Secondly, he suggests that TV commercials allowed candidates to theatrically communicate desirable character traits to much larger audiences.  To support the latter claim Brady points to election data showing the personal vote to be more prevalent in districts where TV advertisements can be more targeted effectively – i.e. rural areas where TV broadcast boundaries align with congressional district boundaries.

Brady’s arguments imply that politicians are putting more personal reputation at risk as they move out of the party’s shadow.  If you believe as I do that government is a hopeless bureaucratic mess that rarely gets anything right, then we can draw some interesting conclusions…

For one, if government action is more than likely to produce undesirable outcomes, then the dominant strategy is to do nothing.  Brady’s data supports this conclusion:

…in a rather systematic analysis that I won’t bore the audience with…we make an estimate of how much did it cost the Democrats and Obama to have pushed health care and cap-and-trade. And our best bet is that it’s about 23-25 seats…So, the facts are that if you came from a district that was moderate or conservative, you voted for health care and cap-and-trade, you greatly enhanced your chances of losing.

A further complicating factor is the public primary system, which rewards candidates who initially pander to the extremist party line, but who then move towards the center during the general electorate.  As a result we regularly elect candidates who have essentially run on two distinct platforms.  Such a candidate is stuck in an untenable position…

Enter Transparency

Take an average power hungry politician…add risk to personal reputation, adverse incentives and conflicted interests.  Now add a dash of transparency and what do you get?

A big fucking mess of unintended consequences.

Brady discusses the implications of transparency for legislators whose constituencies are dominated by concentrated special interests.  Prior to the legislative reforms of the 1970′s representatives would promote their agendas directly to the committee chairman, who held all the power.  Their pet projects would generally be behind closed doors and could pledge to his electorate that he tried his best.  Add transparency and this representative is now forced to either publicly introduce hopeless pork-barrel legislation or publicly backtrack on his campaign promises.  We might hope for a more honest campaign platform, but when has honesty ever mattered in political campaigns?

A 2003 study on the causes and effects of the 70s legislative reforms[1] concludes:

Therefore, our findings reinforce earlier accounts that portrayed the 1970s reforms as having important decentralizing effects…The reforms of the 1970s empowered both rank-and-file
members and party leaders, creating a partially contradictory combination of institutions.

Indeed, a close analysis of congressional history suggests that institutional change typically occurs through a confluence of multiple, potentially competing interests… As was true in the 1970s, the resulting institutions are not coherent wholes but rather historical composites full of tensions and contradictions.

An empowered rank and file would surely be held to a higher standard of accountability and transparency…that is, unless they managed to co-opt the “partially contradictory combination of institutions” to obfuscate their compromised behavior.  And that seems to be exactly what happened.  It was much easier to impose (supposed) transparency top-down than to resolve the conflicts of interest inherent in the “historical composites full of tensions and contradictions”.

Unfortunately, transparency only offers an easy remedy if there exists a viable choice between right and wrong action.  Otherwise, we only shine an ever brighter light on a path that leads inevitably to failure.  It should be no surprise then that increased transparency has had unintended consequences – less transparency.  The bizarre creatures who still embark on this path simply adopted new strategies to subvert the transparency imposed on them.

Candidates who make no tangible promises cannot be held accountable…so we are forced to endure ever more superficial campaigns consisting of nothing but cliches and emotional appeals.  During interviews and debates, the campaigning hopefuls blatantly ignore the questions asked and return doggedly to pre-programmed talking points.  Once in office, our elected representatives construct unintelligible legislation consisting of thousands of pages of legal obfuscation.

Perhaps most importantly, increased transparency has allowed for increasingly devastating personal attack advertising, further exacerbating the damage done to personal reputations.  Every action taken by a “public servant” offers potential fodder for future slanderous attacks.

Avoiding A Losing Proposition

Is it any wonder then that there seem not to be any good candidates anymore?

Most candidates are, quite simply, not very likable.  Very few appear to be genuine, decent, intellectually honest people.  Regardless of whether power corrupts, or power attracts the corrupt (surely both), the outcome is the same…our political candidates increasingly represent the bottom of the barrel.

This is where I find the notion of the personal vote particularly interesting.  It is one thing accept the political clown show as an unfortunate necessity of one’s chosen profession.  It is quite another thing to accept those necessities as a reflection on one’s character.  I find it difficult to imagine a decent uncorrupted person choosing to enter such an environment…an envirnment that forces you to pander, to obfuscate, to compromise your principles, to feign false principles…and to do it all publicly.

Yet, it is equally difficult to imagine a reversal towards less transparency.  Even if the legislative rules were reconfigured the exogenous variables can’t be reversed.  The individual spotlight created by TV, polling, and now all manner of internet media will only get brighter.

If transparency is inevitable, it stands to reason that honest people who value their reputations will increasingly avoid environments that force them to compromise their integrity.  Rather than creating better behavior within existing conflicted organizations, transparency will starve those organizations of respectable talent.  That is, unless those same organizations reinvent themselves from the bottom up…


[1] Remaking the House and Senate: Personal Power, Ideology, and the 1970s Reforms – Eric Schickler, Eric McGhee and John Sides

photo courtesy of Enough Project

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  • Kurt Laitner

    Deep stuff.  This was funny:

    “OnTheSpiral – Identifying Variables Exogenous to the Conventional Model
    Thoughts?  Ok, moving on…”


    Haven’t seen a convincing argument of transparency as a bad thing, so this was very interesting.  Would agree that persons of character certainly aren’t likely to enter a political system where taking a stand carries so much personal risk, so you get what you ask for.  It is a weakness of representative democracy that candidates must either represent their constituents (thus become a windsock) or represent their own conscience (and piss off at least a portion of their electorate).  Your points on parties being a way to intermediate personal accountability and thus ‘get things done’ behind closed door is a decent one, and for me, counterintuitive.  In a way this merely changes the locus of the problem to the party, where we again have a principles vs representation choice.

    So what is the way out of the problem? 

    Certainly direct democracy is a difficult alternative.  It is difficult to say whether voter turnout would be higher for issues than for elections of representatives, but even with very high turnout there is no guarantee of competence of the electorate.  And we all have other things to do.

    Participatory democracy may be useful, but bends us toward the windsock role for the politician.  If the electorate demonstrated a clear position on an issue, it would be almost untenable for the politician to take the opposite position. To do so would be, well, leadership.

    Perhaps taking another level of abstraction and asking whether position politics makes any sense at all is the best approach?  If we assume that any population will have a variety of opinions on an issue, why take a binary approach to voting on that issue.  Perhaps we need to build a system that allows for maximum disagreement without discord.  Rather than pursuing an objective reality that does not in fact exist (thus creating tension), one assumes an intersubjective reality, a many worlds approach.  The problem happens, as in religious institutions, when a portion of the populace feels they have the right (possibly god-given) to determine the rules for the rest of the populace.

    Perhaps a person simply (and transparently) subscribes to the law one feels most appropriate, and accepts the consequences of that choice?  This is of course a very libertarian approach fraught with unresolved tension, but we have to question all assumptions.  A simplistic view has a portion of the population paying higher taxes and having medicare, another paying lower taxes, and not having medicare, and perhaps another paying higher taxes, not having medicare, and paying down the debt.  The key here is whether this bifurcating reality could be sustained in a given geography and determining when my fist hits your face, what to do about it, as in the case of speed limits.

    • GregoryJRader

      The same argument actually applies to direct democracy even more so.  California is infamous for voting for ballot initiatives that sound good on paper in isolation but are impossible to coordinate into the existing system.  The problem is really one of managing complexity.  The more direct participation you allow, the more contradictions or irreconcilable positions you introduce.  The representatives and the parties act as intermediate consolidation points, essentially compressing the diversity of positions into something that can be meaningfully acted on at the next level up the hierarchy.  Reducing the role of the parties is like removing upper management from a vertical corporation.  Now you have hundreds of middle managers attempting to steer the ship directly without any executives to keep them in line…

      With regard to alternatives, the best prediction I can make is that things are likely to get more confusing before they settle down again.  I don’t think “the right (possibly god-given) to determine the rules for the rest of the populace” is compatible with ever increasing transparency and diversity of opinions.  Politicians will only be forced into increasingly windsock-ish roles, and the bureaucracy itself will only further hollow out as more people avoid it.  I suspect that “subscription” style system that you describe will emerge from the ground up and gradually usurp government functions.  To some degree this is already occurring.  If you contribute to wikipedia you agree to accept their governance rules.  Likewise if you join a socially motivated project or organization.  I am seeing facebook groups discussing governance…What are we doing here?  What are our goals? How do we decide who to invite?  What are the participation guidelines?

  • tacanderson

    I think that along with this you have the increased costs of running for office and the overt power parties have on candidates. Even millionaires are loathe to run for office without their parties support and money. 

    Disclosure: I hate politics.  

    • GregoryJRader

      One of the points that came up in the interview was how difficult it is to build a party from the ground up.  It is not terribly difficult to run a 3rd party presidential candidate but to actually build a viable and comprehensive party apparatus around such a candidate is prohibitively expensive.  

      By contrast, because we have open primaries it is much easier to take over an existing party than it would be in other countries.  So we get weird hybrid parties like the Tea Party – partially Republican and partially an independent party.  In the European system, wherein the party bureaucracies select their candidates, the Tea Party would have no ability to mount what is essentially an insurgency on the Republicans.  They would be forced to build their own party apparatus and run on their own ticket.  In the US it is much easier for them to place candidates in the Republican primaries and capture the existing party machinery for their own purposes.  

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