Monday, April 15, 2013

Politicians, Incentives, and Us

Eat, drink, and be merry?

Last week I attended an event hosted by Washington Business Journal entitled, "Greater Washington: Can this Region Cooperate?" Publisher Alex Orfinger moderated a discussion among a panel of Washington-area elected officials that included our own Congressional representative.

I don't remember the exact question posed, but our Congressman said something very important: jurisdictions have little reason to cooperate because the benefits to voters are unclear and uncertain. And since voters can't see the immediate benefit for themselves, they aren't likely to vote for politicians advocating regional cooperation. As a result, elected officials have little incentive to cooperate.

This statement on the cloudiness of cooperation takes us down some interesting paths.
  • The political benefits of cooperation may be seen as weakness but legislative action and functioning government are impossible without cooperation and compromise.
  • The economic benefits of free trade and comparative advantage are not immediately recognized by individuals but make all participant countries and their citizens more prosperous.
  • The societal benefits of public goods and services may not benefit each member of society but make the whole stronger so that all members thrive.
  • The income benefits of right-sizing government and making it more efficient may cost some jobs but is a more productive and better use of our tax dollars.
In discussing a drought the Washington area experienced some years ago, our Congressman suggested that the initial reaction of jurisdictional self interest invoked the Book of Luke: "Eat, drink, and be merry!" However as resistance gave way to joint effort and cooperation, the area made it through the drought and was better prepared for the next one.

Leadership involves telling people what they don't want to hear or don't want to believe. Sometimes swallowing a bitter pill is what's best for our own well-being.