Political Entrepreneurs

The Economic Engine of Political Change

What Political Change Would You Like to See in 2013?

January 1st, 2013 by Wayne Leighton

Happy New Year! What political change — what meaningful reform — would you like to see in 2013?

Watching the current debate in Washington, one might be pessimistic about the possibility of meaningful reform on spending, taxes … the big issues.

And yet, the need for reform grows every day. The U.S. Census Bureau’s latest projections are for the population age 65 years and older to more than double by 2060, from 43 million to 92 million people. Meanwhile, projections for births and immigration have fallen. With these demographics, how will Social Security and Medicare benefits be provided?

In the words of economist Herbert Stein, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” The question, of course, is when will it stop. In short, when will reform happen?

The policymakers in Washington currently are demonstrating that they have incentives to make sure that spending stays relatively high and that taxes stay relatively low. The reality of many social security and medicare beneficiaries combined with relatively few contributors (i.e., taxpayers) has yet to become an urgent problem, at least to those who hold the levers of political power.

And yet, sometimes change happens. As we observe in the concluding chapter of Madmen,

Even in something as esoteric as political philosophy, the principles of economics still apply, and market realities must be respected… John Locke discovered this during his failed attempt to write a constitution for the Carolina colonies in 1669. His rules were rejected by most locals and didn’t last a year. Yet a little over a century later, those same ideas found favorable conditions as the American framers wrote the U.S. Constitution.

For those who hope for meaningful tax and spending reform from Washington, the story of John Locke should serve as a reminder that  reform is possible. It also reminds us that even the best idea must overcome vested interests and gain a certain amount of acceptance, and that it will change the rules of the game only when its time has come.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.189, ch.7)

The most successful entrepreneurs know what they do well, they know the market and the opportunities within it, and they choose those activities that create the most value. This is true in economic as well as political markets.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.178, ch.7)

[W]hen the right elements come together at the right time and place and overwhelm the status quo, it is because special people make it happen. We call them political entrepreneurs.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.176. ch.7)

While we started this book with Danny Biasone saving basketball, we end it with Norman Borlaug saving a billion lives. These stories are not that different. Both faced vested interests, which were reinforced by popular beliefs that things should be a certain way—that is, until a better idea came along.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.174, ch.6)

Because there was a general belief that homeownership was a good thing, politicians found the public with open arms.... Everybody was winning—except Alfred Marshall, whose supply and demand curves were difficult to see through the haze of excitement at the time, and except Friedrich Hayek, whose competition as a discovery procedure was befuddled... In short, once politicians started getting credit for homeownership rates, the housing market was doomed.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.166, ch.6)

Everyone responded rationally to the incentives before them. In short, the rules that guided homeownership changed over time, which in turn changed the incentives of these actors. And bad things happened.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.153, ch.6)

They understood the economics. The ideas had already won in ... the regulatory agency itself. All that remained to be overcome were some vested interests and a handful of madmen in authority.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.146, ch.6)

If the idea for auctions of spectrum use rights had been part of the public debate since at least 1959, why didn’t the relevant institutions change sooner? What interests stood in the way?

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.121, ch.5)

When an academic scribbler comes up with a new idea, it has to resonate well with widely shared beliefs, which in turn must overcome the vested interests at the table. Many forces come together to explain political change, even though it may seem like coincidence of time and place.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.120, ch.5)

It’s the rules of the political game that deserve our focus, not politicians’ personalities or party affiliations.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.119, ch.5)

In short, ideas are a type of higher-order capital in society. Like a society that is poor in capital and therefore produces little consumer value, a society that is poor in ideas and institutions will have bad incentives and therefore few of the desirable outcomes that people want.

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