Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Over at the G Spot, Kathy G has some good thoughts on what an Obama presidency might mean. Unfortunately, if I’m reading her correctly, it doesn’t amount to much as far as the structure of the political system goes:

“But you know what? Ultimately, I don’t think that they as individuals are to blame for that. I don’t think Barack, or Hillary, or Edwards, are bad people. I don’t think that Barack Obama, for example, went into politics so he could sell civil liberties down the river in favor of giveaways for the telecom industry. But the incentive structure in politics these days is such that he decided he had more to gain by supporting the FISA “compromise” than by opposing it.”

That about sums up my view of the situation. Kathy G specifically mentioned the FISA bill, but another example related to Barack Obama is his close ties with the ethanol industry and his advocacy of using ethanol as an alternative fuel source.

This never made any sense to me from an energy policy perspective. First of all, it takes oil to make ethanol, so the claim that ethanol would get us off oil and toward energy independence is factually not true, at least not with the kind of technology that we have right now. Second, ethanol is made from corn, and while this might be good for all the corn-growers (of which the state of Illinois is the second-largest, coincidence, I think not), it will further contribute to the already existing food shortage around the world. So on top of using oil to make ethanol, we’d also have to use corn, another valuable commodity. The math just doesn’t work out.

Yet Barack Obama has thrown his weight behind such a policy proposal, and it doesn’t take a genius or a Political Science degree to figure out why: he came from the second-largest corn-growing state in the union, and if he wanted to win Iowa in the primaries, he pretty much had to get on the ethanol bandwagon. This isn’t surprising, because this is what rational choice theory predicts what a rational person would do.

All this shows is that politicians are rational actors in a rational system, and by rational I don’t mean substantive rationality, but purely instrumental rationality. The problem, in other words, is STRUCTURAL and SYSTEMIC; therefore, it is unrealistic to expect that any single individual can overcome the incentive structure and the rules of the game. So while I was being partially joking when I titled this post after the famous The Who song, there is a certain truth in it: the institution outlasts the individuals, and it is very difficult for individuals to change the institutions.


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