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Down With One-Dimensional Politics!

Last Sunday, ABC’s This Week ran a new segment titled “The Great American Debates.” It featured George Will and Paul Ryan debating Barney Frank and Robert Reich on the question: “There is too much government in my life.”

It was a fun and spirited debate with lots of good lines from both sides. In my view, Barney Frank was at his strongest when he was pointing out the inconsistencies in the conservative positions on foreign policy and personal freedom. He noted that while the conservatives are happy to permit greater freedom when it comes to economic matters, they are the first to “tell us that an adult shouldn’t be able to gamble on the Internet” and they are the first to want to regulate personal matters from the bedroom to recreational drug use. Moreover, while conservatives are skeptical of government’s role in the economy, Frank noted that they are often eager to use the government to rebuild other societies, something “we’re not very good at.”

Having pointed out the inconsistencies of conservatives (more freedom in economic matters but more government in personal and foreign affairs), he might have embraced a more consistent approach: freedom in all spheres. Instead, he ended his opening statement by declaring that he, too, was inconsistent:

And so my answer is yes, I want more government involved in economic regulation and environmental cleanup and for reasons of public safety. I want less government telling me what personal choices to make as an individual.

This answer, I believe, highlights the inadequacy of one-dimensional political thinking. Try as we might, it is pretty difficult to describe many peoples’ political beliefs without making them seem inconsistent.

That’s why I think it is much more helpful to think in terms of (at least!) two dimensions. Consider the animation below.

The common positions of “left” and “right” on economic and personal matters seem inconsistent when viewed on a conventional one-dimensional spectrum. But if you allow for a little richer information, you can think in terms of two dimensions: a) more or less economic
freedom as shown on the horizontal axis and b) more or less personal freedom as shown along the vertical axis. You can think of “libertarians” as favoring freedom in both spheres and “statists” as favoring intervention in both spheres. And you can think of “left” and “right” as favoring freedom in one sphere but not the other and vice versa.

Of course, you can take it one step further and think of a third dimension coming straight out of your computer screen. It would show more or less intervention in foreign matters. (Sadly, my animation skills are not yet advanced enough to render such an image).

I understand why U.S. political parties feel the need to conform to the tired, old one-dimensional view of politics. Long ago, the political scientist Maurice Duverger asserted that two and only two political parties are likely to be viable in democracies that employ the type of voting rules the U.S. employs (one member represents each district and that candidate with the most votes is declared the winner). With such voting rules, third parties rarely win and so their financial and political support tends to dry up over time. Conversely, in countries where, say, the top three vote-getters each get a seat in parliament, third parties are much more viable. Given the fact that the U.S. is likely to have only two parties, these two parties must, by default, simplify matters and pretend that politics can adequately be described with a simple dimension.

It is unfortunate, however, that the media and pollsters play along. ABC, for example, could have easily invited guests to defend the libertarian and the statist position. And pollsters could easily make room for two questions. Instead of asking people if they are liberal, conservative, or moderate (how is a libertarian to answer?), they could ask people separate questions about their positions on social issues and economic issues.

There is ample evidence that people are smart enough to think in multi-dimensional terms. According to Dennis Mueller (p. 242):

Most observers of politics outside of the United States identify at least two salient dimensions to the political party space.

He cites research by Budge, Robertson, and Hearl (1987), Budge (1994), Laver and Schofield (1990), Schofield (1993, 1995), and Schofield, Martin, Quinn, and Whitford (1998).

Here is a fun, short quiz to help you think through your own position in multi-dimensional issue space.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

If you are a local official, you better start reading the new 800-plus page Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (the MUTCD for those who are short on time). This new tangle of federal regulations—written under the Bush Administration—is about to have a major impact on state and local budgets.

Among the new requirements:

  • Writing on street signs in 25 mph + zones must be 6 inches tall by January 2012.
  • New reflective letters need to be in use by January 2016.
  • All new signs can no longer be in ALL CAPS (even when the sign has a very emphatic message). 

ABC’s Jonathan Karl reports:

In Milwaukee this will cost the cash-strapped city nearly $2 million—double the city’s entire annual for traffic control.

The public comment period has now passed, but the Federal Highway Administration is expcted to announce today that a new period of public comment will open soon. 

Who is in favor of these rules? Why the American Traffic Safety Services Association, of course. No; they aren’t an association of concerned drivers. They represent the companies who make the signs.

Brad Pitt Seeks Stimulus

Make it Right House in New OrleansVariety reports that Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is seeking stimulus money to continue their work building houses in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward:

In a high profile appearance that even drew live coverage on MSNBC, Pitt visited Washington in March to promote Make It Right, meeting with President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with an array of cabinet secretaries and other elected officials, including Shaun Donovan and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. With Pitt was producer Steve Bing, who has been a benefactor of his housing project.

The foundation was among 12 non-profits joining with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to file an application last week for a total of $65 million through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If they get the funding, Make It Right would probably start spending the money in the spring of 2010. Depending on how many homes the foundation has built by then, it could be used to reach their goal of 150 homes in New Orleans or it could expand the program beyond that, said Kim Haddow, a spokeswoman for Make It Right.

The Make It Right Foundation (profiled here on ABC’s 20/20) — as well as dozens if not hundreds of other local initiatives and non-profits — have done incredible work in rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. But much of this success is due to their independence from large government bureaucracies. Stimulus funding has the potential to act as what Jane Jacobs called “cataclysmic money.” There is a real danger that if social entrepreneurs and non-profits like Pitt’s become dependent upon federal funds, they will in effect become arms of the federal government. This would have a dangerous effect on civil society, and reduce our resilience to disasters and shocks, whether natural or economic.

Another problem, of course, is that it’s not a lack of committed federal funds that have slowed rebuilding in New Orleans; it’s the difficulty with getting that money to the street level, and the mixed and oft-changing signals emanating from all levels of government. Stimulus money has the potential to be yet another promise that never comes to fruition, or comes too late to be helpful.

And moreover, having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, is New Orleans really the ideal place to invest stimulus cash?

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