Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Chinese restaurant-style policymaking

Chinese restaurants of yore, and I actually remember a couple from way back, would have these menus where you had to pick one from Column A and one from Column B. I actually haven't been in any such restaurant for a couple of decades, although I eat Chinese food a lot, but hopefully the metaphor isn't quite as dead yet as the dilophosaur.
Bringing this to mind was the news that President Bush is apparently planning a "major energy speech," perhaps even today, prompted, I gather, by the combination of rising gasoline prices and his falling approval rating.
At the risk of making a prediction that could be promptly falsified, we can be pretty sure that what he will do is peddle once again his "energy bill," a grab bag of goodies for oil and coal interests. There is zero chance that this legislation, even if desirable, would have any short-run effect on gasoline prices, but he will no doubt not be shy in linking the two.
Bush has always wanted to win each battle too much to try the fabled Richard Nixon strategy of old, which involved pushing a proposal in the hope that Congress wouldn't pass it, so that Congress rather than Nixon would take the blame for some intractable problem. Thus, Nixon in 1970 apparently pushed a crime bill that was consciously designed to be sufficiently anti-civil liberties for the Democrats not to pass it, thus setting them up for the blame when high crime rates continued. To the Nixon Administration's dismay, however, the Democrats were sufficiently scared of this to let the bill pass, thereby neutralizing the intended gambit.
Bush hasn't done this type of thing yet, and Republican control of Congress makes it harder for him to blame the other side for inaction, but perhaps he will be trying it soon, at least for Social Security and, if he loses on the energy bill, for gasoline prices as well.
Anyway, back to the Chinese restaurant style policymaking. Column A is whatever set of problems or crises emerge on the front page. Column B is the predetermined list of policies that Bush wants to pass. His standard strategy is to take one from Column A and one from Column B, claiming that the former necessitates the latter, even if no reasonable person (including rational and honest supporters of the Column B item) could seriously defend the claimed link. The ever-changing rationales for the tax cuts provide one example. A recent energy bill (a failed earlier version of the current one, if I recall correctly) was another. At that point, the rationale for a $31 billion (over 5 years) bonanza giving huge subsidies to the oil and coal industries was to prevent a recurrence of the major blackout that had recently occurred. (Get it? A blackout has something to do with energy, and so do subsidies for energy companies. What is more, between 1 and 2 percent of the bill's cost actually did involve upgrading the power grid.)
9/11 and Iraq may be another case of this. Likewise, consider the bogus link between Social Security's long-term fiscal gap and a private accounts proposal that on its face is revenue-neutral at best over a very long time frame. There are arguments for private accounts, but they have nothing to do with the financing problem, and the privatization (sorry) campaign therefore truly is a case of one from Column A and one from Column B.
Aesthetically speaking, I must admit some disappointment that the Administration hasn't been more imaginative about this strategy. While not requiring logical links between problems and proposed responses, it does seem to require subject matter consistency. Why not go a step further and have Bush, in his energy speech, claim that the Democrats will be to blame for higher gasoline prices if they don't pass his Social Security plan?

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