¡Sí se puede (un poquito)!

An object lesson

It's an object lesson in how little power the American President really has. In fact, considering that the Democrats control the legislature as well, it is an object lesson in how little power the politicians have. And since what people actually vote for are the politicians, it is an object lesson in how little the US genuinely is a democracy. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Power when it counts

Politicians (in this administration and the previous one) seemed to have sufficient power to bail out their campaign contributors.

Tells us less than one might think

People bother or don't bother being campaign contributors depending on whether the politicians have the power to help them. So to say that politicians have the power to help their campaign contributors is little more than to say that politicians have the power to help the people that they have the power to help.

Which is a tautology.

Which therefore does not tell us very much.

There is of course a claim of existence contained therein: the politicians have some discretion in choosing whom to help. But the size of the discretion, as a proportion of the whole budget, appears to be tiny.

And even legislation which supposedly reveals the power of the legislature to make decisions may not be what it seems. Consider the stimulus bill of 09. Famously, the legislators passed it without reading it. If they didn't even have time to read it, then they definitely didn't have time to write it. So the people who actually wrote it can't have been elected (unless, say, the state governors wrote it).

Our elected politicians voted blind, trusting the people who actually wrote the bill, who were not elected. The media - also not elected - backed them up (recall the high-handed treatment of the "tea party" protesters by TV news reporters).


Which therefore does not tell us very much.

Maybe it says something about the scope of a politician's power. Perhaps they are effective in directing tax funds, or controlling licensure or regulation, or other activities that become obvious when you look at their campaign contributors.

And perhaps the scope of media reporting can also be determined by looking at their advertisers or licensors.

Perhaps most parties do what they are paid to do, and if they can't do it, they don't get paid.

Or perhaps I am completely wrong, and what my public school civics teachers were paid to tell me was correct: that politicians only work for the greater good...

Power behind the throne

Or perhaps I am completely wrong, and what my public school civics teachers were paid to tell me was correct: that politicians only work for the greater good...

I am not speculating about whether politicians serve the greater good. I am speculating about who, exactly, wields the power. A key concept here is the concept of the "power behind the throne" - the idea that true power is held by someone not in the public eye. We have a natural tendency to assign credit and blame to highly visible individuals. President Bush, for instance, was blamed for pretty much anything bad that happened anywhere for the last 8 years. But if all that stuff were really all the fault of that bad man, then all that stuff should have utterly changed when Obama came into office.

One theory, of course, is that Obama is actually just Bush wearing a disguise. However, I don't think that is correct, because I've seen them together (granted, on television, which could be faked), and because Obama is too thin - Bush wouldn't fit into him.

An alternative theory is that it doesn't really matter all that much who is in office. If Ron Paul had become President, he may have found his own actual power to do anything to be surprisingly restricted.

I don't think the president

I don't think the president power is that limited. Watch or re-watch "Yes Minister". The presidential power is almost unlimited, but anyone who is not perfectly principled will yield... There can be sincere campaigning presidents, they're not deluded about their power, they're deluded about the political implications of the policies they wish to follow. When they arrive in power, they become almost unable in a radical fashion.

Same show, opposite conclusion

That show is mentioned in this entry at UR. In that entry, using that very show as part of his evidence, Moldbug argues that, even assuming Ron Paul is perfectly principled:

If Ron Paul is elected, the civil-service oligarchy will crush him like a bug.

Measuring someone's political power is tricky. Suppose that it is true that if the President orders the Speaker of the House to be arrested, then it will be done. Does the President actually have the political power to do this? Not necessarily: whether he can really be considered to have that power depends on the consequences that follow.

Pick any person in the US. Almost without exception, if you (Arthur) really want that person dead and are willing to live with the consequences (e.g. your quick arrest, trial, and imprisonment or execution), then you can, physically, kill that person. But the key here is that you can't get away with it. The key is the consequnces that follow. The difference between you and the Dear Leader of North Korea is he can get away with murder and you can't.

That Dear Leader has the power to do X, means in part that if he does X, then he will get away with it. If you can do X but will be destroyed if you do X, then you don't genuinely have the power to do X. This is doubly true if, upon your being destroyed, your replacement reverses X, making it as though you had never even been there.

Years ago I defined political power as the ability to get away with openly committed murder. Notice the distinction: I didn't define it as the ability to commit murder, but rather as the ability to get away with murder. My motivation for this definition was to define power in a way that did not refer to the state, since I wanted to define what the state was in a non-circular way, I wanted to distinguish the state from a private entity. The definition I provided is crude but it contains the key point about the consequences that follow.

Opposite (?) opposite conclusion

My poli sci prof remarked that Truman did not demonstrate power by firing MacArthur; he demonstrated weakness. If Truman were truly powerful, MacArthur would have known that there was no point in disagreeing with the president.

If you look at Yes Minister,

If you look at Yes Minister, Hacker is everything but principled. He likes to pretend he is, he likes to appear as principled but he is truly not. Besides, he is stupid and easily manipulated.

Thatcher who was a fan of the show was principled, and she proves that someone in office can indeed wield considerable power. The show applies to people like Obama who campaign on change, transparency (open government), not Ron Paul.

There's a lot of things wrong with Ron Paul, in particular his views on immigration and his superstitious respect for the constitution or "sovereignty", but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be powerless in office.

There are a lot of radical policies which can be implemented with little nudges in the law. For example, full blown anarcho-capitalism requires merely to grant secession right to landowners. No, I don't believe Ron Paul or any other president would or could do it... that President would be tried for treason. I'm just giving an example of the huge consequences of innocuous laws.

For a more realistic example, small changes in the tax code can be a boom for competing currencies (the convexity of the income tax is probably a larger hurdle to the adoption of competing currencies that legal tender laws).

the president's power isn't that restricted

If Ron Paul had become President, he may have found his own actual power to do anything to be surprisingly restricted.

The president is the commander in chief. We're not even in an officially declared war at the moment - we're in Afghanistan and Iran and never officially declared war in either. As such, the military forces are in those places solely at the president's discretion.

Ron Paul wanted to bring the troops home. If he had been elected, I don't see anything in the world that could possibly stop the fact that nearly all the troops would be back in the US right now.

That is an amazing amount of power. The Seattle times has said that the war is costing $100,000 per minute in Iraq and $18,000 per minute in Afghanistan. The troops would be home, and that kind of financial blood-loss would be bandaged up ... I'd say that is a surprisingly unrestricted amount of power a president can wield.