finem respice

In Defense Of Schizophrenia

Submitted by ep on Thu, 03/26/2009 - 09:07
lone voice

Interestingly, the star of Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan has, quite literally overnight, ascended to dazzling heights and now burns brightly in the sky, propelled, one hopes not yet to its zenith, by his acerbic greeting of the "devalued Prime Minister" Gordon Brown of a "devalued government" on the occasion of the Prime Minister's visit to the European Parliament just yesterday.1 Those of us who have been quiet followers of Hannan's for many years now are pleased to find audiences in Europe, the United States and elsewhere apparently well conditioned enough, after the absolute nonsense of the last two or three decades, for the wit and thrust of his discourse to rack up over a third of a million views in a day.

This has not been the only masterful performance of Hannan's. Though they languish with but a half of a percent of the hit counter of his most recent oration, his risings on the European Investment Bank,2 the refusal of Germany to keep pouring bailout money into Europe,3 the financial crisis,4 parliamentary rules,5 and EU power grabs6 are no less brilliant- and the more dramatic for the positively obstructionist one minute time limit afforded Members by the rules of the European Parliament.

The conflict between Hannan and the more progressive forces within the European Parliament is at the core a disagreement over the appropriate level of optimization in the legislative process. Of course, the most efficient form of government from the rule-making point of view is the government with decision making authority and executive authority vested in the fewest number. Hyperoptimization serves well the Parliament that wishes to push through legislation quickly. Divergent views and debate are, by definition, inefficient, unoptimized concepts. This presents more than mere balance of power issues. While the printed mental meanderings of Nassim Taleb make for entertaining diversion mostly devoid of practical utility, Taleb has at least managed to move the concept of over-optimization, which he merely channels from Benoit Mandelbrot, up in the search rankings of network theory. This is a concept worth examining closely in the context of the present political and economic predicament in which the United States finds herself.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is practically alone on the job, working night and day to cope with the worst economic downturn in decades.

Of the 15 key Treasury Department positions that require Senate confirmation, only one has been filled. Stuart Levey, a leftover from the previous administration, who as under secretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, is not central to the crisis management however.

Unemployment figures which revealed Friday that 651,000 jobs were lost in February, showed the recession is running ever deeper, but Geithner, who started work in late January, has no deputy secretary, no under secretaries for international affairs and no deputy under secretaries.7

In the wake of the present Administration's glacial progress in the direction of staffing the Treasury several voices have risen up criticizing the informal practice of incoming administrations clearing out an entire swath of government positions and replacing the old with what I will stop just short of calling "cronies" in favor of the term "supporters." This is, of course, the "spoils system,"8 or, alternatively, the "patronage system." Arguments both for and against it are not remotely new.

Andrew Jackson was probably the first to take full advantage of the fact that the Constitution vests in the executive the right of appointing to federal offices, with exception to the Senate in the case of the higher posts. Ironically, Jackson was a fierce populist. It might be said that he viewed the existence of career civil servants as a sort of caste system and that this offended his more democratic sensibilities, but this would most likely be overly kind. He replaced 500 postmasters in his first year. Washington had removed only nine officials, all for cause. John Adams axed nine as well. Jefferson eliminated 39, but this was mostly in response to the last minute surge in appointments Adams had spiked just before absconding from office. So, in 1829, this particular practice added to a system already impregnated with adversarial systems, the more formal of which will be easily recognized when invoked with the phrase "checks and balances." In a cruel omen portending the blame the system would continue to gather over the next many years, culpability for the assassination of James Garfield is often assigned to the spoils system, as he was killed by Charles J. Guiteau, who had sought federal office in vain. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 was a direct result of the shooting, it would not be the last legislation so aimed.

Invariably, the current system, which has been much curtailed by the Pendleton Act and the Hatch Act of 1939, is in some measure decried with every incoming administration and calls for a move to the "British system" are touted out anew like so many dusty boxes pulled up from the cellar.

Most recently, Willem Buiter lights on an unfortunate statement, given the need for cross-oceanic cohesion, by Sir Augustine Thomas O'Donnell, KCB the British Cabinet Secretary, to the effect that the spoils system was “absolute madness."

It is a system designed to produce protracted policy paralysis. Often this does not matter much. It may even be helpful to the greater good at times - “That government is best which governs least.” - but in times of war and deep economic crisis, when the world we thought we knew may be falling apart, it is not a bad idea to have a government that can both think and act. The current US administration neither thinks nor acts much, judging from the results.

The reason Gus O’Donnell made his remarks is that the UK government are busy organising next month’s G20 summit in London, and found that when they ring the US Treasury, either nobody answers the phone or they get put on hold and have to listen to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for hours on end.9

But this ignores a rather basic fact: The Founding Fathers of the United States not only understood the importance of schizophrenia well, but they took great pains to instill it into the genetic material of government. The system of American jurisprudence and government in general enshrines not just schizophrenia, but gridlock and adversarial process along almost every interface of surface area between the various internal appendages of state.

Of course the judicial system itself is likely the most openly based in opposition. The "adversarial system" pits two zealous advocates against each other in the presence of a "neutral" arbiter with the expectation that the truth shall issue forth from the great clash between them.

The legislative branch's instruments are a bit more subtle, but clear enough on examination. The two chambers of Congress work at odds. The House, granular and populous, spits out a constant stream of legislation and subjects its members to the whim of the citizenry every two years. The Senate insulates its members from public opinion with six year terms and is generally in far less of a hurry. Of course, there is also that particular tactic of debate hijack in the Senate, the filibuster, so named for the Dutch "vrijbuiter," or "pirate," requiring a super-majority to halt.

The pure genius of these cross purposes is evident immediately when the similar dynamic of gender roles in natural selection is considered. In homo sapiens the juxtaposition of the male desire (to indiscriminately spread genetic material as far and wide as possible) with the female desire (to select genetically superior males) is the same. This interpretation imposes a particularly fitting metaphor on Senators, as well.

Certainly, the pace of life has quickened significantly since the foundations of these structures were laid. Hobbled legislative sloth works much better in an era where landing an army on a foreign shore was a many month endeavor. Be this as it may, optimizing the system much more is more than a bad idea, it is quite dangerous.

Legislative and Executive branches want badly to push the envelope in the name of "quick action" and in opposition to "gridlock" or the terrible dangers of "inaction." In some sense the degree to which you credit the efficacy of legislatures and executives to act hastily without causing more harm than good will determine your belief in the importance of the first and evil of the second and third. Very little reflection is required by anyone of even moderate intelligence to resolve this issue in the case of the present Administration.

Idealism among candidates for high office, be it genuine or affected, generally fails to survive the first real encounter with legislative schizophrenia. In this connection, it was little surprise that the present Administration's aspirations to a five day public airing of legislation prior to signing melted away with the draining liquidity of a Weygand army in June. Interesting, however, the cognitive dissonance that must be present such that this realization has not caused a consummate abandonment of the arrogant aspiration to reform everything from the health care system to carbon emission to the whole of the financial system and reduce $3 trillion in newly added debt simultaneously.

It is less difficult to credit as a realistic the Administration's determination to undertake unilateral "I won" policy making. This too, however, looks quite a lot like over-optimization.10

Consider for a moment the breadth and extent of the sphere of powers vested in the personage of the United States Treasury Secretary as an instrument of the Executive Branch. Consider alongside this conjuring the absolute amateur hour farce of execution that has purported to be crisis management over the last many months, only the most recent of which was the Sino-sycophantia infected misstatement that panicked markets.11 In this context, it would require a complete collapse of one's faculties to lament the fact that the ringing phone at the Treasury goes unanswered.

  1. 1. "The Devalued Prime Minister Of A Devalued Government," Daniel Hannan, MEP (South East England), Strausberg, France (March 24, 2009).
  2. 2. "The EU Has Become a Racket," Daniel Hannan, MEP (South East England), Strausberg, France (March 25, 2009).
  3. 3. "The Germans Have Seen Through the EU Racket," Daniel Hannan, MEP (South East England), Strausberg, France (March 11, 2009).
  4. 4. "The Financial Crisis," Daniel Hannan, MEP (South East England), Strausberg, France (March 11, 2009).
  5. 5. "Despotism in the European Parliament," Daniel Hannan, MEP (South East England), Strausberg, France (January 29, 2009)
  6. 6. "The Last Days of Democracy," Daniel Hannan, MEP (South East England), Strausberg, France (February 14, 2008), which got him kicked out of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats (EPP-ED).
  7. 7. "Timothy Geithner, Alone and Working Night and Day," AFP Newswire (March 7, 2009).
  8. 8. The term is generally attributed to New York Senator William Learned Marcy (1786-1857) after his assertion in the U.S. Senate in 1832 that "It may be that the politicians of the [New York] are not so fastidious as some gentlemen are, as to disclosing the principles on which they act. They boldly preach what they practice. When they are contending for victory, they avow the intention of enjoying the fruits of it. If they are defeated, they expect to retire from office- if they are successful, they claim, as a matter of right of the advantages of success. They see nothing wrong in the rule, that to the victor belongs the spoils of the enemy."
  9. 9. "To the victor go the spoils: who answers the phone in the US Treasury?" Willem Buiter (March 11, 2009) citing: "Vacuum in US stymies planning for G20," George Parker and Alex Barker, The Financial Times (March 11, 2009).
  10. 10. Related: "Defending Democracy in Brussels," Daniel Hannan, MEP (South East England), Brussels, Belgium (February 19, 2008).
  11. 11. "Geithner's Gaffe Briefly Hits Dollar," Michael M. Phillips, The Wall Street Journal (March 26, 2009).
[Art Credit: Unknown Photographer "Untilted," Digital Video Frame Capture (2009), Daniel Hannan YouTube Video Channel. Daniel Hannan rises in the European Parliament, Strausberg, France.]

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