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Beyond rationality

I've written before about the idea of politicians acting rationally. Basically when political scientists say a politician is acting rationally it means they are acting in the most effective manner in order to achieve the highest priority goal they have determined for themselves. And most often the highest goal for politicians is to get reelected.

In that post I talked about Haley Barbour dissenting against Eric Cantor's idea that natural disaster relief funding should be offset elsewhere in the budget. Barbour was going against a high ranking fellow Republican because it was more in his interests to give his constituents relief than follow the party line being set by Cantor.

Well Cantor is in the news again for walking out of the debt ceiling negotiations. And Jared Bernstein has some harsh (and I think correct) criticism for him:

It’s profoundly irresponsible and reckless behavior. Given the fragile recovery, the recent growth slowdown, and the looming debt ceiling, I don’t understand how someone elected to represent the best interests of the country can justify such an action.

I know…the R’s really don’t want revenues to be part of the budget deal. But the reality is that they’re not running the country on their own and that means they’ll need to compromise.

Anyone walking away from that table needs to take a hard look at the extent of economic harship facing American families right now and ask yourself why prolonging that pain is worth the political leverage you gain from it.

The time for such game playing is long past. Stop screwing around, cut the deal, and raise the debt ceiling.

Props to Mr. Bernstein for being refreshingly blunt. I highlight this in relation to rationality because political scientists acknowledge that reelection is not the only goal of politicians. The other obvious goal that Bernstein points out would be to make good policy. And that doesn't always coincide with reelection. So if a politician is dedicated to both reelection and making good policy there are times where a trade off is needed.

Its possible that Cantor's constituents overwhelmingly want him to either get major concessions out of these negotiations or otherwise not raise the debt ceiling. But if he were to use his power to not raise it he would be flirting with making really bad policy. Perhaps he could get reelected after his constituents, along with the rest of the country, suffer the consequences of that really bad policy. But that is a dangerous gamble and its very likely not the best way to ensure he is reelected. Not to mention that even if he were to survive, the party as a whole could suffer and he could end up having a lot less power than he currently has.

So all in all it seems to me that Cantor is acting rationally only in the sense that he wants to achieve a different goal than ensuring reelection or making good policy. Some have speculated that goal may be to take over for Speaker Boehner. But I have to believe that at a certain point Cantor, and every politician who isn't crazy, has to put the goal of making good policy in front of their other preferences.

Of course, making good policy would entail simply raising the debt ceiling on its own without negotiations (like they did under Bush) or just not having a debt ceiling in the first place. But that's another story for another time. Until then lets hope a deal is struck and we don't get screwed too much by Republicans.