Friday, June 3, 2011

Rationality in action

This post from ThinkProgress got me thinking about the assumption of rationality that many political scientists make when explaining the actions of politicians.

The background is that House majority leader Eric Cantor said that funding to help out places hit by tornados should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. I haven't heard that about any other natural disaster. So it struck me as odd that Cantor would say that. His reasoning was even more odd because he compared the federal gov't to a family and said that the gov't, like a family, doesn't have infinite resources and thus can't just spend a bunch of money to solve the problem the tornados caused. Apparently Cantor doesn't understand that the federal gov't can in fact print all the money it wants. And the amount needed for natural disaster relief will probably not send inflation (which is already pretty low) spiraling to unforeseen heights.

I'm not completely sure how rational Cantor's comments are. And by rational I mean taking the most efficient action that will allow you to achieve a set goal, in politicians' cases that mostly means getting reelected. My guess though is that he is a high profile conservative who has to tow the line on conservative fiscal policy. I just wasn't sure until now that position involved offsetting natural disaster relief spending.


But Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi, says that Cantor is wrong and that there is probably a way that the federal gov't can provide relief without offsetting the spending. Barbour is a pretty conservative politician. So it struck me as interesting that he would detract from a high profile guy like Cantor. And I think the reason is rationality. Barbour has a big vested interest in doing everything he can to help the citizens of his state recover from the tornados. And given the budget restraints of states he is hard pressed to find the money to help them. Unlike the federal gov't, Barbour can't print money. So instead of towing the party line on fiscal "responsibility" Barbour opts for the route that more likely keeps him in the good graces of his constituents. Even if those constituents are as fiscally hawkish as Cantor I'm sure they are acting rationally too by putting the reconstruction of their property higher up on their list of goals than ensuring fiscal responsibility.

This situation also highlights the republican aspects of our gov't by showing how state interests can be different than federal interests. But I wanted to point out the rationality angle because even though there are problems with always assuming rationality (bounded rationality, lack of information) it is a pretty good predictor or explanation of the way politicians act. And acting rationally shows that even strict adherence to party ideology can be trumped by something as personal as losing your home in a natural disaster. I guess its a good thing for Cantor that he isn't held accountable at the ballot by those people.

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