Software Nerd

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Dangerous Middle could work against "Gridlock"

From a comment on another blog, I gather that some people are using the term "The perfect middle", to describe the (supposedly) new-found commonality between the "left" and the "right" in U.S. politics. Yikes!

Many U.S. voters are in the "middle". Even among people who think of themselves as Democrat or Republican, many do not agree with their own party's "extreme" positions.

Many "independent" voters do not hold much of an explicit political philosophy. They aren't like Objectivists who have strong views on an ideal political system, but do not like either party. Rather, the typical "independent" has accepted the principles of current status quo. He thinks that the problems lie only in implementation (i.e. bad politicians), not with political philosophy.

A variant of this can be found in poorer countries, where lots of "middle" voters will tell you that the basic (socialist-leaning_ philosophy of their country is just fine, if only their politicians would be less corrupt and focus on honest implementation.

I picture the Dems and GOP members as if they are all standing on top of a long lever, with the pivot in the middle. Simplifying greatly, on any particular issue the GOP stand on one side and the Dems on the other. Most policies are enacted near the center of gravity. For example, at one end, people want Medicare to take on much more, while at the other people want to curtail it. The result is a plan that increases it a little, but adds some "private-provider" choices. Similarly, at one end people want abortions banned, while at the other people want few laws restricting abortions. The result is a law that restricts "partial birth" abortions.

The thing is: if people from both "extremes" walk toward the middle, the center-of-gravity remains unchanged.

I have a hypothesis though: even though the center-of-gravity remains unchanged in the middle, the more people there are crowding around the middle, the faster and more likely such policies will get enacted at all. As long as enough people from both sides are far from the middle, they will delay and fight changes, and government is slowed down a bit.

This annoys the typical independent "in the middle", because they see the bickering and the "gridlock" and think it's bad. They want their politicians to stop fighting, and meet at the middle.

On the contrary, I fear the smoother government and the lack of grid-lock could be far worse. Given the center-of-gravity of political opinion today, my recommendations is" "Don't anybody move".



  • Two points are confusing to me:

    1. What does gridlock mean? A definition would help, even if it is a definition of a term/idea as it is used in scare-quotes.

    2. In the see-saw diagram, what does the plank represent? It seems to be an axis. If so, what is that axis measuring? E.g., does it measure commitment to one position or the other on a particular issue such as abortion? Or, generalizing from many particular issues, does it represent a commitment to one ideology versus another or even one underlying philosophy versus another?

    By Blogger Burgess Laughlin, at 5:21 AM  

  • 1. "Gridlock": I see it being used to signify a government that is not legislating fast enough.

    For instance, take the issue of global warming (GW). As long as there are a significant number of politicians who want to hold out either for major laws related to GW or for nearly no such law, both these "extremes" will delay legislation. One side because the legislation does too little, the other side because it does too much.

    Of course, there can also be areas where government ought to be acting, and a grid-locked government can hinder that.

    2. The diagram is about a particular issue. That is to say: if, on any particular issue, there are many people who have extremely different views, an agreement is less likely.

    (Of course, particular stances are based on underlying philosophies. Therefore, there is a relationship between political issues, with many people's views "clumping" around what is called the "left" and the "right". Still, since each person integrates their various positions differently, the axis of ideology or philosophy is tough to depict as a single axis.

    I think even a rough picture would require two axes, as in this post. I think of it as the "Attila and Witch-doctor axes".)

    A final comment: if there is renewed public expectation and public pressure in favor of "compromise solutions", agreement is a little more likely.

    By Blogger softwareNerd, at 3:01 AM  

  • 1. "Gridlock": I see it being used to signify a government that is not legislating fast enough.

    I question whether "gridlock" is even a valid concept as the term/idea is often used. I don't know. I can't debate the subject because I haven't mastered it. But I would like to explore it.

    Your definition raises many questions. First, the definition does not seem to be a definition at all, but an evaluation. Fast enough--by what standard?

    Second, it is not a definition by essentials, that is, by causal characteristics, but a description of a nonessential characteristic (that is, an effect), speed, of some governments in certain conditions. To find the essential (causal) characteristic, one needs to ask why government X can't create new legislation.

    I will propose a definition as a target for discussion:

    Gridlock is a certain condition of a representative form of government designed to have a balance of power, a condition in which the government cannot perform any one or all of its functions because one element of government has the same amount of power as another, opposing element of government.

    I am deliberately making this definition general because, as I understand the term "gridlock," it names a broad idea that would covers any evenly-weighted balance of power ...
    1. Between two groups--defined either generally by party or particularly by position on one issue--of legislators in one of the two houses.
    2. Between the two legislative houses.
    3. Between two branches, typically the legislature and the executive.
    4. Between either the executive or the legislature, on the one hand, and a bureaucracy that refuses to implement legislation.

    Any of these conditions can create a legislatively dysfunctional government, that is, one that either can't pass legislation, or if passed, can't implement it.

    I have usually seen "gridlock" applied to 1, 2, and 3, but 4 remains a possibility.

    The term/idea "gridlock" has no meaning if the political system is monolithic, either by design or inadvertently. The term/idea applies only to govenments where there is an intentional or de facto balance of power.

    Summary: the essential distinguishing characteristic of a gridlocked government is its inability to function legislatively at all--either on a particular issue or in general--because of an even balance of power between any two elements of the government.

    Thanks for the opportunity to think about this and talk it out. If "gridlock" should be the highest goal of objective voters and political strategists in our time, which I doubt, then the concept must be understood thoroughly.

    Perhaps we are making a start.

    By Blogger Burgess Laughlin, at 5:02 AM  

  • A few further thoughts:

    The term gridlock names a condition in which there is a systematic stoppage due to evenly balanced forces in a wide variety of particular instances. By analogy from the original usage of the term/idea, if two cars collide at 4 am in an otherwise deserted intersection, they are not "gridlocked." Instead, gridlock occurs when a bunch of cars coming from one direction enter an intersection at the same time and neither group can persuade (or force) the other current of cars to move aside. There has to be a grid (a system) before there can be gridlock.

    The term/idea deadlock refers to a much narrower, particular situation, such as when a jury deliberating a judgment in one particular trial cannot reach a majority or unanimous decision (whichever is required). The jury is not "gridlocked," but deadlocked.

    The term impasse is very general, applying to any situation in which individuals are trying to reach a destination but can't because something is either missing or insurmountable. My neighbor and I might reach an impasse when we end our negotiations over where our boundary line is because neither of us has surveying skills.

    A gridlock is a systematic blockage resulting in dysfunction. A deadlock is a particular blockage resulting in dysfunction. An impasse is any situation which is irresolvable.

    In conclusion, I would say aiming for gridlock politically is aiming for a systematic dysfunction and not merely a deadlock or other impasse on a particular issue.

    I would also suggest that aiming for gridlock, in this full sense, is nearly impossible to achieve. There are too many variables involved, and each guy gets only one vote.

    By Blogger Burgess Laughlin, at 4:09 PM  

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