Future

When Politics Makes It Impossible To Plan

For more than a decade, politicians have moved toward seizing short-term wins through any mechanism available to them.

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The boy in the video is crying. He is 10 years old, and he has been walking alone on a rural road outside of La Grulla, Texas, for a long time. He was traveling with a group, he says to the Border Patrol agent who has found him, and got left behind. "I came here looking for help," he sniffs. "I'm afraid." He doesn't know what will happen to him, or why the adults around him are behaving so unpredictably.

There's no doubt that this boy was in mortal peril. Hundreds of bodies have been found at the Texas border in the last year alone. But whose fault is it?

Commentators have blamed everyone from his parents in Nicaragua to President Joe Biden, but the real problem—not just at the border, but in so many areas of American life—is something more complicated and difficult to grasp, let alone fix. When the rules that govern people's lives are subject to repeated change at the hands of politicians who are focused on short-term electoral gain or partisan point scoring, it becomes increasingly difficult to make responsible decisions and plan for the future.

To make good choices, people must have a fairly solid sense of what the consequences of those choices will be. But an ever-greater sphere of American life is subject to political risk. A lack of clarity about consequences can lead even people who want to do the right thing down dubious paths.

For more than a decade, there has been a move away from generating lasting policy through conventional means and toward short-term wins through any mechanism available. This is reflected in everything from the disintegration of the congressional budgeting process to the increase in the use of executive orders to the vestigial involvement of the legislative branch in decisions about treaties and warmaking.

All of this would be less likely to do damage under a government more constrained in its size and scope, since you cannot generate political uncertainty in areas where politics have no place. But as a starting point, a political culture that takes more seriously the costs of uncertainty and that values the rule of law would be an improvement.

If we want immigrants and asylum seekers to come only when they have a legitimate claim to entry and to do so in an orderly manner, we must communicate the terms of admission clearly and consistently. Congress should do its job and hammer out a durable immigration policy, then provide the means to implement it. This is not a matter to be dealt with via tissue-thin executive orders, as it has been for the last few administrations. People fleeing violence or political persecution should not have to parse White House press releases to guess at what will happen when they arrive at the U.S. border.

Likewise, if we want entrepreneurs to take risks, they should have a decent sense of what regulatory hoops they need to jump through to get to market and how long that will take. As the journalist Matt Ridley recently tweeted, "The problem for entrepreneurs, watching their capital dwindle as they try to bring an innovation to market, is not so much that regulators say no, but that they take an age to say yes. If we are to return to prosperity after the virus, that has to change."

If we want businesses to grow, they need to be able to predict the cost of labor and material inputs as much as possible given the vagaries of the market. The notion that a couple of swing votes in the Senate might, at any time, force a total reworking of the books of every restaurant, retailer, service provider, and manufacturer in the United States by setting a wage floor should put fear in the hearts of every business owner—and every employee. The fact that presidential pique at a trading partner might cut off the supply of raw materials at any time creates similar uncertainty and suppresses vital investment.

If we want students to be responsible borrowers, we should be clear about the terms of repayments for the college loans they take out. Dangling the prospect of loan forgiveness for years at a time will incentivize riskier behavior and higher prices while generating resentment on the part of those who have followed the rules.

If we want colleges to take both due process and sexual misconduct seriously, they should not be asked to cater to politicized dicta from the federal government every time executive power changes hands.

If we want Iran to cease to produce weaponizable nuclear material, the U.S. should be clear and consistent about the costs of doing so, whether that is reduced access to markets or other sanctions. Yet as The Wall Street Journal noted in April, "Iranian officials have repeatedly said they don't trust a future American president to stick with a new nuclear deal, given the decision by the Trump administration to abrogate it."

If we want Afghanistan to take responsibility for its own national defense and domestic peace, Afghans should have a clear sense of how long American troops will remain in their country. After half a dozen plans and reversals by the Trump administration, the Biden administration looks set to miss the latest withdrawal deadline of May 1.

The list goes on, through health care, retirement, taxes, criminal justice, land use policy, and more.

In each of these cases, I have a policy I would very much like to see implemented. I believe a lot is at stake and that the outcomes matter. But taking shortcuts via executive order or bureaucratic fiat—or scoring cheap, speedy wins at the expense of durability—comes at the cost of rendering planning difficult or impossible. Those costs have been systematically underestimated by a political class for whom changing the rules (again) is something to brag about, not apologize for.

In every one of the examples above, people with more resources will have an easier time negotiating a rapidly changing landscape. Faced with higher individual and corporate taxes, for example, the people with access to lawyers and accountants will figure out how to smooth out and minimize their tax burdens; others will be thrown into crisis when a tax bill arrives that they didn't expect. Faced with regulatory barriers, some people will have the wherewithal to hack through the thicket of paperwork and rules; others will give up along the way because they run out of money or time. Immigrants who can afford to wait for a visa at home are better positioned than those fleeing for their lives. Rival nations can wait for years to see if they will get a more favorable negotiating partner after the next U.S. election.

Just as unpredictable bans and barriers are more costly than predictable ones,  unpredictable benefits or windfalls are worth less than predictable ones. Many families and businesses have had to make wrenching financial decisions in the last year that were made more difficult by the prospect of an undetermined number of checks of an undetermined size coming to them on an undetermined schedule. In fact, the last year has been an object lesson in the stress imposed by a murky future. The rapidly shifting guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly threw the plans of schools, businesses, and individuals into disarray. Ridley is right: If we are to return to prosperity after the pandemic, that has to change.

When children play games, they spend a lot of time fighting about the rules. So much so that sometimes it can seem like fighting over the rules is the game. In politics as on the playground, the result too often is that the game collapses, no one gets what he really wants, and someone ends up crying.

NEXT: Brickbat: Don't Rock the Casbah

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  1. The US has good, durable immigration law when it comes to illegals. The problem is both sides of the political establishment, for at least the last 40 years, have been hostile to its implementation.

    If we want to clearly communicate to foreign nationals not to come here to stay illegally, we need to unambiguously enforce the law. Deport every illegal when we catch them. Make mandatory employers checking the status of prospective employees and punish them if they hire illegals. Prosecute groups that are aiding illegals to come and/or stay.

    These are not radical steps, but just the ones every other country in the world takes to enforce their laws.

    Once it is clear that you can not profit from being here illegally, then we can talk about seasonal and guest worker programs. But not before lest we send mixed signals once again.

    1. ah, so fantasies concerning the ability of the federal government to stop reality, provided it can insert itself into enough facets of private decision-making and private action it has no business inserting itself in, will result in a state of perfection from which we MIGHT be dangled the prize of rolling back governmental power if all are good girls and boys… you know, like how we won a perfect victory in the War on Drugs before we started winding that government power down!

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    2. re: E-Verify.

      No thanks I don’t want to loose my ability to be employed because the USA government is incompetent. Also no thanks to outsourcing government policy to corporations, we see how that is working out with Big Tech. Nope that seems like one more step in the direction of implementing the CCP’s social credit system.

      Once it is clear that you can not profit from being here illegally

      Now do drugs, gambling, prostitution…

    3. This was the promise on amnesty 1. Then amnesty 2.

      We have illegal immigration because people in power want illegal immigrants.

      Not immigrants. Illegal immigrants.

      Raising quotas is easy. We could have as many immigrants as we want legally. But they don’t want that. Democrats don’t want it any more than Republicans. When Bush pushed for reforms that would have allowed more legal immigration, Democrats killed it.

      We need to stop pretending and talk about why they want these people to live in that status. These are real people… And they are exploitable because of their status. But as a country we have decided to have 30 million people living in this status.

      1. “…talk about why they want these people to live in that status.”

        Because they are cheap to hire, and can be relied upon to vote D. Next question.

        Pay your maids, lawn, and drywall guys, people.

  2. We have had a longtime immigration policy and writers at this magazine have generally supported undermining it by lack of enforcement in favor of near unrestricted immigration. To say that the problem is now that nobody understands the rules because of short term gain is a mite hypocritical.

    1. Thank you. When the printing press runs dry, it’s gonna be ugly. Priorities should exist in political ideologies. Reason chose unlimited immigration into a welfare state as priority numero uno. Choose to ignore the orders of magnitude, year on year, of government employment related to unlimited immigration, and the former republic ends up with authoritarian socialism.

  3. The problem is that Congress is broken and apparently can’t be fixed and yet the American people haven’t yet decided it’s time to throw it out. Congress is more than happy to pawn off their responsibility to make the laws on the Executive branch so that they can focus on the more important task of political posturing and campaign fund-raising, and, as your examples point out, it means the next President can simply repeal everything his predecessor has done. Where is the spine to challenge the President on his oath to faithfully execute the law? He simply chooses not to enforce the parts of the laws he doesn’t like and to invent new interpretations of the laws to enforce the parts of the laws he just made up. And Congress is hell-bent on bringing that sort of flexibility on the law to the Supreme Court, destroying what little credibility and trust the Court still has that they are following the Constitution rather than the whim of the moment. Banana republic, anybody with any sort of power just does whatever the fuck they feel like because who’s going to stop them. Ask Gretchen Whitmer about that.

    1. Uh.. the last congress spent 4 years on impeaching the president.

      1. Uh.. the last congress spent 4 years on impeaching the president.

        That’s the one fucking part of their job they didnt abandon (well the democrats anyway — the GOP said “LALALALALAL WE DONT CARE WE JUST WANT TO MAINTAIN POWER)

        When the guy in power is openly corrupt congress should do something about it.

        1. every guy in congress equally openly corrupt.

        2. I always love this contention. Yet, if Trump was as corrupt as people like you claim, how come there was so little (if any) evidence of corruption presented?

          It’s like any tribal position, whether Trump’s corruption or a stolen election. Everyone makes these giant, wild claims and states them as fact. Yet, when evidence is demanded for such claims, hardly any is ever provided.

          1. Well, in fairness nobody ever looked in the latter case – due to incompetence or malfeasance… Matters not.

            But California is auditing signatures in the Newsome recall petition. They find 20% to be unacceptable. Their absentee ballot signatures were mismatched less than 1% of the time. One is witnessed, the other is not. Yet the unwitnessed signatures were perfect.

            And California was never even in contention.

            So there’s nuance in the world, even as you make a valid point.

        3. “When the guy in power is openly corrupt congress should do something about it.”

          TDS-addles assholes should stuff their TDS up their ass to keep their heads company.

        4. But if they’re intrinsically and quietly corrupt we leave him alone. Business as usual.

  4. We do need laborers to tear down all those Confederate generals statues…

  5. Short term thinking?

    Have you been paying attention at all?

    The “long game” is coming to fruition all around you. Pushing politics onto college campuses has been many decades in the making. Demanding majors like “women’s studies” and “african american studies” back in the 80s was already phase 2.

    By the time Mattress Girl came along, the ground was already fertile for any word salad of victimhood to be believed. In a world where women made up 60% of college students, they believed in their repression on campus with ever more ferver.

    By the time we re-elected a black president in a down economy with high unemployment (!) the pump had been so thoroughly primed that those college graduates were ready to believe that white supremacy was so rampant that the country was in danger of falling to a fascist dictator.

    The long game has been so successful that companies that were founded on free speech and who cut their teeth resisting attempts at repressing free speech like Google (dont be evil) have been overrun by politics to the point that they actually believe that repressing free speech is a virtue.

    You are living in the long game.

    1. Title IX and collegiate sports.

    2. Well written. Too bad you can’t expand it to a complete post for Reason.

      1. Even if he would (and he’s certainly capable of it, judging from his past examples), do you think they would print it?

        The people underwriting Reason, like this situation.

        1. No, of course they wouldn’t print it. At least they don’t delete it from the comments.

          1. I am frankly amazed they still keep them around.

  6. Politics is both obsolete and counterproductive.

    It’s a job to tell people what they want to hear, not what they need to.

    1. Sadly this is the case. Politicians are more concern about the next election cycle than in doing their job.

      1. No, the next election cycle IS their job.

        1. TERM LIMITS

          1. Even with term limits one can follow the career politician progression: volunteer for city committee, city council, mayor, state assembly, state senate, Federal assembly, Federal senate. There’s always another office to run for.

    2. Why don’t they ever tell me what I want to hear?

  7. I love the part about Iran complaining about President trump recinding the illegal and idiodic dael that Obama made with them

    1. Brush up. This was not an Obama deal this was a multinational agreement to limit Iran’s access to weapons grade nuclear material. Iran was abiding by the deal, but to the former President it was Obama’s and therefore had to be stopped. What is worse is that the US could have left the deal but instead they had to spoil the pond for everyone and insist that no country could abide by the agreement.
      The Iranian government has every reason to be skeptical of any future agreements where the US participates.

      1. How did the congress vote on that treaty?

        1. I did not say it was a treaty. It was an agreement. As KWM noted the Senate rarely passes any treaties these days meaning most Presidents can only negotiate for their term. Hence the problem with long term planning.

      2. The problem is Obama signed a ‘treaty’ that he never presented to the Senate for ratification. Not only is that unconstitutional, but a ratified treaty wouldn’t have been able to be so casually rescinded.

        There was never truly a ‘deal’, because there was no ratified treaty.

        1. It wasn’t a deal it was a multinational agreement.

          1. I’m amazed at how obtuse some people can be. I mean, Jesus tapdancing Christ.

            Deal, Pronunciation /dēl/ /dil/

            NOUN
            1. An agreement entered into by two or more parties for their mutual benefit, especially in a business or political context.

            ‘the band signed a major recording deal’

            You: “It’s not purple, it’s violet!”

  8. “When Politics Makes It Impossible To Plan”

    That won’t be a problem anymore. Now that we Koch / Reason libertarians got the Biden Presidency we wanted, things will be simple and straightforward. The entire world knows the US no longer practices “border enforcement.” Immigrants and billionaire employers (like our benefactor Charles Koch) can plan accordingly.

    #LibertariansForBiden
    #ImmigrationAboveAll

    1. No employers sometimes, it’s consumer spending through SNAP (our local grocery is empty now, worse than the first COVID hit). I’m planning on car jackings, tailpipes sawed off in parking lots, kidnappings and extortion. And, the lovely tens of thousands of violet felons being released in California.

  9. I feel like this article was a plea to Tony and his endless feelz quips his posts.

  10. “There’s no doubt that this boy was in mortal peril. Hundreds of bodies have been found at the Texas border in the last year alone. But whose fault is it?”

    Trump (aka Satan), duh. At least according to 33.33% of Americans.

    1. Still the lesser evil.

  11. Face it. Political party advocates have achieved their primary goal (and the one thing both major parties agree on). A majority of Americans are now not just polarized in political philosophy but in moral perception of right and wrong, and who is right and who is wrong. In the name of party allegiance, and ultimate supremacy, most Americans now at least question the humanity–and legitimacy–of anyone not in their party.

    Want to avoid political mood swings and extremes? Ban political parties.

  12. Four presidents showed how serious they were in battling and then negotiating with the taliban. At the end we’re just leaving and giving them the keys to the place.

    In other words people know the feds aren’t serious and can’t plan long term so they just wait them out until a new admin appears. The Iranians have been playing that game for a lot longer. The American people have figured this out to a degree as well.

  13. This is a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam. The truth is the American people have little interest in Afghanistan while it is home for the Taliban. There is no time limit that the Taliban can not wait. The lesson here is have a clear goal, accomplish it and then leave. Don’t think you are going to change the culture or install democracy. The fact is Afghanistan will be a mess and waiting 10 more years, or 100 more years will not change this fact.

  14. I’ve nicknamed this the Third Worlding of America.

    What KMW is complaining about is known as Sovereign Risk in business jargon. In sovereign risk analysis as she hints in the “before time” this risk was considered to be so low in true First World nations like America that it could all but be ignored. In Second World nations all of the reasonable economic, cultural, and economic issues and their influence on reasonable sovereigns in somewhat less stable positions and nations had to be seriously considered. In Third World Nations with their far poorer filters on who came to power and checks on how they exercised their power the prime thing to be considered was all too often finding serious and professional verbiage with which to explain that a sovereign was simply nucking futs.

    Obama and Trump brought us sovereign risk, beginning the Third Worlding of America.

  15. Socialism happens fast with fiat currency. This from 2010. Imagine what these numbers are now. Migrants are coming for under the table jobs, free babysitting and meals (public schools).
    https://news.gallup.com/poll/141785/Gov-Employment-Ranges-Ohio.aspx

    I want my gubmint job!

  16. If America were a sports team – Team USA – we are so divided we would never win a game against any international nation and get thrown out of the game for fighting our own teammates.

    We could learn from statesman like John McCain when a GOP voter tried to demonize Obama. McCain said Obama was a good man but we just happen to disagree on what’s best for Team USA.

    Since many voters are divisive, we punish politicians like McCain. America has about 330 million people and we will never agree on everything but we shouldn’t hate our fellow Americans.

    1. Whatsamatta, standard propaganda brainwashing isn’t working?

  17. Congress should do its job and hammer out a durable immigration policy, then provide the means to implement it.

    The notion that a couple of swing votes in the Senate might, at any time, force a total reworking of the books of every restaurant, retailer, service provider, and manufacturer in the United States by setting a wage floor should put fear in the hearts of every business owner—and every employee.

    Which is it KMW? Does congress need to be doing more meddlesome rulemaking or less? Why do you insist that the problem is too much change and then immediately call for changes?

    1. One word: Filibuster

      Also, when the 17th amendment was passed, the Senate started its inexorable slide toward becoming a smaller House of Representatives, where a simple majority ultimately becomes the deciding factor. The interest of the individual states be damned.

      Face it: We’re all Democrats now.

  18. Holy crap, Biden just banned air conditioners (pretty much, any thing that works). Up next: HEAT !!!!

    1. In the quiet words of the Virgin Mary: “Come again?”

      What did this drooling idiot do, this time?

    1. Thanks.

      Fuck him. Sounds like another great black market’s starting.

  19. The American system of government is a broken machine on a good day. Maybe a little cooling in the saucer is good for legislating, in theory. Most countries just do the shit they’re elected to do, which seems to work out for them.

    But if the two parties can’t even agree which facts are real, we have a problem. We need to do long-term projects, but the rest of the world doesn’t have any confidence that we can do anything long-term anymore.

    That means, thanks to Republicans and the comfy blanket of their alternate universe, this country not only can’t lead the world anymore, it doesn’t deserve to.

    And when we aren’t the preeminent world power, we don’t get to paper over all of our internal problems with cockiness.

    Small government, a euphemism for a bunch of terrible and nonsensical policy choices, doesn’t even come into this conversation. Not least because neither party is interested in it.

  20. The healthcare industry has been caught in the same government induced trap for decades.

    You could lock the leaders of the major hospital/healthcare systems in a room, hold a gun to their heads, and ask them what their organizations will look like in five years and none of them would be able to give you a remotely accurate answer.

    If there was an honesty serum the answer you would receive most often is: “I have no idea.”

  21. Obama could have made the Iran deal stick if he’d submitted it as a treaty which our Constitution specifies. Same with the Paris accords.

  22. If only we could cultivate a political class with equal or greater maturity than a group of 8 year-old children on a playground…

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