Thursday, November 10, 2005

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What do you do with statesmen?

David Bosco and James Forsyth have a serio-comic essay in Slate about the divergent paths that former politicians take in the United States and Europe:

When prominent American politicians descend from the hustings, several well-worn paths stretch out in front of them. Former presidents putter in their libraries, tend their foundations, and ride the lecture circuit. Lesser lights are usually inclined to make gobs of money at law firms (Robert Dole, George Mitchell, and Tom Daschle), hedge funds (Dan Quayle), and lobbying shops (Dick Armey), though a few good souls land as university presidents (Bob Kerrey and David Boren). Those who can't stand the silence fulminate on cable or talk radio (Joe Scarborough and Mario Cuomo). If all else fails, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government usually has a free cubicle (Jeanne Shaheen, Alan Simpson, and Mickey Edwards have all done time there).

It's a different world for Euro-politicos, many of whom chart second careers in the supranational realm. The European Union, with a large and hungry bureaucracy, needs commissioners, representatives, and assorted other functionaries. Retired, defeated, or fatigued national politicians are good candidates. And it's not just Brussels that comes calling. U.N. agencies in New York and Geneva are natural spots for European has-beens, who tend to be less skeptical of the institution than Americans and more susceptible to the charms of multinational bureaucracies.

A libertarian might say, "Good for the U.S.A." upon reading these paragraphs -- better that ex-politicians try to get rich rather than try to spread well-intentioned but counterproductive and ineffectual governance structures to the rest of the world.

The problem is that matters are not that simple. The Slate grafs suggest that ex-politicians in the United States want to get rich, they thend to do so by exploiting their comparative advantage -- their knowledge of the intricacies of government. Regardless of party, ex-politicos have an incentive to ensure that the government retains some influence over the market -- so that they can exploit their influence over the government.

This political life after politics subverts the famous Harry Truman line: "A politician is a man who understands government. A statesman is a politician who's been dead for 15 years." In modern America, a statesman is a man who understands government and is paid very well for that understanding."

The rent-seeking implications of this kind of parastatal career are disturbing -- continued opacity of government. So which is worse -- European politicians who seem less interested in money but aspire to supranational forms of governance, or American politicians who are more interested in money and aspire to lobby the national level of governance?

posted by Dan on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM


Can't we just shoot all of them?

posted by: Professor Froward on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

It's not really politically feasible but I'd prefer the "senior politicians" presidents, multi-term senators etc. to be given generous pensions. In return there would be restrictions on how they can earn money when they leave office. It would save money in the long run as there would be less crony capitalism in washington. It's a bit unseemly to have someone ex-president whoring themselves out to the highest bidder.

posted by: pi on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

Oh, that's an easy one. The American versions are far worse, particularly when -- as is so often the case -- they forsake the standard chin-scratching slide toward moderation for the bullhorn of the ideological wings. Mary Robinson and her ilk may be one-note Sallys, and even a bit sanctimonoius at times, but at least they aren't contributing to the poisonous polarization of politics like so many U.S. ex-pols.

posted by: the_pooka on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

The key difference between the American "statesman" and the Euro equivalent is that in the end, the Bob Doles of this world make their living by lobbying politicians who are accountable via the vote. Why did you discount this key fact?

The cynics of this world who mistrust supranational forms of government do so at least in part because there is little or no accountability to voters, or to anyone as far as I can see.

Oh yes, one more thing. Commercial entities lose interest in lobbyists when they don't effectively advance their interests. I'm reminded again of Dan Ackroyd's line from Ghostbusters: "I've been in the private sector. They expect results."

My point is that there are visible checks and balances on the activities of American "Statesmen" that, if they even exist for supranational organizations, are much harder to see.

posted by: John Caccese on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

American politicians are given generous pensions. You can't get rich off them, but generally they are pretty nice.

Most of the politicians in the Slate article were actual or potential Presidential candidates during the latter part of their careers. In American politics there is nothing higher than the Presidency -- if you try for it and don't make it, you're done. For some of these guys (Dole most obviously) putting in time and raking in cash at a law firm looks mostly like something to do.

And for some of the other guys, post-political activity is just a continuation of stuff they did while they were in office, the difference being that they get paid more for it now.

posted by: Zathras on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

You forgot that other career path: the DA role on "Law and Order". That guy's stint in the Senate gives his world-weary mordant cynicism a versimilitude that keeps me coming back to the show week-after-week.

And make no mistake, there are enough flavors of L & O to accomodate many a semi-retired 'statesman'.

(Off the top of my head, we could get a couple of episodes of Denny Hastert as a creepy Internet stalker...)

Just Thinkin' Aloud

posted by: TV Watcher on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

"Regardless of party, ex-politicos have an incentive to ensure that the government retains some influence over the market -- so that they can exploit their influence over the government."

I'd never thought of it that way. You make it sound like Amakudari in Japan.

posted by: Taeyoung on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

John Cassese,

Commercial entities lose interest in lobbyists when they don't effectively advance their interests.

That's the problem. What they want is for government to advance their interests, not to be a neutral referee. And what they get is a less obvious version of crony capitalism.

It's not good for Mexico and it's not good for the USA.

posted by: Roger Sweeny on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

So which is worse -- European politicians who seem less interested in money but aspire to supranational forms of governance, or American politicians who are more interested in money and aspire to lobby the national level of governance

False dichotomy - as the opaque financial corruption within the EU bureaucracy, not to mention the UN scandals, illustrate.

posted by: Robin Burk on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

I can't believe there's a discussion of this topic without a mention of Carter or Clinton, ex-presidents who are not puttering - they're continuing to use their energy and talent and world popularity for good.

posted by: rilkefan on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

No brainer here. Failed and retired (which usually means failed, too) US politicians come out of the closet and show us what whores they always were. They get their elected jobs from the American people and they give nothing in return to the people. They somehow amass millions while "earning" a salary of $150K or so and we accept it. The fact of our acceptance ensures that they will continue to steal whatever and wherever they can. Our politicians are totally self-absorbed, totally for sale and they actually believe they deserve all of their ill-gotten gains. They are scumsucking pigs.

The Euros might somehow do some good. At least, they sign up with organizations with a "do-good" charter, and they're not ordinarily instrumental in fleecing us out of millions or billions of dollars. You question billions? Has anybody checked recently to see what cozy tax breaks, etc., for already super-rich individuals and corporations extracted by former legislators and presidents for their buddies cost us?

posted by: nixon did it on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

What's worst is the ambiguous language of law. Instead of being a modern markup/programming language where there are clear rules for inheritence, consistency, and if conditions, laws are famously nebulous, allowing results oriented processes triumph over process oriented approaches.

What law needs is a formal structure like a programming language. Laws that do not compile do not get voted upon. Placing real limits on the legislative branch will cause greater coherence in the legal frameowrk.

Law needs to be formalized, no just a gentlemen's agreement moderated by the judicial branch.

posted by: bago on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]


I don't know about you, but I don't really want to see a law written in C++, Java, or Python.

Frankly, the possibility of a broken if-then loop in such situations scares me.

Besides, at least law is self-documenting, unlike code.

(If law was code, it probably wouldn't have comments worth a damn...Which means you could never throw the bums out, and if they die, you're screwed.)

posted by: John Penta on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

It's not just elected representative who take advantage of the complex systems they have created.

More and more I see local government staffers move into the private sector after reaching retirement. Now double dipping in both the public and private sectors the financial rewards they reap encourage others to follow the same path to wealth.

It's not just the unfairness of creating a bureaucratic nightmare that only they can navigate for clients but also by double dipping they deny a job to someone else.

posted by: Steven Plunk on 11.10.05 at 04:52 PM [permalink]

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