The Missing Interest Group

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Ryan Avent waxes indignant:

One of the thing that continues to surprise me about Washington, though it shouldn’t, is the extent to which those involved in the policymaking process think in terms of interests—almost exclusively. This is a direct reflection of the outsized influence interests have over the policymaking process (“the people” tend not to get all that involved), and it’s therefore easily understandable, but it’s also pretty pernicious. A politics that seeks to balance interests will consistently give short shrift to the goal of societal good.

Nothing new under the sun here, really, but a somewhat different way of looking at this is in terms of the missing interest group—poor people.

There’s an extensive political science literature on how campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures don’t make nearly as much of a difference in determining policy outcomes as people often believe. But if you probe this literature a little bit, I think what it’s actually saying is that these factors matter overwhelmingly, so overwhelmingly that the only items that make it onto the public agenda are ones that feature a rough balance of money and lobbying clout. That means that if you want to do something that’s helpful to low-income people—something like the Affordable Care Act—the only way to do it is to structure it as something that’s very helpful to a subset of business interests. Well-intentioned politicians can and do shape this dynamic in a way that’s more helpful to the little guy, but they don’t fundamentally alter the dynamic.

And you see much the same thing on the recession response side. TARP really did, in my view, provide economic benefits to working class Americans via the mechanism of helping large banks. But it’s telling—extremely telling—that this mechanism is the only one that’s been able to attract substantial political support.