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Post details: Res Publica

Res Publica

Politics is the greatest theater known to man. There is no other area of human activity where appearances, signals and gestures plays such cardinal role. And for a good reason. If you are in a position where you have to heed multiple and often contradictory requests from varied population segments, you better be a certified master of smoke and mirrors.

We all have our views about how the society should take care of its public needs. But rather than using baseball bats as a means of persuasion, we have devised a grandiose transmission mechanism for the power generated by people's mercurial and often finicky wants - the political system. That venerable if byzantine structure in which human representatives mull over political pressures (people's preferences about the directions which the society at large should follow), then ponder the consequences, set up priorities and, finally, create and maintain an apparatus to enforce the outcomes.

Resolving the political pressures into actionable pieces of legislature is not an easy task and each representatives handles it differently. The inherent diversity of motivational factors is one reason why game theory is not easily applicable to politics. Every player has a custom made "cost function". As far as I can see, the incentives for public servants - and with them the tactics and strategy - can come from at least three sources. The first one rests in a straightforward execution of what the electorate wants. In this variant, a politician is but a giant cog in the implementation of the perceived public will. The second group shamelessly propagate their own agenda and the agenda of those that fill their campaign coffers. They are in it for the money and power. Rhetorical skills and connections are assets; spine, character and personal integrity big liabilities. Finally - there is a small group of individuals I would describe as visionaries - people who act on behalf of common good. They are the true statesmen who can see into the future and lead the nation in the direction of long term prosperity. Needless to say that this group is the rarest of them all.

Such categorization is an oversimplification though. In real life, politicians are amalgamation of the three prototypes and their motives evolve over time. Many dreamers have no choice but to become pragmatists if they are to survive in the brutally competitive system. And the system itself evolves in time too. It morphs, it reacts, it gets eroded or rebuilt, and sometimes it crumbles completely. Once upon a time, in the Greeko-Roman cradle of our civilization, a democratic system of governance was conceived and honed, but like all magnificent ideas, the efficiency of the system fell prey to human nature. The daily wheelings and dealings of the many constituent parts eventually undermined the noble design of Plato and Cicero and the meaning of large words like liberty, honor, freedom or justice was frittered away in the labyrinth of palace intrigue. One personal squabble at a time. Call it death by thousand cuts if you will. We are mere mortals and the ability to push buttons of other mortals and control their livelihoods at the same time just seems too much to resist for some of us.

These days politics is a fine balancing act. For every imaginable move, there are many who are pleased and many who are not. To complicate things further every potential political issue yields different set of winners and losers. Navigating such environment is like playing multidimensional chess game in which the rules of the game are created on the spot by spectators. Or by sponsors - if you are of a more cynical disposition. Survival under these conditions can be an extremely tricky business. You have to find the right balance of alliances and enmities for your goals and keep in mind that every new alliance will create some enemies and vice versa. You have to position yourself correctly for the prevailing winds and learn how to pin unpopular policies on your opponents even if you directly benefit from them. And above all, keep in mind that short term pain for a long term gain may be a death sentence for your political career. So kicking the can successfully down the road - in the hope that the eventual catastrophe will fall onto someone else's shoulders - should definitely be in your toolbox.

In an ideal world, a slim and efficient government with an eye on a sustainable growth would be the desired outcome of this game. But we don't live in an ideal world. The unrelenting barrage of recent revelations coming from the DC is a bitter testimony to that: the IRS targeting allegations, the NSA surveillance scandal, the AP monitoring rumors, the fast and furious fiasco... Our national affairs seem to be managed by an overgrown multiply redundant organization which spies on us, uses public funds to slander and besmirch their political opponents, bails out selected private businesses, and puts regulators in bed with those they are supposed to regulate. The founding fathers would probably fidget nervously if they had to watch the Sunday morning shows. In lieu of public servants, we got a constantly bickering hypo allergic crowd, looking for a slightest excuse to rain brimstone and fire at those who hold an opposing view. The engine of democracy which should be roaring with confidence barely sputters.

So that's where we are. Governing the society effectively is indeed trickier than herding an army of cats with multiple personalities. Let's hope we get the plumbing of checks and balances right some day. In the absence of enlightened monarchs, we don't really have much choice.

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