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June 11, 2012 10:38 AM All Politicians Are Trapped by Decision Accretion

By Keith Humphreys

I recently saw a talk by an elected official during which a member of the audience said “You’ve been in office for almost two years. You can’t keep blaming the last government for the economy!”.

And then I remembered Harold Pollack telling me that disability payments for World War I veterans peaked in the late 1960s.

It’s quite a disconnect. Voters hold politicians responsible for the present situation as if elected officials were all-powerful. But the officials themselves know that they are highly constrained by the decisions of other elected officials no longer in office, and perhaps not even living. The great political scientist Carol Weiss used the vivid term “decision accretion” to describe how many large and small political choices and policy judgments made over many years give us the public policies we have today, rather than them emerging de novo because of whoever we most recently elected.

President Obama’s annual budget requests to Congress for example include funding for interest payments on debts that were incurred before he was born, enormous health insurance programmes that were created when he was a child (e.g., Medicare and Medicaid), and environmental cleanups for disasters that happened when he was a state senator.

On the revenue side, the President’s budget will derive taxation from economic growth caused by investments in infrastructure and education made in prior years. They will also take in some revenue based on a telephone excise tax which was passed to fund the Spanish-American War.

Every President before Obama faced this same reality: Being powerful in theory but constrained by a myriad prior decisions in practice. It is therefore entirely reasonable for any President, indeed any elected official, to say that the policymakers who are most profoundly shaping society’s current situation are no longer in office.

But voters are too impatient and ahistorical to accept that, and political spinmasters tell their bosses that it makes them sound weak to admit it. So our elected officials generally go along with the myth of the all-powerful now, and thereby get blamed for things they can’t affect and receive credit for things they did not do.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.