Russ Roberts

Terry Moe on the Constitution, the Presidency, and Relic

EconTalk Episode with Terry Moe
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Rock, Paper, Scissors... Power to the President?...

Relic.jpg Are there many Americans today who wish the President of the United States had more power relative to the other branches of Congress? Terry Moe is one of them. In this week's EconTalk episode, Moe--a professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution--talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his new book (co-authored with William Howell), Relic. Moe wants to give the President the power to propose legislation that Congress would have to approve or reject free of amendments. Moe argues this would improve legislation and reduce the cronyism and special interest influence on Congress.

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0:33

Intro. [Recording date: July 27, 2016.]

Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about what's wrong with the Constitution. A lot of us--myself, I'd have to say would be in this group--think it's a pretty great thing. You're kind of treading on sacred ground here with a pitchfork--I don't know what you want to call it.

Terry Moe: Well, in a way, that's the point. It is sacred ground. And it shouldn't be. I think there's a lot in the Constitution to be admired and protected. And continue. William Howell and I are big supporters of the Constitution.

Russ Roberts: That's your co-author. I should have mentioned him.

Terry Moe: Yeah. Right. But, you know, we think it's very important for people to look at the Constitution objectively and ask: How does it affect governance today? It was written a little over 225 years ago by Founders who had no idea about the problems we would be facing today and the kind of government that we would need to be responsive in an effective way to those problems. And so they designed a government for their times--for the late 1700s. For a nation of 4 million people, 700,000 of whom were slaves. Of the free people, 95% were farmers. This was a time when government wasn't expected to do much. And the Founders designed a government of separation of powers with a parochial Congress at its center that couldn't do much. And, you know, that may have been fine for the late 1700s, but it's not fine for today, when we're just awash in problems that need to be dealt with.

Russ Roberts: You are also very critical of the Founders' attitudes, and you suggest, as others have, that perhaps the Constitution isn't a reflection on what would make the best government, but what would make the best government for people like them--aristocratic, slave-holder, wealthy, elite folk. Do you want to push on that a little bit? [?] on that?

Terry Moe: Many different forces went into the design of the Constitution. But I think part of it was their fear of tyranny of the majority. These were essentially aristocrats. They were propertied people who had a lot to protect. And they did not believe that all men are created equal.

Russ Roberts: Cheap talk.

Terry Moe: This was a nation that had many hundreds of thousands of slaves, for one. Women couldn't vote, for another. So, they didn't believe that everyone was equal in any sense. They believed that they and people like them should continue to control their government. And so what they meant by democracy is very different from what we mean by it today, and how responsive we expect government to be to the needs and concerned of ordinary people.

Russ Roberts: I'm a little ashamed to admit that, when I read your book, one of the things I learned from it--not that I didn't literally know, but didn't think about it enough--is that they were so eager to stress the separation of powers that even the legislative branch has two pieces. I know there's a Senate and House (House of Representatives)--I knew that before I read your book. But I always just think, 'Well, we have a Senate and House.' I never thought about that for them that was also a way to weaken the power of the legislative branch even though that was a bulwark against the judiciary and the Presidency.

Terry Moe: Yeah, it's a big--

Russ Roberts: The Senate was very different than--you should mention--than the House. Mention how it was different.

Terry Moe: Yeah. So, having a two-house Congress was a big part of the separation of powers. The whole point was to have a number of different veto points that made it difficult for government to act. And the House was the house of the people, essentially--the closest to the people. The Senate was fully expected to be dominated by aristocrats--people like them. And they were chosen by state legislatures, not by direct election. And it was fully expected that they would be a check on the House. And that both of them, of course, would check the President.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; and of course the electoral college was an intermediary between the voice of the people and the election of the President. Again, we just sort of take that for granted. I've often thought about the virtues of the electoral college, because in today's world people are so horrified by it. But whether it's a good thing or not and how it gives incentives to candidates to campaign and gets paid attention to and all that--it certainly was seen by the Founders, you are saying, as a distancing from direct democracy.

Terry Moe: That's exactly right. It's a buffer between the Presidency and the people.

5:56

Russ Roberts: So, what do you see as particularly troubling about that? Most people think that those are good things--separation of powers. You are particularly eager to indict in your book the incentives that Congress faces, given that system.

Terry Moe: Yeah. I think the heart of their system is Congress. Congress is the lawmaker: Congress makes the laws. But Congress is designed by the Constitution in such a way that the members of Congress are rooted in their districts and in their states. And therefore, they are highly responsive to the narrow constituencies and special interest groups that populate those districts and states. And therefore, they are pulled in all these different direction, each of them sort of a political entrepreneur in his or her own right. And the result is that we have this institution that is simply not designed to think in national terms about national problems and pursuing national solutions. What they are doing when they are able to make legislation is designing legislation in such a way that the members of the coalition that are going to get on board have to be given something. Right? Special provisions. So you have all sorts of special interest provisions that load up all pieces of legislation like a Christmas tree with extraneous items that please special interest groups. And the result is not actually crafted as the most effective way of solving social problems, like globalization or persistent poverty or health care or whatever the problem may be. Right? It was true 50 years ago; it was true 100 years ago; it's true today: This legislation that we get is really legislation that's weak, larded up with special interest group provisions in order to provide political reasons for Congress to get on board and not intellectually justifiable content that will provide an effective attack on social problems. So, it really goes back to the Constitution's design that makes Congress a parochial body with members rooted in districts and states, that give them political incentives to design legislation in a way that is not effective at solving the nation's social problems.

Russ Roberts: So, if we had gone back in time to the time of the Founders and said to them, 'You know, you are kind of skeptical about the value of direct democracy, yet you put in your system a desire for members of Congress to be responsive to their constituents; and that's just going to lead to trouble,' what would they have said? I think I know; I'm curious what you think.

Terry Moe: Well, I think in their view, Number One, government just wasn't expected to do very much. This was a very rural nation of just 4 million people. And so they felt that with the separation of powers design in which aristocrats played a major role--

Russ Roberts: We should probably call them 'elites,' by the way. 'Aristocrats' connotes some kind of nobility--the Earl of--

Terry Moe: I don't think so, actually. I think we did have an aristocracy. These were like large plantation owners.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's true.

Terry Moe: A great many of the Founders owned slaves.

Russ Roberts: Yep.

Terry Moe: Ten of the first 12 Presidents were slave owners. We have to remember these things.

Russ Roberts: Right.

Terry Moe: Okay. And so I think they felt that in constructing a separation of power system, as they had, and protecting their own positions, as they had, that any threat of sort of the people rising up and really dramatically changing things and expressing demands for redistribution and the like--these had been minimized through their design.

Russ Roberts: Wouldn't you say--the way I would think about it is--they would have relied on the Constitution itself to restrain some of those urges of the populace--because those would have been unconstitutional? If you showed the Founders today what is considered acceptable legislation, I think they'd be shocked. So, people like me who want a smaller government, who want the government to be less involved, we tend to argue for a more constructionist approach to the Constitution. I'm willing to concede that that's a naive form of reform, the idea that we can put that genie back in the bottle I think is a form of--somewhat akin to what Yuval Levin talks about in The Fractured Republic--he was a guest on this program--about misplaced nostalgia that might not apply to today's world. And for me--I'm not a Republican, I'm not a Democrat--so, those of us who are more libertarian, where's our golden age? 1790 but with freed slaves. Of course. So, to indict myself, that's a little bit naive. So the fact is, we are where we are is a powerful Congress not prone to look for national problem-solving things: rather, look for ways to aggrandize themselves, profit and stay in office.

Terry Moe: And Congress is that way by virtue of its design.

11:35

Russ Roberts: So, one of the examples from the book, which I didn't know about, which is very illustrative--it's a little bit of cherry-picking, which of course is your right as the author of the book to pick the most dramatical cases to tell your story--but talk about the model cities. Because that's just kind of stunning. And it's kind of a perfect example, so I understood why--

Terry Moe: That's a great example. So, during President Johnson's War on Poverty in the 1960s, he set up a bunch of task forces to address various social problems. And one of them was the problem of urban decay. Which was very serious; and something needed to be done about it. This task force that he set up was filled with experts and people from the bureaucracy who knew something about this problem, and one legislator, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, from Connecticut. And so, they came up with this idea--which was a novel idea--of, instead of like dribbling money into cities to try to help them, they would concentrate money on a small number of "model cities." And their idea was, 'We'll pick 5 or maybe 10 big cities, and we'll concentrate money on those cities and really show what can be done when the money is concentrated.'

Russ Roberts: Or what can't be done.

Terry Moe: That was their idea.

Russ Roberts: It's kind of a lab idea.

Terry Moe: It's like an experiment.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's a nice idea.

Terry Moe: Right. And so, Ribicoff said, 'You know, this is a great idea but you should really have 50 cities, one for each senator'--

Russ Roberts: One for each state--

Terry Moe: to give Senators a reason to vote for it.

Russ Roberts: Right. I would have said 30 or 40.

Terry Moe: One for each state. Sorry.

Russ Roberts: But each Senator could then claim that it was theirs, or whatever. But 30 or 40 would have been fine, too; but 50 states.

Terry Moe: So, then, listening to that, the committee itself decided to expand the number of cities--they actually expanded it to like 66; sent it over to Congress--House; and of course people in the House wanted more cities. It just wasn't enough for them. And so in the end, 'Model Cities' was adopted. And they wound up selecting over 150 Model Cities. Each of which got very little money. And it included "cities" like Smithfield, Tennessee.

Russ Roberts: Important.

Terry Moe: Which has a couple thousand people, was the home town of Joe Evans, who chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee which was in charge of this whole thing.

Russ Roberts: Shocking. Actually, the good news is it was less than 435. You might have predicted even more than 150.

Terry Moe: Right. So then, you have to ask yourself: 'What is the point?' What is the point? The idea was to address the problem of urban decay. And so they passed this legislation: What is this thing that they passed? What is the point of that thing? The only point of it was to funnel money into the districts in the states of the members of Congress. And that really typifies the way Congress approaches all kinds of legislation. They are not actually trying to solve a national problem in the most effective possible way. They are just trying to pass legislation that will benefit them as political entrepreneurs.

Russ Roberts: So, I would argue that there's nothing new under the sun: that's been the case since roughly 1789--

Terry Moe: Absolutely. I'm with you.

Russ Roberts: The only change is that I think some of the restraints on the legislative process that the Constitution used to impose have now been loosened, so that it's worse than ever. I would argue that what we would call Christmas tree or pork barrel or log-rolling or 'I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine'--all these are various words with different levels of cynicism--but this is an old problem.

Terry Moe: Yeah. Absolutely. And that's our point, that it goes all the way back. It's not a new thing. It's a Constitutional thing.

15:38

Russ Roberts: And you then argue that the President is better equipped to deal with national problems. And therefore we need to make the President more powerful. Which to me is a horrifying thought. At first. So, I'm going to say up front that, particularly in 2016, the idea of an even more powerful President seems somewhat alarming. But, I just want to give a little foreshadowing to the listeners: I will say that your method for doing it is quite interesting. So, please don't hang up the--don't put your phone away, listeners. But, let's first talk about the President. What's unique about the President, say, relative to Congress?

Terry Moe: Okay. I think it's really important to recognize that members of Congress have their incentives structured in a very distinctive way to behave in the ways we've just discussed. They are parochial. They will be unable to provide us with effective government. [?] Congress is a pathological institution. Right?

Russ Roberts: You're doing great so far, Terry. We're 100% agreed. Keep going.

Terry Moe: Okay.

Russ Roberts: It's a sausage factory. And you're not going to like what it tastes like when it comes out.

Terry Moe: That's right. Okay. So, Presidents are motivated very, very differently. Presidents have a national constituency. They benefit themselves as politicians from thinking in national terms, about national problems, and adopting national solutions that work.

Russ Roberts: And that have a longer run-time, which you point out in the book.

Terry Moe: Yeah, well, the thing is, they care about their legacies. This is a really crucial thing. People joke about this, that they sit around obsessing about their legacies. This is a very good thing, because what they're thinking is, 'I want to be great. I want to be regarded as the greatest President who ever lived.' Why do they do that? Well, they have to take on major problems for societies--like when President Bush took on Social Security, for instance, it's that kind of thing--resolve them in a way that people will look back on them 20 years from now, 50 years from now, saying, 'Man, what a great President.' So, presidents are thinking in the long term about durable, effective policy solutions, and they are the only ones doing that. So, our solution is not to make the President the dictator, but to just say, 'Look, we have a system in which we have a Congress, we have a President; but Congress is pathological. It will never provide us with effective government.'--

Russ Roberts: Correct. It's just romance.--

Terry Moe: 'We are awash in social problems which need to be dealt with somehow. And so what we're suggesting is that we simply shift a measure of power from Congress to the President. Now, this doesn't make the President a dictator. We're just looking at one aspect of their Constitutional relationship, which is the legislative process.

Russ Roberts: Now, before we get to that, I just want to push back for a second on the legacy thing. Because, of course, the legacy--the desire to have a great legacy while it has many beneficial things, also has some negative things. So, doing very little is not the road to being a remembered President.

Terry Moe: Right.

Russ Roberts: So there's a natural bias built into the Presidency because of that desire for legacy, to "do something." And I would argue that, say, in foreign policy, it's like 'Give a person a hammer, you look for a nail.' You put the President in charge of the U.S. military, he--he or she, perhaps--does have a tendency to use it in the hopes of doing something that is memorable. [?] you give the example of Lyndon Johnson. Vietnam certainly tarnished his legacy tremendously. George Bush's legacy perhaps will be tarnished. It seems that now it is, right now, but maybe it will be changed. But it's certainly tarnished by the War in Iraq. Does that worry you at all?

Terry Moe: No, not really. For instance, George H. W. Bush could have gone into Iraq and didn't do that.

Russ Roberts: Correct.

Terry Moe: He chose not to do that. Why? I think he's thinking about what's best. Because he's responsible for the thing.

Russ Roberts: True.

Terry Moe: Okay. Also, take Ronald Reagan. What Ronald Reagan wanted to "do"--in quotes--was to cut back on the size of government. Right? To retrench the welfare state. I assume this is the kind of thing that you would like.

Russ Roberts: It wouldn't be the first thing I would pick. But it's not the worst thing.

Terry Moe: Okay. But this is an example of a President doing something that's actually making a government smaller. Or trying to. I don't think he was successful at that.

Russ Roberts: No.

Terry Moe: But he was unsuccessful because our government provides him with a structure that's unworkable. Right? So, this is another example of why we have a government that's so ineffective, because you have a guy like Ronald Reagan who comes in, that want's to do something big. Can he do it? No.

Russ Roberts: You use Obamacare as an example of a disappointing policy because it kowtowed too much to what Congress wanted in the design. He certainly turned over many of its provisions to Congress. Ironically, it was a disaster for the original members of Congress who voted for it. It was a rare moment, I think, where Congress--I think mistakenly, but they thought it was--either they thought the political costs would be smaller or they thought the national interest was more important; they wanted to part of something they thought was great. They actually, in some sense seem to have acted against their self-interest in that setting. But your general point would be that that legislation is way too complicated for what it could have been.

Terry Moe: Well, I think, number one, it was a landmark and a breakthrough and an unusual piece of legislation. Presidents had been trying for 60 years to do something about universal health insurance. And they had all failed. This included Nixon and Ford; it wasn't just Democrats.

Russ Roberts: That's a great point.

Terry Moe: And so then, Obama was successful at doing this. Okay. So then the question is: What did he do? Well, Obamacare is a mess. Why is it a mess? Because there are really powerful interest groups that have a lot of power within Congress. And they were able to step up and really shape this legislation. And so, why can't we import drugs from Canada, to get less expensive drugs? Well, pharmaceutical companies say no. Why can't the government bargain with the pharmaceutical companies like they do in other countries to keep drug prices low? Pharmaceutical companies are against that. So, we pay higher drug prices--by a lot--compared to people in other countries. You know? Same thing for the insurance companies. Same thing for the trial lawyers. You go right down the list. They all got their special provisions in this Act. And, there are all these special interests that are protecting the employer-based insurance system that arose after WWII, that leaves millions of people uncovered. And so what the reformers did was just cobble together something, lay it together on top of the existing system. And what you end up with is a mess, because there is no legislative process that actually allows for a coherent, intellectually well-justified kind of policy to emerge.

22:56

Russ Roberts: So, let me make the argument in a different way, which appeals a little bit more to me. When we passed--not passed--when employer-based health care became common in the aftermath of WWII, it just--it was a result of the way the tax system was set up; no one sat around and said, 'Wouldn't it be great to get your health insurance through your job?' It's a bad idea, right? Nobody would say that's a great way to structure it.

Terry Moe: Right.

Russ Roberts: So then you say, we've got to fix that. And as things glom onto it over time, it becomes literally unchangeable--there's no ability to ratchet back and say, 'You know, in 2016, when people change jobs frequently, when some people, of course, are going to be unemployment, when health care has gotten incredibly expensive because we've taken out all the incentives to keep it cheaper--and so therefore not having health insurance is much worse than it was in 1950--you'd say, 'Well, this whole thing, part of the root of this is it's a really bad idea of employer-based health care. Let's start from scratch.' And you can't, partly because over time you've tweaked the system in various ways to respond to the special interests that you are talking about. And the ability to go back to Square One, to sunset, basically, a law, a legislation that establishes something like the system that we have is virtually impossible. I can't think--but I'm not that imaginative--I can't think of an example where we've said, 'Gee, times have changed so much. Let's start over.' We tried it a little bit with agriculture; and you mentioned it a little bit in your book--

Terry Moe: That didn't work.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Terry Moe: And with the tax system.

Russ Roberts: Correct.

Terry Moe: 1986 Tax Reform Act. So we get this big reform; and then after a while Congress's incentives just kicked back in and they larded up with 15,000 more special interest provisions.

Russ Roberts: And it's really worse than it looks. Because to the extent you can go back to Square One, start from scratch, clean slate, it then just rebuilds itself up again. So it's kind of like: 'We need to re-sell this rug,' in the bazaar: 'We need to rebuild this mess again. So we'll pretend we are doing this for the good of the country, but of course we know that over time it's just going to get back to where we are.' And that's, for them, a feature, not a bug. It's like we could then sell, effectively through influence money, etc., these new provisions and special carve-outs for people who want them.

Terry Moe: That's right. The system remains in place. Right? And so, even if you achieve a major reform, like the Tax Reform Act in 1986. The system is still there. Congress is still there. The incentives are still the same. And sure enough, the old problems with the old tax system just grow right back; and before you know it you have 15,000 special interest provisions added to it.

Russ Roberts: Each one. [?]

Terry Moe: And with health care, the point that I wanted to add to what you said, which I think is correct: you know, you have this employer-based system that grew up after the War, and then you have all these interests like insurance companies, and even employers, that have a stake in that system and in keeping that system: okay, well, they have political power. Where do they have political power? In Congress. And so if you try to--if you come along and you say, 'Hey, we should do this differently, in a way that includes everybody--not just people who have jobs--and it's cost-effective, and here's a coherent way of doing that--okay, you have no chance of getting something like that passed. Why? Because the political system that we have, that privileges special interests and members of Congress from all over the country that are responding to those interests rather than trying to do something for the nation as a whole.

Russ Roberts: And when times change, and people change jobs more often, and the Congress realizes, 'Gee, this is a problem with the current system'; then they attach other things to the current [?]--

Terry Moe: Layer them on--

Russ Roberts: COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) and other things. 'Oh, yeah, we've got to fix that.' But instead of fixing it, really they just kind of do a bandaid that's actually not very effective.

27:03

Russ Roberts: So, you don't want a dictator. Right? A benign dictator. That would be one solution. Not a very attractive or realistic one. So, what do you want? How can we enlarge the power of the Presidency without damaging the incentives that are good about being the President?

Terry Moe: Yeah. Well, we think that there's a very simple way of making a big dent in the problem. What we're proposing is just leaving the whole Constitution in place.

Russ Roberts: [?] and managing it. A realistic strategy.

Terry Moe: Yeah, and making one small, very realistic change to the way legislation is handled. That's all. Okay. And what it involves is adopting a Fast Track reform, as we've had in international trade for 40 years. We have a lot of experience with this. And Fast Track then, under our proposal, would cover everything, under our proposals. So, the way it would work is that the President would propose a policy, on anything. And whatever it is, whether it deals with taxes or welfare or the environment or you name it, Congress would have to vote on it within a particular period of time--say, 90 days. It would have to vote up or down. And it would have to vote on a majoritarian basis. Right? So, no filibusters. No delays. Now, Congress can vote No. Right?

Russ Roberts: Yep.

Terry Moe: So the President still has to win over both the Senate and the House.

Russ Roberts: Majorities.

Terry Moe: Majorities, to get these things passed. But, the President would be the one who designs these policies. Congress would have no right to reach in and add special interest provisions or take provisions out, or basically muddle up or mess up what is in fact a coherent policy package. Why would we expect it to be coherent? Because Presidents, unlike all of the other players, have the strongest incentives to craft policies in the most effective ways, because their legacy depends upon that. So, this is all it comes down to, right? So, people can say, 'Hey, you are making the President more powerful.' Look, it's only more powerful in this one way. Right? Which gives the President the capacity to craft policies in effective ways. Which the nation desperately needs. But, we still have separation of powers in place. Congress still has to say Yes to anything that happens. We still have a Supreme Court, and the entire Court system. We still have the Bill of Rights. Basically everything is exactly the same. And people can say, 'What about unilateral action by the President?' This is a horrible thing that the President--this has nothing to do with that. It doesn't affect that at all. That's the same as it is now. Right? Our book is not about that. And reform is not about that. It's just about changing the legislative process so that the actually policies that come out of it are better.

30:09

Russ Roberts: So, again, the book is called Relic. Which is a great title, by the way, even though I disagree with it. You spoke, when you described this idea, you said, 'The President would propose a policy.' Of course, Presidents don't propose policies. You are really talking about presidents putting forth legislation, and having legislation originate in the Executive Branch rather than in the Congressional branch. Which, you are suggesting is really the source of the problem. I can't have a policy that says, 'I wish workers made more money.' You've got to explicitly [?]

Terry Moe: Well, that's not what I mean by policy. I mean, you would have to have a policy that is designed--let's say, minimum wage. A minimum wage policy. Okay, that's a policy. And there's a real structure to it, and rules, and so on; and it specifies what has to happen. And so okay, that policy is proposed. And, under Fast Track, Congress would have to vote on it as it is. They can't mess with it.

Russ Roberts: But when you say, 'Vote on it' it has to be explicit. It can't just be, 'We'll have a higher minimum wage.' It would have to say how much, it would have to say--

Terry Moe: But that's the way it is, the way policies are now. There are bills that go through Congress. The question is, who is going to write them?

Russ Roberts: That's what I'm saying, that that's what you are proposing. That they originate, instead of this byzantine committee system, which you quote Steve Teles, former EconTalk guest, is a Kludgeocracy, with all these veto points. Instead it would originate in the Executive Branch and then be subject to Congressional veto. Unlike the current system, which is it originates in the Congressional Branch, and is subject to Presidential veto. Which raises a question. Why don't Presidents, given their ability to veto more bills, and given that most bills, as you are suggesting, do not serve the national interest: Why don't they veto more of them and be the check on the Christmas tree, logrolling, pork-barreling problem that you are talking about?

Terry Moe: Because then I think government would just then grind to a halt. Presidents aren't overridden very often in their vetoes. And so if anything is going to happen, Presidents have to go along. It's like with Obamacare. Why did Obama basically turn over Obamacare to Congress and let Congress write it?

Russ Roberts: Which he also [?] with the Stimulus Package, to the horror of many economists. I was against the package.

Terry Moe: Yeah, welcomed the separation of powers--

Russ Roberts: Even worse that he let Congress design it.

Terry Moe: Yeah. I welcomed the separation of powers. Obama was just recognizing that he could not determine the outcome. He needed Congressional support. The only way he was going to get it was by letting them do these things. And he had to. And the example in the case of Obamacare was what happened to Clinton. Right? So, Clinton had this massive health care program that he'd designed; and the White House. And members of Congress weren't going to have it. And it went down in flames. And it was one of the biggest policy fiascos in modern history.

Russ Roberts: And a disaster for him, in so many ways.

Terry Moe: Absolutely. And Obama wasn't going to go there.

Russ Roberts: So, in that way, it was smart on his part, what the results were--a different question.

Terry Moe: Well, I think Obama was thinking, 'This is the best I can do.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, basically, to summarize, you are suggesting we need to have Congress's role in legislation be an up/down only response to a bill, rather than their current policy of feeding it through the Congressional sausage factory--

Terry Moe: Well, let me just add to this, that we do say that Congress can still pass it's own legislation, just like they do now. Presidents can veto it. But members of Congress can go ahead and pass legislation. We're not taking that away from them. What we're adding is Fast-Track authority for Presidents. So, any time the President wants to make a proposal to Congress, Fast Track kicks in; and Congress has to vote on that proposal, up or down, within x number of days.

Russ Roberts: Without amendment, complications--

Terry Moe: Right. Without amendment, filibusters, and you know, presidents will be smart about that. They'll want to get these things passed. And I think that will lead to more policies getting passed that are effectively designed, rather than these weak, cobbled together, God-forsaken things like Model Cities that Congress passes.

Russ Roberts: Would the budget go through this process?

Terry Moe: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: How would that happen? Because it could? Because presidents would then just propose a budget that Congress would just have to vote on?

Terry Moe: Presidents do propose a budget. By the OMB (Office of Management and Budget).

Russ Roberts: I forgot. It's kind of a piece of theater, sham.

Terry Moe: And also there will be communication back and forth.

Russ Roberts: They are in the same city, aren't they?

Terry Moe: Yeah. So they will talk; and presidents will want to anticipate what Congress is going to do. But this does give presidents the upper hand in crafting something that's more like what they want.

35:10

Russ Roberts: So, I kind of like this. Kind of. What you are really saying, again, just to make clear, it's an additional option, not changing "anything else," in theory. How would it happen practically? What would have to be done? Let's go back to Fast Track. We'll come back later to whether people are happy with Fast Track or not. It complicates the marketing of your idea. But how did Fast Track get approved?

Terry Moe: Congress approved it.

Russ Roberts: So, would they have to approve what you are talking about? Why would they?

Terry Moe: Well, this would be an approval of a Constitutional Amendment.

Russ Roberts: Why would it have to be a Constitutional Amendment?

Terry Moe: Because it changes the nature of the--well, it doesn't have to. But what we would want is a Fast Track authority that would be permanent. For all legislation. And Congress is not going to do that. And they could revoke it at any time.

Russ Roberts: Which kind of ruins the whole thing.

Terry Moe: Yeah. Wrecks the whole thing. So what you need is a Constitutional Amendment. Will Congress do that? No, I don't think so. Unless something odd happens. It's always possible, like when Congress gave Presidents the line-item veto. Right? Under Newt Gingrich. That the Supreme Court struck down. Every now and then something weird like that happens. But basically Congress is not going to do this. The alternative--

Russ Roberts: To celebrate[?] your book. And they realize--

Terry Moe: Yeah, they are persuaded by ideas. The alternative is for the state legislatures to request a Constitutional Convention that would then adopt this amendment.

Russ Roberts: A Constitutional Convention? But once we have a Constitutional Convention, everything is up for grabs. So that's always been a tough sell. Why can't we do the thing--just go around and get petitions in each state, referenda, sign it, get enough states, and that way we can get a Constitutional Amendment.

Terry Moe: I think that scholars are unclear about exactly how this would work. And my own view is that our job, in this paper, in the book, is to try to get people to understand that the Constitution has major consequences for our lives: that it undermines effective government, that it's up to us to try to do something about it; and to try to get people interesting in doing something about it. And then the question is: Okay, how can this thing actually happen on the ground? Well, okay, Congress is unlikely to want such an amendment.

Russ Roberts: Right, so that's one route to a Constitutional Amendment.

Terry Moe: So we need to try to get around Congress. And one way to do it is through the Convention route, through the states. And when I said that scholars weren't clear about this, it's unclear whether the Convention can be constrained to consider, say, one amendment. That, it would be called only to consider that one amendment.

Russ Roberts: But there is another way to get a Constitutional Amendment passed, right? Can't you have each state vote within a certain period of time, to get a Constitutional Amendment?

Terry Moe: Well, I think what you are talking about is, like, with the Equal Rights bill.

Russ Roberts: Right. Can't you go state by state?

Terry Moe: Well, first Congress adopted it.

Russ Roberts: Ohhh.

Terry Moe: And then three-fourths of the states have to say yes.

Russ Roberts: So that's going to be a non-starter.

Terry Moe: Yes.

Russ Roberts: So, this is close to a non-starter.

Terry Moe: I don't think it is.

Russ Roberts: So, make the case for me. I'm sitting here thinking, 'You're telling me that scholars aren't sure whether you could constrain the Constitutional Convention.' How would that work? How would a Constitutional Convention in 2017, say--who is in it? Who is going to be in Philadelphia? Who's there?

Terry Moe: Well, we haven't had one of those in eons. And we don't talk about that in the book, exactly how this would happen.

Russ Roberts: Other than this feature on EconTalk. A bonus feature here on EconTalk, for listeners.

Terry Moe: So, I think we can say we don't know exactly what would have to happen in order for Fast Track to be adopted in this part of the Constitution, because this is like a train, moving forward. And I think it should be done very carefully. And I, like you, am concerned about the risks of this. I, and William Howell, we are both concerned about maintaining the rest of the Constitution and preserving and protecting it.

Russ Roberts: Except for that Second Amendment. Right? Because that's silly: 'They didn't mean militias.' 'They meant militias.'

Terry Moe: We don't want to go there.

Russ Roberts: Seriously. I'm kidding. But how would you keep the people attending that Convention from doing something with an amendment that you or I say might like or [?]?

Terry Moe: Again, this just raises legal issues about how these conventions actually get set up and whether the scope can be constrained. And, I'm not a legal scholar. I don't know the answer to that. But I'm a political scientist, and I think my job first and foremost is to try to understand the consequences that the Constitution has for our governments today and to identify ways that we might be able to move forward. And I think this is one of them. And it may be that it wouldn't work out as a practical matter, but we should think about these things.

40:43

Russ Roberts: I like the idea of thinking about it. I'm not sure we can get there in a way that's, maybe, comforting to me. But I think the other challenge you have in marketing the idea to the general public--to me it's imaginable that, out of shame, and perhaps an unusual set of events, Congress could pass such a potential Constitutional Amendment that would be voted on by many states; or we could get to these other more comforting method. But isn't one of the challenges that, just even the very phrase 'Fast Track' has a marketing problem to the American people given that for better or for worse many of them think that trade agreements have been a rip off of America's interests? I think that's incorrect as a general statement, but most Americans don't agree with me, or at least I worry that they don't. Most people would say, 'Oh, it's going to be like trade agreements? That's horrible.' How are you going to convince them otherwise?

Terry Moe: Okay. Well, first of all, I'm not a PR (Public Relations) expert, and I don't think of this in terms of PR. I think the lesson of the Fast Track is that if Presidents are going to negotiate trade agreements--and of course they don't do it personally; they have their people who do it--and if they're going to deal with all of these nations out there, they cannot have Congress meddling in all of the details. Right? So, Presidents are able to craft an actual agreement that nations have signed on to. And it is crucial that that coherent, well-justified, well-integrated thing not be ruined by being torn apart in Congress. So, Fast Track is made for that. And it has worked really well over time. Now, this other question of whether we should be entering into these trade agreements in the first place is another issue. Now, in the past, Congress has voted Yes on most--not always--but it's voted Yes on these things. I suspect that going forward, they are less likely to vote Yes, unless those agreements are changed. But the importance of Fast Track is allowing the emergence of a coherent agreement that Congress can vote on this. It says nothing about whether Congress is going to vote Yes or No. They can vote No. And I think in today's environment they are likely to.

Russ Roberts: I think the challenge--I think about Milton Friedman, and I talked to him one time about NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)--and he said, 'I'm against it.' And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Well, because a free trade agreement should be one page. It should say: We hereby eliminate all our tariffs and quotas on products from Canada and Mexico.' In fact, NAFTA is a big fat thick set of regulations. Now, my view, which might be naive, is that most of those regulations, most of the pages of NAFTA are about slowing down the pace of certain tariff removals, keeping some in place unfortunately--but that it was a movement toward free trade and better than nothing. Not as good as Milton wanted, of course. But what would seem to me to be the case is to the extent it is a bad bit of legislation--and to take one example, the truckers. The trucking industry was very unhappy about the idea that Mexican truckers would come into the United States, so they, on the basis of alleged safety concerns that were foolish and silly and dishonest--because what they really cared about was the pocketbook--they decided those would not be phased in for 10 years. And I think when the 10 years was up they still didn't phase it in. Etc., etc. So, even with Fast Track we have many of the special interest provisions that you are concerned about. They just come in through the 'making sure Congress still votes for it' problem. So, it is in many ways, the separation of powers that you are trying to open a little bit, doesn't disappear. The problems of the separation of powers.

Terry Moe: So, let me just frame that a little bit differently. We have a Separation of Powers system. Ultimately the President can't have what he wants. He can craft a policy that Congress has to vote on, and he wants Congress to vote yes. Therefore, he has to make sure that he has a majority in the House and the Senate. Therefore, he has to, like, bargain with these people. So you get into the same kinds of problems with special interests and all the rest. However, the President is the champion of effective government. He wants these policies to be effective and coherent, and to work. And so they are in the hands of the one person who doesn't want to give up the essence of the policy by actually allowing all these perversions to get in there. And so the problem is minimized by giving him more power. So, that's the thing. It's not that the problem goes away.

Russ Roberts: Okay.

45:45

Russ Roberts: Now, let's talk about the bigger issues underlying these points. It's a very provocative book. It's also short, by the way, which I really appreciate. It's only about 180 pages.

Terry Moe: That, with big print and big margins.

Russ Roberts: It's big print, relatively big print. So, for some that's a, you know, you don't get as much for your dollar; for others, it's a big feature not a bug. You indict the Constitution very vigorously in the beginning of the book. One perspective would be, 'Well, you know, I think we're doing pretty well. Yeah, I concede that there are all these bad--this legislation that's messy and ugly and doesn't really do what it might do. But, you know, over time it's been a pretty good run.' Are you suggesting that it's just now that things aren't going well? Is it the trend you don't like? Is it the nature of the problems we face? Because I worry that many of the problems we face at the national level--many of them, not all of them--are problems the President can deal with if he wants to. A lot of them are related to poor policy, terrorism, etc. What are your thoughts on that? Isn't the Constitution a secret of our success?

Terry Moe: I think you regard it as an indictment of the Constitution because--

Russ Roberts: It's called Relic, Terry.

Terry Moe: Almost nobody thinks in objective terms about the Constitution's actual impacts on modern governance. There's too much Constitution worship. Everybody's down on their knees worshipping the Founders and the Constitution instead of thinking objectively about it. It's not a perfect thing. It doesn't affect us in 100% good ways. So, in the end, what we're saying is, 'Look, it undermines effective government. There are things we can do about it.' We never said anything about getting rid of the Bill of Rights. Or getting rid of the Separation of Powers. Or getting rid of Congress. We didn't say any of those things. It's a way of making an adjustment that will make this structure, almost entirely intact, more effective. So, I think, if you say, 'Oh, the President can do a pretty good job if everything stays the same with dealing with today's problems': No he can't. That's what our book is about.

Russ Roberts: Okay. So, let me try a different approach. One of the ways that sometimes we summarize the essence of economics on this program is: No solutions, only tradeoffs. So, when you talk about the big issues in the book--immigration, health care, education--we really don't--I don't want a President who can solve those because they really can't be solved that fast. What the President can do, even if the President did have the kind of authority you are talking about, at best what the President can do is help some groups of Americans at the expense of others improve one set of issues at the expense of others. Or do you think that there are "solutions" to health care, immigration, education that would just be obviously better than others?

Terry Moe: Well, this is a democracy. So, what counts as a problem and what counts as a solution is in part a matter of democratic perspective: What is it that people want? Right?

Russ Roberts: I actually don't agree with that. So, I was going to raise--you want me to--

Terry Moe: I think most people would agree with what I just said. But maybe--that's fine--

Russ Roberts: Cool. I know they do. When you say 'What the people want,' I don't know what that is. There is no--that's really my point, is that there's no unified--other than avoiding a nuclear attack on the United States that kills everybody or being overcome by a foreign aggressor, our interests are not unanimous. And the will of the people is a will 'o the wisp. It's a--the Arrow Impossibility Theorem makes it pretty clear. So, you got the question.

Terry Moe: But basically, we have a democratic political system in which we have elections, and we have leaders who are elected. They run based upon promises that they are making based on how they are going to deal with the major social problems of our times. That's what this campaign is about; it's what every campaign is about. Always. Republicans have different solutions than Democrats do, but they are always talking about how we are going to solve these problems.

Russ Roberts: Well, that's because people want to hear that. They don't want to hear that they can't be solved and there's only trade-offs.

Terry Moe: Well, they want them solved. Maybe you don't.

Russ Roberts: That's an illusion. You can't solve those problems. You can only--

Terry Moe: You can do something about them.

Russ Roberts: Yup. That's true.

Terry Moe: That's right. And so, some things that are done are more effective than others. And so, what you want is a government that can be effective at dealing with these things. So, you take immigration. We have 11 million people or so who are here without documentation. The laws are not being adhered to: the laws are meaningless. So this is a legal system in crisis. We also have farmers in California who can't get enough workers for their fields. We have Silicon Valley workplaces who would love to bring in highly talented immigrants from other countries who can't get them in. Whereas in other countries, they adjust their immigration system to make sure they are able to attract these highly talented people. So, this is a system that clearly constitutes a problem, and calls out for a solution, some kind of solution that would be better than what we have now, right? And I think almost everybody--maybe not you, but almost everybody thinks, 'Yeah, we can do a lot better than this.' Okay. So, in 2005, and 2006, and 2007, President Bush submitted a bipartisan bill that had great support in Congress, actually. And in 2007 and 2008, that bill, those bills, went down to defeat due to a filibuster in the Senate. Actually there was a majority support in Congress to pass those bills. In 2013, Obama proposed a bill that went down, even though it had majority support; and the reason it went down was that John Boehner used his agenda powers in the House to just not bring it up for a vote. Even though there was a majority there that would have voted for it. Under Fast Track, those things would have passed. Right? We would actually have had immigration reform that reconstructed immigration law and that did something about the 11 million undocumented immigrants, and that did something about the Silicon Valley problem and the agriculture problem.

52:15

Russ Roberts: So, why did that not happen? Don't give me the answer which is obviously literally true--we are talking about causation. There's the ultimate cause and the penultimate cause, etc. Obviously it didn't happen because certain people stopped it from happening. But what would you say is the political reason? What were the forces in motion that kept that kind of change--and I'm agnostic about whether that was a good idea or not; I didn't look at those any of those bills. I wouldn't pay attention to them at the time. But something real, not just the desire for people to--

Terry Moe: Okay. Well, I can give you a democratic perspective on it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Terry Moe: Institutional perspective. Which is that, in our system, perversely, we have filibusters in the Senate. And even though there was majority support in Congress for this thing in 2006 and 2007, a minority in one house of the legislature torpedoes those bills.

Russ Roberts: So: Why? Why did they do that? They could--part of the reason, you say, is because they could. But why were they willing to do that? What was their interest?

Terry Moe: Okay. Well, first of all, I would say one response is, 'Who cares what their interest is? They're a minority. This bill has overwhelming support in a democratic system. And whatever these 30 people, 40 people, however many there are--

Russ Roberts: It's a republic though. It's not a direct democracy.

Terry Moe: Well. All right. They are a tiny number, compared to the numbers of people who were willing to vote for this thing.

Russ Roberts: But I'm biased. I'm a big worrier about the tyranny of the majority, whether it's the people, or the legislators. So, in this case, the smaller group--agreed, it was not a majority--decided to stand athwart this change and say, 'Stop.'

Terry Moe: I think the thing--

Russ Roberts: They had some interest in doing so.

Terry Moe: The single most important thing, I think, is that Republicans want to stand in the way of anything that looks like a path to citizenship for Latinos.

Russ Roberts: Who are more likely to vote Democrat.

Terry Moe: Absolutely. They are 2:1 Democrat.

Russ Roberts: Okay. That's, I think, true, and not a good reason to stop [?]. That's interesting. Now, there's other legislation, I assume, that is stopped for other reasons. That was a purely political calculation. It's a cynical view, but I suspect you are probably right.

Terry Moe: Yeah, but I think it's also important not to judge other people for calculations and just say, 'Different people have different interests.' Fine. So what kind of system are we going to have for designing policy, given that people don't agree? Okay, well, if we have a system of filibusters, right, and two houses, and all the rest: well, basically if we have any kind of problems that are at all complicated and serious, right, you are not going to get anything. And if you do, you are going to get some God-awful thing that doesn't really solve the problem. Welcome to American Democracy. Welcome to American institutions. And it goes all the way back to the Constitution.

Russ Roberts: Well, I kind of like it, I have to say. Because I wish government did less rather than more. I think to sell people like me--not that we matter, because we're also a very small minority--it's--I'm willing to concede the possibility that this kind of institutional change, if it could be agreed on, might make things better. That government might get smaller. It's conceivable, as you suggest in the book. And so that it's not necessarily, that getting rid of filibuster might not just mean government's going to get bigger at a faster rate.

Terry Moe: Right. Let me just add something here. Because you bring up the small government thing. Our book is not about big government versus small government. I think what people often think is, 'Oh, well, you think government, effective government, is all about solving social problem.'

Russ Roberts: That's what it sounds like.

Terry Moe: Yeah. And it is. But that's what Reagan was trying to do. What Reagan was saying is: 'Hey, the welfare state is a social problem. It's way too expensive. We shouldn't be doing most of these things--'

Russ Roberts: True, 'It's ruining people's lives,'--

Terry Moe: 'We need to cut back on the welfare state.' Right? That was his social problem. And so what could he do about that? Not a lot. Right? Why? Right? Because we have a government that is set up for sheer ineffectiveness. And he was mired in it.

Russ Roberts: Well, that's a very good answer. Okay.

Terry Moe: So, what I would say is, if you favor small government, you should favor small effective government. And you are never going to get the small government--because we have a really big government--you are never going to get the small government unless you have an effective government where a leader can come in and say, 'Okay. This is what we're going to do.' And it actually happens.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. So actually, I agree with you. I think in theory your proposal is even more attractive to a large government person who--you know, I always want to say, if government stuck to what it does well, many more people would be positive toward it, be willing to let it do more than it does now. The fact that it does so much so poorly to me suggests putting less in government's control and more in the control of individuals, either acting in voluntary ways through charity or through their own individual decisions. And we'd have a better government. So, that would be great. But we don't have that world. We have the sausage factory. And how anyone in the presence of the sausage factory can advocate putting more things onto the plate of Congress is strange to me. But there's a lot of romance in politics.

Terry Moe: So, I'm with you. I don't want the sausage factory to be in charge. And so, what we're saying, is, 'Look, the sausage factory is a reality. And it's not going away.'

Russ Roberts: Right. Correct.

Terry Moe: So what we want to do is to recognize it for what it is; say this is a Constitutional thing. It's not an accident. It's not going to go away. Ever. So, like, what we should do is like move it to the periphery of the legislative process, and shift power to the champion of effective government--the President. Just in the legislative process, and only there. So that he makes the proposals. And the sausage factory only gets to vote Yes/No. They don't get to make sausage. Right? He's the one who is designing policy. Not them.

58:22

Russ Roberts: So, I like that: that part of it is appealing. Let's close with a sort of meta-question about these kind of issues for me, which is: A lot of times we hear people say, 'We should be more like Scandinavia.' Or, we should be more like Country X. I have a lot of different responses to that, intellectually and emotionally. But one of the responses is: 'Well, we're not a lot like Scandinavia, as a nation.' Not just because they have a smaller population above the Arctic Circle. We're not like Scandinavia because we are an incredibly heterogeneous country. And many policies that seem to work well-my favorite example is the bureaucracy. Being a bureaucrat in many of those countries is considered an honorable profession. Something people strive for and get prestige from. Not so much in America. Right? We have a different attitude. People will chalk that up to our individuality and our frontier origins. And I think it really misses what really is driving both our attitudes toward these kind of issues and our attitudes to the policies that come out of Washington. Which is that we are an incredibly heterogeneous country. So, some of the sausage that comes out of this isn't the result of special interests, per se--manipulating the system. It's the fact that we are really diverse. Our interests are not always unified. And that's the fundamental reason that we get bad policy. So, my lesson from that is: Let's put fewer things into the grinder and let's leave more of it outside of Washington. Do you want to react to that?

Terry Moe: Well, first of all, you are not going to stop things from going into the grinder. Because people want government to do things. Right? And I think we do have a very heterogeneous society. We are not Norway. And I think it's very important to recognize that. So, we have to deal with the United States as it is. Right? So, Congress is the ultimate in diversity. And in the kind of heterogeneity you are talking about. And in making it as bad as it can possibly be politically, because you have 535 people, pulling in 535 directions trying to get their things. Right? Trying to make sure that if a policy passes, it's got some provisions in there for them. Right? And so you can get some cobbled-together thing, and that doesn't solve any problems. So, that's the way heterogeneity works out in this institutional context. Now: Do institutions matter? Yes. They do. So, heterogeneity is one thing, but you can plot institutions down on the heterogeneity, and some institutions will do better than others. That's our point. Right? So we think an institution that has a Fast Track component will do a better job in a heterogeneous society than the one that we have now.

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COMMENTS (60 to date)
drobviousso writes:

Russ, this is my favorite kind of econtalk - a guest with a wildly different worldview than you have, but who has one idea you sort of agree with. As always, I wish you would have pressed him a bit more on his idea, because there were a few questions I had that were never resolved. (this would likely require a 3 hour podcast, so I get why you can't cover everything)

1) How will strategic actors respond to his change? Seems to me that the president and the majority part will get together, lard up a bill to get 50.1% of the vote in both houses, and ram it through.... Just like his boogyman - Obamacare.

2) Why does he love the bill of rights (a protection on minority positions) but hate minorities?

3) Why do term limited presidents have better incentives than un-term-limited congresspeople? This might be well established in his field, but I don't know it.

4) Why are presidents going to be more immune from special interests than congresspeople? I don't expect that they will be, only that 1 set of special interests will get all the love for 4/8 years, then maybe a shift to a different set once a new administration comes in.

53:22 "Who cares what their interest is, they are a minority"
That made my skin crawl.

Jon writes:

Like previous poster, I wish Russ would push back a little bit harder at different times (even if it means a slight more contentious tone). One example is interviewee's assertion that framers effectively came from an aristocracy because "These were like large plantation owners." and "[many owned slaves]"--that's still a long way off from being a feudal lord and way way off from any logical connection between their plantation owning and some putative agenda to write the constitution in such a way as to prevent their interests being challenged (by who exactly?)
These arguments often rest on the premise that people are incapable of transcending their narrow, parochial interests--e.g., Framers were interested in maintaining power not in forming a system that would be superior in its ability to limit abuse of power. And to borrow the most cringeworthy rhetoric heard in this interview--for the sake of argument, what if they were selfish, power-mongers, so what? does that makes freedom of speech a bad thing? Enumerated powers?

daniel solon writes:

07:00

Im not sure if i want law makers thinking nationally or globally about legislation. National and global issues are far more complicated and open to serious errors then local issues are. Im far more confident in legislation thats negotiated by people representing a small constituency interest then ones attempting to save the world. I think they may know what is good for there small group of people they represent. No way they know whats best for the entire nation/world.

P.S.

Id also like to stress that the concern of corrupted special interest controlling legislation through there money donations is vastly over stated (I summarize much of the literature on the issue in this video Here)

[broken html fixed. You have to press the button a second time to close the html link code. --Econlib Ed.]

Bob writes:

Russ, you are an amazing interviewer! Your ability to ask good questions, deal with uncomfortable ideas, etc is quite rare indeed.

Today's guest made many good points, though I'm far more skeptical of central planning (e.g. government as a source of good). We should work to move in the opposite direction: smaller government scope of action, less power, less spending, less taxation, less regulations, etc. I'd rather pass a balanced budget amendment, or voting reform, or eliminate the power to grant favors (subsidies, tariffs, tax breaks, etc).

Cowboy Prof writes:

I would like to echo many of the concerns of Dr. Obviousso above (and rushed home from the dog walk to type them in, only to be pre-empted).

1. Why would Moe's proposal stop logrolling instead of merely moving it to the West Wing? If the president proposes a bill and has to get 50.1% of the vote, each little partisan, regional, and other faction has an incentive to be the holdout vote, would they not? So a bill to solve "national gun violence" would include provisions to make sure soy bean subsidies are retained.

2. What about the Wag the Dog problem? If presidents are worried about legacy, and if legacy is often correlated with "doing something" (as Russ noted early on), what is to prevent the Oval Office from creating crisis after crisis so as to "do something"? This seems exacerbated now with news media; even though gun violence has been falling quite dramatically over the past few decades, we have a "bigger gun violence problem" than ever before?

3. My skin kinda crawled early on when Prof. Moe said "solve a problem like globalization" (just past the 6:00 minute mark). I don't even know what that problem would be, let alone what "globalization" is (as it is such a broad term to pack whatever one wants into it).

P.S. Love the new transcription style. I know that transcribing these interviews is very difficult, so big kudos to who is doing it.

businessprof writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Jamie writes:

A few thoughts:

1) Fundamentally, Moe doesn't agree with the Declaration of Independence; he doesn't think that the purpose of government is to protect our natural rights, but to "solve social problems." It's hardly surprising that he doesn't agree with the Framers about how to organize a government when they think that government exists to do different things. Perhaps Moe's view is more in line with how Americans think about the federal government today, but this difference of philosophy seems very important.

2) Engaging more with his substantive proposal - why does the person proposing "FastTrack" legislation have to be the president? Wouldn't the separation of powers be better served by having this be a separate, nationally elected, office? This way, we would still get the "more effective," nationally-responsible, legacy-oriented, democratically-elected figure proposing policy, but we wouldn't have the problematic nature of the president writing laws (s)he is going to enforce.

3) He tries to gloss over it, but removing the filibuster from the passing of legislation is a very significant change to Congress. Supermajoritarianism in the upper house is not something to be removed lightly.

4) Moe talks about the problems of pork barrel spending as being a problem derived from the constitution. Do other countries with single-member districts have similar problems? Isn't the House of Commons basically the same functionally as the House of Representatives? Does the Prime Minister basically take on this role of proposing everything?

5) I agree with other commenters that this does just seem to move the problem of wasteful, district-oriented spending to the White House, rather than actually happening within Congress, which might actually make things LESS transparent without actually solving the problems.

Great job as usual, Russ. I agree with others that you could perhaps be a bit more forceful in pushing back against the claims of the guests, but it's better this way than you being a hostile interviewer.

stephen house writes:

Dr. Roberts is a pro and a gentleman - I hope he doesn't give in to the urge of the masses for more "contentiousness." Otherwise, I can watch the cable yell-fests for that as too many weak-willed Americans clamor for nothing more transcendental than bread and circuses. This might be a segue to what I wanted to add to the comments. Here goes:

Moe's arguments are, in my humble opinion, a set of ill-conceived solutions to a mis-identified problem.

The Presidency is already too powerful and becoming more "imperial" every four years. Congress is the institution that is too weak, perhaps made more mob-impressionable by the 17th Amendment. We may not like the corruptible men and women elected to Congress but guess what? - that's the people's fault. We (starting with me) need to spend more time deciding what kind of representatives we'd like to have and demanding that level of accountability - through our vote, not Twitter.

An uninformed electorate is not a new issue, but with the rise of 24/7 information and the democratization of everything, the citizens have to adapt and know more about what's going on - the stakes are indeed higher than ever.

The President is not the problem. The Congress is not the problem. The Supreme Court is not the problem. The Constitution is not the problem. We the People are the problem.

drobviousso writes:

stephen house - There's more to pressing someone on their ideas than yelling at them. I listen to econtalk precisely because Russ is able to press people on their ideas without devolving into yelling and posturing.

Matěj Cepl writes:

Russ, don't give up! Yes, your Constitution was written for the small-government state, and yes US has a large government now. However, I am still not persuaded that the bigger government (and bigger nation, consequently) is good for anything else than for supporting bigger army and bigger imperialism. And yes, small-government in US is in my opinion linked to the federalism and state sovereignty. I have yet to be persuaded that the United States (as plural) is any worse than the United States (as singular).

Corazon writes:

“Because Presidents, unlike all of the other players, have the strongest incentives to craft policies in the most effective ways because their legacies depend upon that.”

The fundamental flaw in Moe's thinking is a very dangerous and seductive one: That a President, merely because s/he has a legacy to think about, will rise above the blandishments of special interests or the influence of perverse ideologies and craft policies that are effective, coherent, and that work. Presidents are mere humans like the rest of us and are just as vulnerable --- and perhaps even more so --- to the seductions of power. Laws and policies do nothing to alter basic human nature, and persons in power are seldom blessed with the understanding and foresight necessary to wield it wisely. The Founders understood this.

Jon writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Mark Crankshaw writes:
Because people want government to do things.

No, Mr. Moe, that is precisely the problem, and fast track not only doesn't solve that problem but, as the name of his so-called 'solution' implies, means that the problem will get worse even faster.

It is a particular absurdity that the Presidency is immune for all the problems that occur in Congress given that its' current occupant is an inveterate partisan who makes no effort to serve the "country" (if that were even possible) but only serves his "base" of political support. Russ summed up the Presidency quite nicely when he said:

What the President can do, even if the President did have the kind of authority you are talking about, at best what the President can do is help some groups of Americans at the expense of others improve one set of issues at the expense of others.

The "legacy" that interests Obama is more complete Democratic Party political power, leading to more left-wing "solutions" that will inevitably fail to "solve" the problems, And all at great expense to the taxpaying public. That is, the same pathetic performance that the Presidency (whether Republican or Democrat) has always delivered. On the contrary, I feel quite strongly that Obama's "legacy" will worsen all of our problems by putting more left-wing politicians in office, thereby catering to core Democrat voters that incessantly want to "do something" about "our" problems with their ill-thought out, ham-fisted "solutions". I am quite convinced that Obama has no interest whatever to make my life better in any way, shape or form.

Giving more power to the Presidency makes no sense considering the horrific level of partisanship of the current occupant, and the high likelihood of the next occupant being even worse.

I really think that Mr. Moe's ambition is quixotic. Politics is in the realm of of "collective action". Mr. Moe correctly grasps that the current state of our "collective action" is dire. However, I don't think that unlikely-to-be-implemented tweaks to the Constitution is ever going to rise to the level of "fixing that" underlying problem.

Collective action has, is , and always will be corrupt and unpleasant. Collective action is devoid of any redeeming features: it invariably results in "solutions" that one despises, where one never gets what one wants, and where one always pays substantially more than is necessary (or even prudent).

For example, if I were to individually buy a pair of shoes, the end result would be the possession of a pair shoes if/when I want one, that fit well, accord with my notion of style, and fit with my notion of a "reasonable price" or quantity. However, if shoes were purchased "collectively", none of that would hold: I would very likely get shoes on a dictated time schedule, that didn't fit well, that I despised the looks of, in an inappropriate quantity, and at an inordinate price. The "institutions" that would be involved in the collective distribution of shoes isn't the problem, the collective (non-individualistic) nature of collective decision making is. I don't know what I despise more: collective decision making or collectivists eager to engage in it.

Collective action is, in my opinion, the most odious, contemptible, and disgusting part of life. That's why when Russ suggests maybe we should reduce the sphere of "collective action", I couldn't agree more. Let's reduce that spheres of life where we are forced to deal with one another in unpleasant and unsavory ways (i.e., through politics) and increase the spheres of life where we can act as individuals, as and how we see fit. No amount of makeup will make the collectivist "pig" attractive...

Madeleine writes:

Wow Russ!! I'd like to echo everyone here about your competency and professionalism as an interviewer. I can't imagine anyone with a more diametrically opposing viewpoint to yours than Professor Moe.

I do think it was a lost opportunity to not bring up that great Madison quote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

However, I have to concede that Professor Moe is right that it is impossible politically in our current system to pass legislation that is morally and intellectually justified.

Your podcast these last two weeks has really been opening my eyes to a lot of issues with democracy. (I am still 100% pro democracy, but I definitely believe it's important to know the drawbacks).

Mads Lindstrøm writes:

It seems to me, that professor Moe's premise is basically flawed, and it makes the discussion a lot less enjoyable. His premise is that the constitution is designed to preserve the powers of the aristocratic framers. First, they were not aristocrats. But more importantly, it was a state centered constitution, whether or not it benefited the framers.

If professor Moe had identified the constitution as state centered, he would have had to argue why his solution were better, than the originally intended small federal government with the power at the state level. Some states might want to remain small themselves and decentralize further, other might not. But that is the system he need to argue against, not his bogeyman of aristocrat framers.

This makes the discussion revolve around big vs small government, when it should properly have revolved around state vs federally centered.

Incidentally, that is why it makes sense to have state legislatures appoint senators, as it makes the senators the legislatures representative in the federal government, and thus unlikely to more power to the central government. It also makes it more likely to have coherence between state and federal legislation.

Trevor writes:

It occurred to me while listening to this latest episode that the class of professional pundits and think-tankers is often quick to indict the failure of the "system" to enact any meaningful change in federal policy. I can't help but wonder if this tendency to blame the system is reflective of the failure of this class of individuals to win any sort argument or shred of influence in the minds of broader culture? In making his case against the sclerosis of Congress, Prof. Moe not once mentioned the failure of politicians, writers, pundits, academics to create a winning coalition based on the acceptance of ideas by the mass of voters. I'm thirty years of age and I've been following politics since I was sixteen. One of big realizations I've had to accept is just how inconsequential this whole world of think tanks is to the vast majority of voters. This has to be incredibly frustrating to the individuals who actually work in this industry and it would make sense that they would then turn their focus to blaming the "system" of making laws.

Matthew Whited writes:

As everyone else has noted this guy has no idea what he is talking about. On the simplest example of his own premise it is easier to bribe/convince one person than it is to bribe 535. "Fast track" would put too much power in the hands of one person (and his friends).


This is also false on the idea that government exists to "create common good". Government only exists to ensure fair exchange between free actors.

Adam Graham writes:

This seems to be, in a sense, the opposite side of the limited-government coin but with a similar sense of the problem. Both see the current state of politics as conflicted and in need of reform. However, one states that we should reform to be smaller, the other that we should reform to make government match.

Also, I can't quite remember the last time that a president was able to craft a national solution to a problem that worked. Progressivism at heart says that all that is needed to solve a societal problem is to get a group of experts together.

I do not want the Federal government doing the things Moe wants it to do. I believe that his proposal would make the presidency more tyrannical than it already is. I appreciate Moe's ideas being aired by Russ despite how bad they are.

Charles Peterson writes:

By focusing on the Constitution and "How a Bill Becomes Law," Dr Mo is either forgetting or ignoring the real source of most Federal law, i.e., the enormous oppressive bureaucracy under the Executive branch.
Under that bureaucracy nameless, faceless bureaucrats have promulgated the burgeoning Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) that is a library in and of itself. The CFR is much larger than the collection of statutes enacted into Law, all promulgated without required action from the Legislative branch. (You don't have to even pass these regs so you can see what's in them.) Still, those regulations have the force of law, levying fines, and somehow, even implementing multiple Federal police forces.
The Federal Bureaucracy already does much of what Dr Mo proposes, if not more. Obamacare, for example, left many issues for the discretion of the Commissioner of the IRS. (Look how well that is working with right leaning organizations.)
Give the Executive even more power? I think not!

Matthew Whited writes:

It would be interesting to see what this author would say if a Republican was in control of the white house versus Democrats.

And Russ... Thanks for pointing out we ate a republic. That is very important as in a republic minorities still have rights.

Michael Byrnes writes:

I don't come from the liberarian viewpoint as many here do, and I thought this was an interesting podcast and that Moe's proposal was interesting and worthy of thought. But in the end, I don't think it would actually work as he intends it.

I think the main problem is that the major functional check and balance in our current system is one never envisioned by the founders. It is that Democrats are a strong check on Republicans and vice versa. The various veto points established in the Constitution have been, in effect, largely co-opted by the 2 party system. So the filibuster is now a check on the majority party, Congress is a check or a rubber stamp depending on whether or not government is divided, etc. The legislature cannot be an effective check on the executive
because they support the executive when their guy is President. (Plus, deep down I think they would all rather fund-raise and bloviate while deferring to the executive on any controversial matters of importance).

In any case, the practical outcome of Moe's proposal would probably be these 2 things:

1. When the President's party controls Congress, there would be a flurry of new legisaltion driven; the President in this scenario would have a lot of power to enact his agenda.

2. When the President's party does not control Congress, the opposition party would be forced to vote down a flurry of politically embarrassing legislation. Since the President knows his proposals will be voted down, he can feel free to propose unworkable stuff that sounds good, all the better to embarrass the opposition.

I think Moe is correct that concern over legacy would be a motivating factor for every President, but he overstates it's importance. Because the long-term impact of anything the President was able to get passed could be nixed immedately the first time his party loses control of both branches of the government.

In the end, I find Moe's idea to be every bit as intriguing as it would be unworkable.

Lowell Smith writes:

I thought Moe's proposal a good one even though probably impossible to implement

However, it seems to me that President Obama did "fast track" something when he issued the immigration executive order late last year to protect a large number of immigrants from deportation. Of course, it has gone nowhere so far because some states have sued to block it.

I wish today's Econtalk episode would have discussed that too.

John Breslau writes:

Just a few thoughts:

1.) Mr. Moe's recommendation is, at its heart, an effort to prevent those tactics that prevent votes from coming to the floor for a vote. It is against filibusters, denial of quorum (remember in 2009 when Texas democratic state senators fled the state to deny quorum on a redistricting bill? hahaha), and decisions not to consider issues (such as Republicans not willing to meet to consider President Obama's Supreme Court picks). Under his proposal, such tactics would be irrelevant; the president would do actions, and the onus would be on legislators to prevent those actions.

2.) Mr. Moe’s consideration that we shouldn’t view the Constitution as reproach is admirable. It has flaws (not just slavery) that we shouldn’t avoid discussing. President Bush and President Obama’s decision to not enforce (neither was big on enforcing immigration law, President Obama chose not to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, etc.) or selectively enforce (IRS targeting Conservatives, President Obama not enforcing parts of Obamacare when not politically convenient, granting waivers from No Child Left Behind) laws is constitutional. (Recall President Jackson’s decision to ignore John Marshall’s Supreme Court Ruling and persecute the Cherokee as an example of how old this is.)

3.) Mr. Moe hasn’t made a strong case that legislation proposed by only the President is less prone to cronyism than legislators in general. Presidents may care about legacy, but they also care about doling out prizes so that they have a safety net for when they stop being President. Also, as Mr. Roberts pointed out, seeking legacy may make Presidents biased towards action when inaction is more preferred.

4.) Mr. Roberts did a good job of pressing back, but I do feel he prevented Mr. Moe from speaking from time to time. Argument doesn’t always produce elucidation of opposing views. I would have liked instead for Mr. Roberts to ask Mr. Moe how he perceives gridlock (Libertarians view it as legitimate, Liberals hate it), or ask him where he stands on the politically (even though there is little doubt there) to highlight differences between them. Mr. Roberts shouldn’t quote Kenneth Arrow; the impossibility theorem is a highly technical argument concerning social welfare functions and his criterions for rationality. I think people make too much of it, but more often just misattribute it.


Seth Martin writes:

Mr. Moe did a pretty good job making a case for his idea, but like a lot of government technocrats, he imagines that there is actually something called "A National Interest". Russ actually pointed this out, but Mr. Moe didn't really acknowledge it as a serious objection. His attitude was, oh well, not everybody is going to be happy in a democracy. He also looks at the government and its inability to solve these "National" problems as a problem of interest and privilege, as if these features were written into the constitution itself. The fact that congress privileges some groups at the expense of others is due to previous expansions of power and perversions of the law that went unchecked and led to precedent. According to Bastiat in The Law, if the law's primary function ceases to be the protection of life, liberty or property, then it fails to provide justice and leads to organized plunder. He also said that there are only three distinct effects of the law administered; the few plunder the many, everybody plunders everybody, or nobody plunders anybody. Which of these societies do we live in today? The problem with the law today is that it has become a means-end process. This is Mr. Moe's real objection, although it remains hidden to his thinking. The law is whatever congress says it is. Did we not break away from Great Britain because parliament told American colonist that, "The law is whatever parliament says it is." Mr. Moe is very smart for sure but suffers from the idea that the constitution is old as evidenced by the name of his book. The problem is not with the constitution but with Mr. Moe's lack of reverence for the brilliance of the document and the contempt that he and other busy bodies have for individual liberty. They point to some societal ill and guilt Americans into giving up their liberty to solve it. The problem is, it doesn't get solved but the individual liberty is gone forever!

Captain Obvious writes:

Isn't the office of the presidency imperial enough?

Sounds like he needs to read Randy Barnett's new book "Our Republican Constitution" - http://www.randybarnett.com/our-republican-constitution/

Bob writes:

Russ: reading the comments this week and last (and indeed for many months), you have a very interesting and intelligent community. Lots of agreement, lots of disagreement, and nobody resorts to violence when they disagree. Your comment section is a great place to people-watch for an interesting sample that clearly crosses many demographics. Many "factions" of humans are represented here to some degree...some clearly more-so than others. There's some flair a bit of childishness at times, but looking past that most people have a sincere and well-meaning point, even if they're mistaken and being rude about it. :)

It's nice to have a place to explore many smart minds. To see what stood out to them in terms of requiring comment (such as the many comments correctly recognizing your quite considerable talent as an interviewer, and a magnanimous host). To read about their objections to what was claimed in the interview. Assumptions granted and not by different people for different reasons. Overlay their politics, their economic views, their religious views, their biases: many of us see the world quite differently from each other. We all make assumptions about what other people should already accept as true when we start conversing with them. And if you don't recognize that you're speaking Latin to someone who has only ever learned Hebrew, you're only going to waste the time of both of you by continuing to speak in Latin. You have a high degree of mastery at successfully conversing with people you disagree with profoundly, and it's something I hope to learn from. Thank you, and thanks to your many very nice commenters as well. Cheers!

Gandydancer writes:

I have no idea where Dr.Moe acquired such an elevated opinion of Presidents that he wishes them to have more power. It will be interesting to see how that changes if President Trump replaces President Obama.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Matthew Whited

This is also false on the idea that government exists to "create common good". Government only exists to ensure fair exchange between free actors.

I must respectfully push back on this (and perhaps rather hard, my apologies). I agree with the first part, but not at all with the second.

When describing a mental construct such as "Government", the description must fit all examples of the construct. Let's see how that works. North Korea, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe are all examples of governments. Does the North Korean or Zimbabwean government only exist to ensure fair exchanges between free actors? Even if the 'only' were removed, that notion is an absurdity. Did the Nazi government, the Soviet Union, or the Khmer Rouge only exist to ensure fair exchanges between free actors? Not exactly. In fact, few, if any governments in the history of mankind have had any interest in that sort of activity.

I have an alternative view, of course. Governments exist primarily to facilitate systematic public plunder, to enable a ruling elite to lay claim to the persons and property of their subjects for the financial and political benefit of the ruling class (waging war and laying taxes), and to enact and enforce laws that privilege whatever ruling elite has the preponderance of power at the moment. Each and every government in the history of the world (the good, the bad, and the ugly) fits that description quite nicely.

Governments don't exist to ensure "fairness" (quite the contrary, in fact), nor do they inherently favor free actors (many, many, many are quite opposed to such notions). Nor do they exist to "solve problems" or "create a common good", as you correctly pointed out. Mr. Moe has a Utopian vision of government that is not grounded in reality (a common malady found with ideologues on the Left).

What seems to bamboozle Leftists is that many modern "democratic" governments make quite a show in pro-porting to "solve problems" or "create a common good", but its all an act, a deception intended to hide their true intention: public plunder and the financial privileging of favored constituencies. If the political class actually "solved" a problem, the rationale of their public plunder quickly would dry up. However, if the problems persists (or better yet, grows manage-ably worse), then the rationale of the public plunder remains (and often increases).

The political class can then milk the problem for generations, perhaps forever, extracting trillions of dollars in public plunder along the way. The War of Poverty, The War on Drugs, The War on Terror, "reforming" education or health care, "addressing" inequality, you name it, the goal is never to "solve" the problem, but to ensure that the problem persists with the end to collecting the public plunder needed to "solve" the problem. Mr. Moe, like many liberals, thinks that there is something "wrong" because nothing ever gets "solved". For the political class, however, there's nothing "wrong" going on at all, this is just what they had in mind. If "doing something" is what it takes to keep the tax dollar spigot going, they'll "do something" alright. In fact, they'll "do anything" no matter how pointless or counterproductive as long as it never solves the problem at hand. Is this same political class going to kill the goose that kills their golden egg on account of something as weak and limp as a "legacy"? Don't count on it...

Scott Campbell writes:

The constitution has been ruined by its constituents, not by its principles. To propose a solution to the ills of this country by empowering yet another flawed man ignores the reality of human nature. To pretend the law of unintended consequences does not apply in this instance is nieve or foolish.

Divestiture of power is the only real solution. Isolating the damage done by corrupt and incompetent politicians minimizes the damage done instead of institutionalizing it.

We need to adhere to the original constitution addressing only national challenges, not individual issues. The state's leadership need to cooperate rather than defer to some centralized omnipotent power to resolve their problems and conflicts.

The solution to our problems is not government. To invest government with more power ignores the 225 years of evidence that governence by perpetually corrupt politicians is parasitic or epiphytic on the prosperity of the populus.

I can not disagree more with the guest.

Tom Murin writes:

Dr. Moe is, at a minimum, incredibly naive. He doesn't appreciate that many of us don't want it easy for a president to "get things done." I don't want the things done that the current president wants to get done. Neither does congress. We don't need experts to tell us how everything should run. The idea of market forces and spontaneous order just does not register with them.

Trent writes:

I have so many issues with Mr. Moe's beliefs - chief among them is simply because a majority of Americans surveyed at a given time want something to be done, then our government should do that something. Russ did remind him that we live in a republic, and there is a real threat of tyranny of the majority, but Mr. Moe didn't want to delve deeply into either.

And I am in firm opposition to his idea to give the Executive Branch even more power. In fact, I would rather see the opposite - to see the Legislative Branch take back much of the lawmaking power it has yielded through the years to the Executive Branch.

In light of the upcoming election, I've been asked for the best-case scenario depending on which candidate wins. I do think that if Trump wins, there's the potential for Congress, fearful of what Trump might do, to take back power from the President. And that would be a good thing in the long run.

As for our bicameral Congress, Mr. Moe glossed over the major change in the Senate - allowing the direct election of Senators 100 years ago changed many things: It removed the one check the states had over the federal government (leading to the emergence of myriad unfunded federal mandates), changed the type of person who served as Senator, changed the way the Senate operates, etc., etc., etc. Instead of calling for more power for the Executive Branch, why not call for the repeal of that Amendment, thereby returning to a system of state houses appointing its US Senators?

Kevin writes:


Just from the econtalk episode I would conclude that the problem is not constitution worship - it is the guests Obama admiration. It seems that he is searching for a reason on how this amazing, brilliant, greater than life President has produced such failures as awful as Obamacare. So, he seems to be searching for a way to rationalize Obama's failures and a mechanism that if employed in a utopia Obama could do his pure best work and America could be saved, but Obama was instead apparently thwarted by his own democratic congress which robbed him of perfection.

I don't think Obamacare was a result of congress subverting a well meaning president. Obamacare was largely written by lobbyists and delivered to Congress by Obama's branch and insiders. Lots of legislation effectively arrises in the executive branch currently - just not officially.

Obama is a standard politician working for special interests and producing a muddled mess of solutions for "issues" that are of interest to the special interests he represents. Sure, we could let the president fast track. He will introduce legislation as confused as Obamacare. Presidents are not magic, they are politicians with all the infinite vileness that this entails - just like every other politician.

Thats how government "works". There is no grand savior that is going to solve our "problems" - its always a big mess at its best since there is so much disagreement, money, and power involved. All of this is evidence for distributing power as widely as possible and concentrating it even less.

Finally, the question from Dr. Roberts about why presidents/Obama do not veto bad legislation completely negated the authors proposal. If they care so much about good legislation that can solve all our problems they can enforce that desire by veto and demanding legislative discipline. But instead the guest excuses Obama for getting his hands dirty in the messy and ugly process of democracy with all its compromises.

Luke J writes:

T. Moe used the term "political entrepreneur," but I believe Tenderpreneur is what he is looking for.

Note the use of this slang term in S. Africa, where the ANC was just thrown from power on account of the corrupt President Jacob Zuma.

pyroseed13 writes:

I listened to this fully expecting to disagree with everything Moe said, but left thinking he made some good points and a fairly compelling case. It's hard to argue that his proposal would be any worse than what we have now, even for guys like myself who think a lot of policy issues should be handled at the state and local level. Skeptical libertarians and conservatives should recognize that his idea probably would reduce a lot of the political entrepreneurship that we decry.

Julien Couvreur writes:

Russ raised the point that although most people want to use the power of government for some purpose, those purposes don't align into a single aggregate purpose.
A corollary of this lack of agreement is that each one may want government to be effective, but only when government is aligned with his own goal.

I'm sure some Republicans might be lured by Moe's siren song (if we had a more effective government, the Reagan could have achieved more in terms of shrinking government). But those same folks may wish for an ineffective government under Obama (didn't Moe say they enjoy sabotaging Obama's proposals for no real principle or purpose beyond pricking him?).

Also, it seems to me that increased concentration of political power in one person's hands will only increase social disharmony as diverse people will fiercely disagree on who to elect (even more so that today).

CR writes:

I agree with the trend of comments above: Good job, Russ, for discussing respectfully with someone whose views are not only in opposition but seem to be both largely incoherent and specifically empirically false.

But let me add one point: What happens when the Congress doesn't vote on the president's bill?

The fundamental design of our government has no machinery for responding to that, and that's intentionally so. It creates an amazing rabbithole of bad, unintended consequences to give the president the ability to order around the legislative body.

The guest presents his proposal as a minor change, but the wiring that would be required to enforce his vision is a bit more than he's suggesting.

Gregory McIsaac writes:

An interesting companion to this podcast is the August 4 discussion of the Presidency of George Washington moderated by Jeffrey Rosen of the National Constitution Center:

http://constitutioncenter.org/experience/programs-initiatives/podcasts

The Constitution is somewhat vague about what the powers of the President are, and some of those powers were established by Washington's precedents.

A major concern of the founders was that the president be independent of the Congress, and therefore not elected by Congress. Some founders (e.g., Ben Franklin) favored direct election by all eligible voters, but Washington and the other slave holders would not accept that because there were many more eligible in the non-slave states. The Electoral College was a last minute invention that gave voters in the slave states disproportionate representation in electing the president.

John Hall writes:

I appreciated the first bullet in the comment from Cowboy Prof.

My main concern is how political actors' behavior changes as a result of the adoption of this policy. I felt like the podcast didn't really do a good enough job covering it.

For instance, what if the President could re-submit a bill as many times as he wants in a session with just a few changes? In each iteration of the bill he adds just a little more to get the support he needs from Congress.

Alternately, what if the President floods Congress with bills that it MUST vote on?

I think about alternate solutions, like if the problem is that there aren't people with national interest in Congress, maybe add some seats for people from political parties, like a mixed member proportional representation system.

Floozy writes:

Interesting episode but I agree with the people who think that the author is, I guess, misguided and that the Presidency is already too powerful. He said that the current system is not capable of dealing with important national problems effectively and then goes into the issue of urban blight under LBJ. All I could think is, "How is that a national problem?" It is all part of this school of thought that seems to think that EVERY single issue is a national problem and must be dealt with using the full might of the federal government. That gets us great things like Congress working on midnight basketball programs. In that model, I think we end up with a government in Washington and just administrative layers on down with no real government power at the state, county or local level. But then I think that small government is good and that more government close to the people is good. Urban blight in your city? Then work in your city to address it as opposed to looking to Washington DC for a blanket solution for many cities that suits none very well.

John Kranz writes:

"Who Cares What Their Interest is? They're a Minority!"

Interesting episode -- as always -- but some of us don't yearn for a more powerful Executive Branch. Gene Healy, line one!

Todd Kreider writes:

Just a thanks to the person or bot that transcribes the episodes and now with it more readable. If I'm interested in the topic, I listen, if not so much, I read.

[Thanks, Todd, and others. I do the typing of the Highlights. There is some info on it in the comment section here and in a few other comment sections. I'm not a bot (though some commenters may disagree *chuckle*). For the most part I do the typing over weekends or in occasional spare minutes, so there is sometimes a delay in finishing them. Most of my tech experimentation with automation to produce even a preliminary draft turns out to be more costly, time-consuming, and mentally painful than just typing them up myself. The new visual view does take me a few extra minutes of my jealously guarded time per podcast episode; but we are delighted that we've heard it's well liked by our readership.--Econlib Ed.]

Capt. J Parker writes:

The failure of Model Cities wasn't a bug in the current system, it was a feature. If we taxed everybody and showered the money on five to ten cities in need of help, who would doubt that conditions in those cities would improve? Does that mean that Model Cities can then be scaled to fix the problems of all the ailing cities in the nation? I would really doubt it. Such an effort would be in effect "taxing everyone to help everyone" which makes no sense (see social security's problems.) In the case of Model Cities the current democratic process nipped in the bud what would have amounted to a big urban planning con job. It did so by imposing an important budget constraint the architects of the program were specifically trying to do an end run around.

One other thing that didn't sit right with Prof. Moe's proposal was the fact that so much of his critique of the current system was directed at the Senate's filibuster rules. You don't need a constitutional convention to end the Senate filibuster, you just need the Senate to change the rule like the House did long ago. Dislike of the filibuster is no cause for calling the constitution a relic and advocating for a rewrite via convention.

Today, there is nothing in the constitution preventing a president from using his threat of veto and control of when and how Federal dollars get disbursed along with numerous other presidential authorities to force up down votes on unamended legislation s/he is passionate about. This never happens because the preoccupation with "legacy" still competes with other incentives like partisan loyalty and financial self-interest

Bee writes:

I must say that this interview was extremely disappointing to listen to this week. The interviewer permits the guest to make many politically loaded assertions with no push back. Cherry picking case rhetorical tricks is used largely unchecked by Russ.

The abuse of executive power is largely ignored by the guest. Further, the problems that can be addressed by the idea are poorly developed.

I find that Russ is unwilling to challenge his guests. There is no real search for the underlying ideas or constructs beneath the surface. Russ hides behind his current emotional perspective that we cannot achieve certainty thus all should be stated conditionally. While that's a fine approach at a cocktail party, it is not how reason or science operates.

Net, Russ is no longer offering a compelling perspective that engages thinkers.

Dan writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Andrew McDowell writes:

If you plan to increase the power of the President, or make a rule change that risks doing this after political games have played out, you should think about making it easier to remove them. In a parliamentary system, the Prime Minister can be removed at any time by passing a vote of no confidence in them.

Possibly the simplest possible scheme is similar to some engineering schemes for removing a single point of failure. Have a President, a Vice-President, and a Monitor, with the Monitor having only one power, the ability to replace the President with the Vice President.

If the Monitor fails then either nothing happens or they replace the President with the Vice President - no big deal. If the Vice President fails, no big deal. If the President fails, the Monitor replaces them with the Vice President => no single failure can stop the system from functioning correctly.

CougarNation writes:

As previously stated, the guest seems to be under the (unfortunately widely held) perception that almost every issue/problem needs to be addressed by the federal government. That thinking, combined with general power-hungry-ness, is what has led to the massive, over-reaching government we currently have.

Personally, I'd love to see a "do nothing" congress, although I'm sure that will never happen.

Though experiment - what if we had a 2-4 year moratorium on all new federal legislation and regulation?? Would the country suffer? Were it possible to conduct such an experiment, I would bet my life savings the economy would boom, innovation and entrepreneurship would skyrocket.

Michael Byrnes writes:
Net, Russ is no longer offering a compelling perspective that engages thinkers.

Wow. Wholly disagree.

Rob Weir writes:

Perhaps worth considering Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and character of Brutus for how a man concerned about his legacy can be putty in the hands of those with ulterior motives.

So why not hand things over to the United Nations, or some other single world-wide Uber-Leader? Surely his concern for his legacy would also lead to wise, corruption-free decisions?

Or why not delegate the power to the states, and rely on the legacy concerns of the governors? Or, for that matter, the town mayors?

Of course, if we want to elevate self-interest to a governing principle, surely the individual taxpayer, with his own self-interest, including interest in his legacy, could be enlisted?

Ruchik Doshi writes:

A powerful executive presidency would be detrimental to the country.The system of checks and balances is important. To a large extent the presidency has become more powerful in the last decade due to proliferation of executive orders and using the bureaucracy to short change congress. And congress is too happy for the president to take responsibility. Presidents don't necessarily do the best thing for the country. Sometimes slowing things down can be remarkably useful. For people who believe in limited government this would be a disaster. Russ normally you challenge guests a lot more. There were so many moments when I wanted to intervene while listening to it .

SaveyourSelf writes:

At 5:56 Terry Moe said, “[The American Constitution] is not actually crafted as the most effective way of solving social problems, like globalization or persistent poverty or health care or whatever the problem may be. Right?”

I was under the impression that central planning had been thoroughly debunked as a credible solution to complex problems in economics. Perhaps it is because Terry Moe is not an economist, that he did not get the memo. It is rather unfortunate for Terry's book that central government solutions are central planning solutions and therefore doomed to fail. It is not possible to craft a central government capable of “solving social problems" with the possible exception of the "social problem" of injustice. Unfortunately, I suspect removing central planning as a solution to worldwide and nationwide problems makes the remainder of Terry Moe’s ideas null and void.

Kevin writes:

I'm late to the party.

We don't need fast track. Any president could already do it.

1) Tell congress the President will veto any and all legislation on a subject that doesn't match a fast track proposal to the letter.

2) Introduce, via a Junior Congressman (the way it is already done), the specific bill the president wants passed.

3) Get out the Veto pen... if one ounce of riders are attached, veto and start over.

Constitutional convention avoided, and congress is trained to either vote on the President's bills as is, or be forced to develop veto-proof legislation. Win-win.

If we give the President this Fast Track power, then won't (s)he simply turn it over to special interests on a larger scale to construct?

Finally, I really feel like the professor failed to make the case that the Constitution is a Relic (and certainly not strong enough for me to buy the book). "We used to be aristocrats and farmers therefore now we need to put much much more power into a single nationally elected office." I'm not convinced.

sudoshuff writes:

So, how would Dr. Moe's suggestion help the following (very plausible) scenario? A president wants to nationalize the healthcare system. They publicly acknowledge and defend that agenda throughout their campaign and get right to work proposing a nationalized healthcare bill. It will, mostly likely be rejected in congress because of Republican/Moderate/Libertarian concerns. The president then goes on national TV and rhetorically tears apart the opposing party for not cooperating, caring about the destitute, moving forward, etc. The president then says they will craft a "compromise" that still moves us forward. The compromise is loaded with special interests and drastically raises the cost of healthcare on the middle class and above leading to widespread discontent. But...the bill does technically increase the number of people "insured". So, the president has almost intentionally spread discontent in hopes that the next president from their party can propose tearing the whole thing down and starting from scratch with a nationalized system. This seems like exactly what Obamacare has done and I'm not convinced the result or incentives would be any different by giving the President "fast-track" powers.

rmwTx writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Robert Swan writes:

Good discussion and comments. I'm along to cap the well -- as usual.

Like several commenters, I found the last two EconTalks triggered similar trains of thought; this comment will echo some things I said last time.

As others have said, Prof. Moe's suggested change (President's proposal facing Congress's veto vs. Congress's proposal facing President's veto) seems futile. In the classic cake-dividing problem, whether "you divide and I choose" or "I divide and you choose", the outcome will be the same in theory and, in practice, won't make a bad cake any better.

A few people have complained that the U.S. President is too powerful already. I don't think he's nearly as powerful as people think ("leader of the free world" indeed!). He is atop a bureaucracy similar in effect to the Yes Minister world of the British Civil Service. For all the rhetoric of Donald Trump, even if he is elected, I think he'll make no more difference than Barack Obama (who has had one or two bloviating moments himself).

Gridlock in government does seem to warm some people to the idea of dictatorship. Computer programmers know first hand about dictatorship -- even godhood -- in that they can, at will, create and destroy actors, give instructions in the certain knowledge they'll be carried out to the letter, etc. With all that power, it's sometimes amazingly difficult to get the little blighters to do what you want.

I don't think a real-world dictator has it the slightest bit easier. Even if you can find the most benign despot with the most obedient of subjects, not only would it be foolish to think he's going to make your life better, it's pretty doubtful he can get his own interests looked after. Mugabe might be better off than his countrymen, but has he done as well for himself as he might have in a well run Zimbabwe?

Moe's legacy-motivated President fails on a several counts. Firstly it isn't hard to imagine someone who couldn't care a fig about legacy. Secondly, even a principled President might slip a known bad law through to grease the wheels so an important "good legacy" law will pass later. Thirdly, and most critically, a President's legacy is an emergent thing. He gets to choose what he does, but not what posterity will make of him.

Dr. Duru writes:

This was a top-notch discussion. I will likely vote it as my favorite podcast of the year. I fully agree with Moe's objectives and think the idea for allowing the President to propose legislation is a great improvement over the current system that still preserves the apparatus of separation of powers and checks and balances. I am not so encouraged to hear that there is likely no realistic way such a proposal could pass through all the necessary hoops and hurdles.

I am buying the book on principle alone. I will reference it anytime I have to address someone who, as Moe puts it, is on bended knee worshipping the Constitution as a Bible and the Founding Fathers as (demi)gods.

Amos DW writes:

Not sure that you don't end up with a strongman. Imagine an effectively Manchurian president raised in an ideological cesspool who can use something ... say, charges of racism ... to bully the opposition. Now, imagine him pushing up-or-down legislation.

The notion that he's "looking for a legacy" and therefore wants what's effective and good doesn't take into account that the legacy might be monstrous.

"Fundamental transformation" toward the dreams of the missing Marxist father are, to any rational person who wasn't raised in that cesspool, and who ever spent 5 minutes of their life questioning it is a bad idea. But, it might still be the guiding light for a hypothetical president.

Cole Skinner writes:

Agree with so many of the comments here - Russ, we love that you treat guests with opposing viewpoints kindly. However, I must agree that it's frustrating when you let absurd arguments slide.

So many excellent points in the comments already.

Moe points out the pork-barrel legislation that congress passes as an indictment of our current framework, but never acknowledges that a staggering majority of that very same bad legislation is...unConstitutional. The Constitution (and any law, for that matter) is ultimately but a piece of paper - it's only as strong as the citizens who value and defend it.

He also punted on the question about why Pres. Obama didn't veto the ACA, knowing how much special interest tinkering had gone into it. "Obama had to sign it" is nonsense.

I am also a bit tired of hearing how that "relic" is not relevant for today's hip government. People either need to argue it on its merits or leave it alone - pointing out "when" it was written is not an actual argument and it's an ignorant prejudice.

Finally, if I'm not mistaken, the "aristocratic" founders had great uncertainty over whether the unruly settlers in many states would even allow ratification, so much of it was written specifically to placate them. The idea these aristocrats wrote the Constitution in a vacuum, without incorporating the existing fears and wants of the commoners is just inaccurate. Beyond voting privileges, what exactly did the Constitution "award" these aristocrats?

The framers were obviously a unique group of philosophical people who took seriously the idea of creating a just government. They were flawed, but hardly the one-dimensional Fauntleroys Moe paints.

Wade Baker writes:

Sorry Russ I just listened today 9-27-16, and if my points have been made, thanks for letting me vent.
* a political scientist that doesn't distinguish between "policy" and "legislation ". ???
* he thinks we are a democracy and you had to point out we are a republic. And I don't think he caught it
* I think Mr Moe doesn't understand that changing the system may (probably) will just move the problem somewhere else. I think the problem is a human problem. A more powerful president will NOT make him more virtuous. I don't think his solution will make anything better. At best his idea will change nothing or make our challenges bigger. It's a non starter for me.

Sheepy writes:

One thing that struck me as a European, which may not be obvious to the average American, is that Mr. Moe seems to be proposing something almost identical to the ordinary legislative procedure of the European Union. Under the EU system, the Commission (the executive) drafts and puts forward the legislation and the EU Parliament can only vote it up or down. The only difference I can see is that Congress would still retain the power to propose legislation on its own initiative, something which the European Parliament cannot do, at least not at the moment.

I wonder if Howell and Moe cover this comparison with the EU in their book because it's a real world example that we can evaluate.

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