Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Scando-Asian Calvinism is no way to run a city.

Is it important for politics to be entertaining? If you live in "Scando-Asian Calvinist" Seattle, according to Knute Berger, the answer is no:
Big-city bosses make great story characters, and political wards and machines are fodder for entertaining narratives. It’s civic soap opera, and you want your daily fix. But here, we tend to look down on politics. It’s too showy, too ego driven, too money obsessed. Larger-than-life personalities are suspect, pols who stand out seem pushy. Our inner Scando-Asian Calvinism sees political posturing as a sin of pride. Politics is supposed to be about bland, colorless public service, not showboating. Too, we value consensus and process, which can produce a potluck where vegans and the lactose intolerant can find something to eat, but it won’t be a gourmet civic feast. The best we can do is complain about slow-motion gridlock or argue about whether to tax grocery bags or legalize miniature goats.

One result is that our scandals are rare and usually penny ante. Did the mayor jump to the head of the line in getting his West Seattle street snowplowed? In some cities, the real scandal would be if a mayor was so weak he couldn’t get dug out first.
Berger goes on to relate the dullness of Seattle politics to the fact that serving as mayor of Seattle tends to be a career-killer. That's not exactly fair of him, since being mayor of any city — including New York and Boston — is a political dead end, unless your dream is to be ambassador to the Vatican.

But the bigger point that it matters whether your city's politics is any fun is true. A city's score on the soap opera scale has material effects on the quality of its government.

One reason is that larger-than-life characters make corruption less likely. Newspapers like to cover that kind of corruption — it's grand, colorful, outrageous stuff. Civil servants are corrupt, too, but their offenses are nickel-and-dime and they're too boring to be good villains, so no one puts in the effort to expose them. If some amount of corruption is bound to happen, better that it be sexy — not just because it's more fun to read about, but because it's more likely to be uncovered.

And the more fun politicians have, the less their government costs. Everyone in politics is looking for some kind of compensation — the satisfaction of public service, the thrill of power, or maybe just cash. Deny a politician the emotional compensation of being a "big man" in his neighborhood and he'll start looking for other compensations from the job, usually monetary. Remember what the deputy mayor said to the sanitation union under Giuliani in 1994: "If you don't work with me, you'll deal with guys who left a million a year law practices for the fun, as prosecutors, of putting guys in jail." Better to be in it for the fun than for the money.

The self-satisfaction of doing the right thing is free, too, but it's not a patch on fun as a motivator. Imagine the kind of person who would go into politics out of duty: he's insufferably sanctimonious, has too much money, and is probably better suited to philanthropy than politics.

Speaking of the rich, they're the only ones who seem to get excited by managerial politics. Fun politics, on the other other hand, is a cross-class crowd-pleaser. From Edward Banfield (as usual):
The tendency of the new style [managerial rather than political] is to produce cynicism and boredom — cynicism because its procedural principles can never be fully lived up to and boredom because, when self-interest is excluded and the public interest is understood in procedural rather than substantive terms, nothing of much importance remains. Politics was more exciting as a "game" than it is as a "service" to the community.

. . . Another effect of denying to the lower class the opportunity to play the only kind of politics that it knows how to play, or wants to play, will be to slow down the rate at which it acquires political interests and skills. The ascendancy of the middle-class ideal will have an effect on what kinds of people enter local politics and rise through it.
It may be true that I like colorful politicians because they make for better theater, but there are other, better reasons why "To Hell with Reform!" is still a good campaign slogan.

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