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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Keeping Score

Monday, May 11, 2009

Keeping Score

Too often, we seem to score political success by passed legislation rather than the measured effect of that legislation.  Perhaps rational ignorance provides an explanation for the behavior.  Rational ignorance occurs when the cost of obtaining knowledge exceeds the benefit it bestows.  New laws may take years to implement and more time still to impact decisions of economic agents.  Tracking the impact of legislation is a long slow process that may take years and would probably be difficult to statistically measure.  Furthermore, it is unlikely that anyone who has made the effort to be informed will have any impact on future policy beyond an informed vote. An alternative view to rational ignorance is that we may have beliefs that we don't want to challenge with fact. 

The passage of the stimulus provides an example of how we keep score.  President Obama and his allies count the stimulus as a great political and economic victory and their opponents, the opposite.  President Obama thought that it was important for taxpayers to be able to track the projects funded by the stimulus.  To accomplish this objective, he established the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board, but few if any are concerned with its actions.  The House Committee on Science and Technology's subcommittee on investigations and oversight recently held hearings on the progress of the board, and only three of ten subcommittee members attended (HT Drudge), (Joseph Curl.  "CURL: Stimulus oversight left up to taxpayers," Washington Times, May 6, 2009).  The three that attended were Brad Miller (chairman), Paul Broun, and Kathy Dahlkemper; they deserve special recognition.  Those that did not attend also deserve special recognition.  They are Steven R. Rothman, Lincoln Davis, Charles A. Wilson, Alan Grayson, Bart Gordon, and Ralph M. Hall.  Brian P. Bilbray was a tweener, attending one of three hours the hearings. 

During the hearings, Earl Devaney, the chairman of the board, claimed that he would have millions of inspectors general helping him police spending.  Why then did so few members of the committee attend the hearings and why were the hearings such a minor news story?  I believe the answer is that their voters don't think that the hearings were important.  They were rationally ignorant, knowing that the effort that they made to be informed about spending would have no impact spending, or they already had scored the passage of the stimulus as a victory or a loss.

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