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Crisis and Political Openness

March 29, 2012

I was listening to a podcast with Dan Carlin and U.S. Congressman Peter Defazio (D-Oregon), and an interesting idea came up. They were talking about why the American people were blithely accepting various civil rights abuses and increasing corruption in government, and Defazio’s response was that people are busy dealing with the recession and that they don’t have a lot of extra time to be spending on non-economic issues. It’s not a new idea; social scientists have known for a long time that people are more open to new ideas and willing to let their guard down when they feel safe. Between terrorism and the economic crisis, it should be no surprise then that our political climate is so hostile and unproductive.

I don’t know if there’s much to do about this phenomenon. I suppose it’s possible that politicians could cause crises in order to exploit them, but such a strategy wouldn’t improve their chances of getting reelected. People tend to reelect incumbents in stable times, not chaotic ones. The idea of politics getting better in times of relative calm raises the relative gain to alleviating business cycle problems relative to focusing on long term growth. People will support more pro-long run strategies when they feel like the economy has been doing well recently.

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