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Edward L. Glaeser

Political power

Elected leaders can’t transform; the best they can do is muddle through

By Edward L. Glaeser
October 21, 2010

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THE POLITICIANS’ job is to conjure support by convincing voters that they have the ability to transform society or right the economy or end politics as usual. The economists’ job is to remind everyone that the power of our elected leaders is actually quite modest. As we head into the November elections, we must ask who will do the best job muddling through the complexities of real world government, not whose bright banner will wave most vividly in the sun.

Democratic political adviser David Axelrod’s technique for getting Governor Patrick and President Obama elected was to offer the tantalizing promise of a transformative leader who could radically reshape the Commonwealth and the nation. Both leaders, when in office, have suffered from such unrealistic expectations. Today, they deserve to be judged, not on the nonsense that got them elected, but relative to what any leader could have done.

The American economy is a vast capricious whirlwind prone to great booms and painful busts. President Bush didn’t cause the recession that started in 2006, and President Obama cannot be blamed for failing to bring unemployment below 5 percent. Both presidents made serious economic mistakes, but the source of our suffering is not on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is surely true that if the stimulus bill had been a few trillion dollars larger, the unemployment rate would be a few points lower, but it isn’t clear that somewhat lower unemployment would be worth massively increasing the national debt with spending on ill-chosen public projects.

Balanced-budget rules mean that the governor’s ability to impact the state economy is even more circumscribed than the president’s ability to alter national GDP. Certainly, the governor can support long-term investments, likewise infrastructure and better education, that help attract the smart entrepreneurs who ultimately create economic success, but those things don’t pay off overnight. Yet voters appear to reward governors for recent economic performance, even when that performance is completely due to luck, as it is in the oil states when international demand for crude rises.

Magical thinking about politicians’ power also seems clear in foreign affairs and political dialogue. It was always obvious that Afghanistan was going to be a quagmire. No nation with so little education and so much ethnic division is a well-functioning, stable democracy. And how in the world can a president or governor readily remake an entire political culture? The ethos of Washington and Beacon Hill was centuries in the making, and it will remain because partisanship and patronage both pay.

I don’t mean to suggest that our votes don’t matter, but for us to make wise decisions we need to think about our political leaders the way we think about our auto mechanics. Are they reasonably competent and reasonably honest? Will they do the things that need to be done and avoid expensive, unnecessary projects?

There was a time when big city mayors were elected with the same hoopla that still surrounds higher levels of government. No two men could be as different as New York’s Mayor John Lindsay and Boston’s Mayor James Michael Curley, but both entered office on waves of enthusiasm for a sea change in city government. Both mayors were less than successful.

But we don’t applaud today’s mayors, like Boston’s Thomas Menino, New York’s Michael Bloomberg, and Chicago’s Richard Daley, as charismatic paladins. We value them because they are urban mechanics, who get the snow plowed and the garbage cleared. Their political parties are almost an afterthought — we primarily value their competence.

Cities are much the better because less colorful doers have replaced rhetorically-gifted dreamers. Our state and national governments would also benefit if elections held fewer promises of paradise, and more commitments to service-related benchmarks.

As we head into this home stretch of both the gubernatorial and legislative elections, it pays to be pragmatic. Neither Republican Charlie Baker nor independent Tim Cahill nor Patrick will be able to create grand changes in Massachusetts, especially during such financially strapped times. They will be able to choose managers and be forced to make tradeoffs between cutting costs and maintaining social services. Running a state is hard, and the candidates are all serious people. They deserve serious voters, who realistically assess what their political leaders can and should do, and who cast their votes with scale-less eyes.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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