Game Postponed

A society as huge and complex as the United States can run economically only on the basis of acceptance and trust. This has been true for so long it is no longer noticed, like the air. People accept the rules and generally follow them whether or not there is a policeman in attendance. They deposit money and trust it will be credited to their account.  They mail letters and trust they will be delivered. They sleep in their beds and trust the president will protect them. All over the the land people go about their business secure that arrangements will be honored and carried out.

A high-trust society is a low-cost society.

The breakdown of the speakership race following the withdrawal of Boehner's heir-designate Kevin McCarthy is a sign that this happy state of affairs is eroding. It's no longer business as usual in Capital City. Who do the Republicans represent?  Maybe not the Republican voters. "Republicans may be forced to solicit Democratic help to break their Speaker stalemate, Rep. Charlie Dent (R) said Thursday."

The Pennsylvania centrist, who often serves as a mouthpiece for outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said there is only a small handful of Republicans who can win 218 GOP votes to fill Boehner's shoes. The trouble is, none of them wants the job.

“We may need a bipartisan coalition to elect our next Speaker,” Dent told reporters after Thursday's closed-door GOP meeting. “That's a very real possibility right now, and I think anybody who's honest about this knows it. They may not want to talk about it, but they know it.”

This conniption will have serious consequences not just for the GOP but for the capital as a whole. After all, if the Washington Generals fail to show up, the show is over even for the Globetrotters. You can't sell tickets when the Washington Generals are on strike.  And the WGs are on strike. There's no prospect they'll return to the court any time soon. The conservative revolt that the media has repeatedly declared dead has at last become strong enough to paralyze proceedings, though it is not yet powerful enough to initiate them.

Yet for rebels, forcing a stalemate is good enough.  Washington may be entering a crisis from the cumulative loss of voter confidence.  The rebels won't seize the town, the status quo won't collapse -- it is too gigantic for that to happen immediately -- but the breakdown of consensus will make everything costlier for Obama.  Governance, already difficult, will become much harder. He will have to use cajoling, coercion and energy where once he needed only a phone call to achieve the same result. He will have to use enforcement and arm twisting in place of the former habitual deference.

A low-trust society is a high-cost society.  It creates a place where everything is governed by innumerable rules yet where things work very poorly.  A cop behind every billboard means a lot of low-rent cops.  That's why low-trust societies are poor societies. By contrast a working democracy is cheap to run and its economic life is generally unfettered and creative.  It is efficient because it does not have to carry the burden of an immense apparatus of propaganda and coercion to get from one day to the next.

What changed was the gradual evaporation of confidence. When the principals (the voters) no longer fully trust the agents (the politicians), what economists describe as agency costs become prohibitively high.  Too much energy will be expended brokering transactions between parties that don't trust each other. Unless trust is restored things will simply freeze up due to the costs of hesitation and mutual suspicion. Even supposing the president -- or any president -- can keep going without trust, it will be costly. There will not be enough lawsuits, executive orders or federal agents available to restore things to the former free and easy way.