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Backing into the Future: Reconceiving Policy Reform as Intertemporal Choice
Unformatted Document Text:  choice. In fact, the politics of distribution and the politics of intertemporal choice are, I will argue, causally inseparable. Decisions about who gets what and decisions about timing represent not independent dimensions of policy choice, but alternative strategies of response to a long-term policy problem. At the most general level, the baseline parameters of competitive democratic politics present reelection-seeking incumbents with strong reasons to avoid imposing short-term costs for long-term gain. Yet, the particular institutional structures within which politicians maneuver can transform their calculations by eliminating more conservative intertemporal options from the set of practicable choices. The rules of the political game – both macro-institutions and structures internal to policy regimes – can shape the menu from which politicians choose by affecting the feasibility of policy alternatives. Where politicians enjoy concentrated policy authority, they will likely choose to solve their long-term policy problems by distributive, rather than intertemporal, means: by merely shifting long-term burdens away from their core constituents, rather than by imposing short-term costs to invest in a solution. However, where macro-level institutions widely disperse veto power, reforms that would substantially alter the existing distribution of burdens and benefits may be effectively excluded from the policy menu. Where doing nothing about a long-term problem risks electoral punishment or ideological failure, but redistributive solutions are unachievable, politicians may find themselves with no safer option than long-range investment at short-run cost. In short, intertemporal solutions may emerge through an institutionally driven process of elimination. Politicians may not choose investment in the ways in which they choose retrenchment. Rather, they may back into it as they find other, temporally conservative avenues obstructed. By the same token, politicians in possession of the most formidable institutional authority to enact investment may in fact be the least likely to pursue it. In standard accounts of retrenchment, institutional checks on authority tend to impede reform by empowering the potential losers. Yet, in a choice among multiple paths of policy response, institutional 5

Authors: Jacobs, Alan.
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choice. In fact, the politics of distribution and the politics of intertemporal choice are, I will
argue, causally inseparable. Decisions about who gets what and decisions about timing represent
not independent dimensions of policy choice, but alternative strategies of response to a long-term
policy problem.
At the most general level, the baseline parameters of competitive democratic politics
present reelection-seeking incumbents with strong reasons to avoid imposing short-term costs for
long-term gain. Yet, the particular institutional structures within which politicians maneuver can
transform their calculations by eliminating more conservative intertemporal options from the set
of practicable choices. The rules of the political game – both macro-institutions and structures
internal to policy regimes – can shape the menu from which politicians choose by affecting the
feasibility of policy alternatives. Where politicians enjoy concentrated policy authority, they will
likely choose to solve their long-term policy problems by distributive, rather than intertemporal,
means: by merely shifting long-term burdens away from their core constituents, rather than by
imposing short-term costs to invest in a solution. However, where macro-level institutions
widely disperse veto power, reforms that would substantially alter the existing distribution of
burdens and benefits may be effectively excluded from the policy menu. Where doing nothing
about a long-term problem risks electoral punishment or ideological failure, but redistributive
solutions are unachievable, politicians may find themselves with no safer option than long-range
investment at short-run cost.
In short, intertemporal solutions may emerge through an institutionally driven process of
elimination. Politicians may not choose investment in the ways in which they choose
retrenchment. Rather, they may back into it as they find other, temporally conservative avenues
obstructed. By the same token, politicians in possession of the most formidable institutional
authority to enact investment may in fact be the least likely to pursue it. In standard accounts of
retrenchment, institutional checks on authority tend to impede reform by empowering the
potential losers. Yet, in a choice among multiple paths of policy response, institutional
5


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