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January 19, 2014

Political climate makes it hard to serve

Last week I argued that while economists abhor concentration of power, politics thrives on it.

The motto for economists may be everything in moderation, which perhaps is why you can’t name many exciting economics majors, Mick Jagger aside.

On the other hand, we see many examples of excess in politics and among politicians.

This week I suspect we witnessed another casualty from the ruthless world of politics.

Our congressman, Bill Owens, has decided not to run for a fourth term. While most agree it is our loss, I’m sure few begrudge him for it.

I could not imagine any politician making decisions that meet universal agreement. But, when one judges the lot of another, I conclude that Mr. Owens served our region well and honorably by seeking compromise and building integrity, trust and respect among his colleagues.

To paraphrase the social commentator Samuel Johnson, politics is the last refuge of scoundrels. To understand why, I hearken back to “The Market for Lemons,” a concept that won George Akerlof a Nobel Prize. He deduced something you may have discovered for yourself. Mr. Owens may have discovered that too.

Akerlof used an analogy. Cars are complex machines. Some work better than others, even within the same make and model. Owners only discover the problems and peculiarities of their particular car over time. If they buy a lemon, some would, unfortunately, like to unload it upon some unsuspecting sucker. However, there are also legitimate reasons to sell a car.

The problem is that it is next to impossible to signal to the unsuspecting public whether one is selling a good car or is peddling a lemon masquerading as of high quality. Only over time do we discover the true nature of what we have purchased. We may, by then, suffer “buyer’s remorse.”

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