The Impermissibility of Permission Structures

The idea of a “permission structurehas attracted some attention this week.  The basic idea of this phrase, it seems, is as follows: A doesn’t trust B to do some activity X because A fears that B does not have A’s best interests at heart in the “realm” of X.

A good example of this type of distrust is when you get in a car accident.  Both you and your car insurance company are faced with the difficulty of who should determine what “should be fixed” under your policy. You don’t want the insurance company to determine this, because they have an incentive to minimize costs and, accordingly, denote too few things as “needing to be fixed.”  On the flip side, your insurance company doesn’t want to let YOU determine this, because suddenly that “three martini lunch bumper ding” you got 6 months ago is deemed “covered” and repaired on the insurance company’s dime.

The point I want to make is that, at least in a very specific sense, permission structures can (almost) never solve the problem they are purportedly designed to solve.  In a nutshell, think of a simple model where there are two types of politicians: one type is “faithful” and the other type is “biased.” To continue to keep it simple, suppose that the faithful type of politician will always use (say) increased taxes in a way that benefits you and the biased type will use them in such a way as you would rightly prefer not to have your taxes increased for how he or she would spend the resulting revenues.

The idea of a permission structure is to clarify to you, the voter, when the politician is a faithful type and not a biased type.  As Obama said recently,

We’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for [Congressional Republicans] to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country.

The impossibility of “creating a permission structure” (regardless of whether it is through “third party authentication” or otherwise) is due to the use of the term “creating” (it is also doubly ironic for Obama to announce that he and his team are going to “try to do everything we can” to create one).  The math of politics of this post is a remarkably simple point that seems to have been closely brushed by many of the analysts, and it rests on the concept of “creating” such a structure. Suppose that a third-party authenticator could be found/created/cajoled—or even simply brought to everyone’s attention—that would lead voters to say “hey, cool—you’re the faithful type!”  Then think for a minute and ask yourself—why would the biased type not find/create/cajole such an authenticator?  Indeed, in many (but not all) situations, the biased type would have a stronger incentive to create a permission structure than the faithful type.

There’s always the possibility that when the politician is a biased type no such authenticator could be found/created/cajoled.  But, let’s be honest, that’s a pretty knife-edge case.  (I mean, have you heard of Wayne LaPierre?)  Also, it’s at least theoretically possible that the biased type is relatively uninterested in raising your taxes (and, accordingly, little interest in creating a permission structure).  I leave this to the side, as such a presumption describes exactly zero American voters’ beliefs about politicians.

Accordingly, the problem with Obama’s statement wasn’t the elitist/wonkish sound of the term, or the possibility that it strengthened a perception of him being unwilling to “knock some heads” or otherwise “lead.”  (Nonetheless, I do appreciate the irony of conservatives banging on the table saying “WHY DON’T YOU LEAD LIKE THE GUY WHO CREATED MEDICAID AND GOT BOTH THE CIVIL RIGHTS & VOTING RIGHTS ACTS PASSED!!!”)

…No, the only real problem with the statement is that Obama pointed out the man behind the curtain: many voters can’t trust “government” right now precisely because they have a strong suspicion that government is trying to fool them.  This is very sad to me for many (nonpartisan) reasons, but it illuminates the adage:

Never trust a man who says, “Trust me.”

With that, I leave you with this.