Matt Stoller explains politics
I’ve never understood politics, partly because they’re complicated, partly because the people who do understand politics are so heavily involved they don’t know how to contextualize for people like me. I’ve come to think of it as a lot like finance, where there’s power to be had by withholding information, and part of that power is wielded simply by inventing a new vocabulary that makes people on the outside feel tired and hopeless. You really need a tour guide, a translator, to walk you through stuff to achieve a decent level of understanding.
I now consider Matt Stoller my personal translator. Matt regularly contributes to Naked Capitalism, my go-to blog for informed, vitriolic insights into the corrupt world of finance. His recent post on Naked Capitalism concerning Ron Paul and liberals beautifully explains how confused modern liberals are when confronted by someone like Ron Paul, who is both unattractive and on their side for a number of reasons. I confess that I’ve been that confused liberal myself at many an #OWS Alternative Banking Working Group meeting, when the Ron Paul fans come and talk about Fed transparency.
But Matt doesn’t just tell a good story, although he does that. He also give you insight into the process of politics. He peppers his story with helpful, nerdy explanations like this:
An old Congressional hand once told me, and then drilled into my head, that every Congressional office is motivated by three overlapping forces – policy, politics, and procedure. And this is true as far as it goes. An obscure redistricting of two Democrats into one district that will take place in three years could be the motivating horse-trade in a decision about whether an important amendment makes it to the floor, or a possible opening of a highly coveted committee slot on Appropriations due to a retirement might cause a policy breach among leadership. Depending on committee rules, a Sub-Committee chairman might have to get permission from a ranking member or Committee Chairman to issue a subpoena, sometimes he might not, and sometimes he doesn’t even have to tell his political opposition about it. Congress is endlessly complex, because complexity can be a useful tool in wielding power without scrutiny. And every office has a different informal matrix, so you have to approach each of them differently.
Another recent Stoller post that really blew my mind was How the Federal Reserve Fights, which explained Matt’s experiences as a Senior Policy Advisor to Alan Grayson, a congressman on the Financial Services Committee in 2009-2011. Grayson teamed up with Ron Paul to force more transparency at the Fed. It’s an awesome story, but my favorite part, because I’m such a nerd and I love my nerd heroes, is the following:
When it gets down to crunch time, as a staffer going up against a big force of lots of lawyers, you get really tired and cut corners. One obstacle in legislating is that it is really hard to tell what bills do, because they have multiple provisions like “In Section 203, delete “do” and replace with “shall”. You have to constantly reference pieces of the code and compare changes, which gets confusing. It’s like doing “track changes”, but on paper and with multiple versions. This is a problem software could easily solve and I’ve heard that agencies and (probably the Fed) have such software. But I didn’t. So the Fed thought we would do nothing more than cursory reading of Watt’s amendment, and rely on their validators who told us the amendment would increase transparency. And this is where Grayson showed legislative genius. We were exhausted, but he got all the difference pieces of the law, and spent a few hours deciphering exactly what this amendment meant. And he figured out that not only did the amendment not open up the Fed facilities to independent inspection, it actually increased the secrecy of the Fed. If you want the gory details, here’s Grayson’s argument during the markup.
I’m kind of wishing Matt Stoller would write a book about “How Politics Works,” but then again does anybody read books anymore? Is it better for him to just continue to write timely blog posts? I’ll take what I can get.