Process is (almost) EVERYTHING

When I do a post on process, people often ignore the content and sound off on what they think of this or that political issue, or this or that candidate. I don’t care what you think about those topics. If the post is on process, all I care about is what you think of process.

If a candidate with identical views to mine, favoring kidney markets, NGDP targeting, drug legalization, carbon taxes, consumption taxes, deregulating housing, ending occupational licensing, etc., etc., were elected president, it would still be an unmitigated disaster if that candidate also corrupted the country and turned it into a banana republic.

If you don’t believe me, look at what’s happening in India after they elected a guy that was supposed to be “good for business”.

Countries with a sound political system, say Denmark or Switzerland, will generally do fine regardless of who is elected president. Countries that are banana republics, like Guatemala or Iraq, will be a mess regardless of who is elected. Countries rarely move from one category to the other, but it can happen.

It’s fine to talk about economic issues when the political system is not under threat. But when it is, the only issue that matters is process. Heraclitus said “character is destiny”. For entire countries, you might say “Transparancy International Ranking of Corruption is destiny.”

PS. I do understand the risk that bringing lots of immigrants from banana republics might change the political culture. But in case you didn’t notice, Trump was put into office by descendants of Western Europeans.

PPS. BTW, Don’t worry about the following, as Trump assures us that everything is under control. The stock crash was caused by the Democratic debate:

One day after painting a dire picture at a Wednesday news conference at the White House about the possible effects of the infection, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was directed by the Trump administration to not say anything further about the virus without clearing it first, the New York Times reported.

Fauci first needs to talk to Mike Pence, the resident science expert in the White House.



17 Responses to “Process is (almost) EVERYTHING”

  1. Gravatar of Aladin Aladin
    27. February 2020 at 18:08

    Curious, what exactly is your issue with Modi? Certainly he is a Hindu nationalist and that poses some problems with the repression of minorities.

    But the atmosphere that elected Modi was one in which up until his victory, Hindus were growing very dissatisfied with the fact that, well, they have a strong majority, but are still required to make accommodations to Muslims and Sikhs that didn’t exactly seem fair.

    Reserved jobs for religious minorities, having to alter their practices to take into account Muslim beliefs without reciprocity, limitations on temple building, etc …

    And of course it is wrong that, in response, the Modi government has started doing the opposite to religious minorities, forcing them to accommodate Hindu beliefs (limitations on cow slaughter for example)

    But the general argument that enforced secularity is a form of repression itself, as Hindu believed before Modi, is not baseless (see: France). Furthermore, India wasn’t some panacea of democracy before Modi either. The Naxalite rebellions, Indira Ghandi, were far worse from a political perspective.

    And from an economic perspective, Modi is probably one of the best prime ministers India has ever had. The awfulness of demonetization eliminates most of it, but not all of it.

  2. Gravatar of iluvtacos iluvtacos
    27. February 2020 at 18:38

    > PS. I do understand the risk that bringing lots of immigrants from banana republics might change the political culture. But in case you didn’t notice, Trump was put into office by descendants of Western Europeans.

    Couldn’t this be used as an argument in favour of the opposing point though? Even when Western Europeans elect a clown (aka Trump) everything still works out pretty much okay because they still fundamentally support all of the things required for a functioning political system (like Denmark and Switzerland in your example).

  3. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    27. February 2020 at 20:32

    We see increasing political repression and populism globally, marching arm-in-arm with increasing globalization. Process will take a back seat.

    Just the opposite of what orthodox macroeconomists predicted.

    The St. Louis Fed says globalization leads to income stratification. It is a reasonable proposition that income stratification exacerbates ethnic, religious, sectarian and class tensions.

    In addition, it seems likely globalization alienates populations from national leadership—-ie, voters wonder if national capitals reflect domestic or global interests.

    When the DC establishment appears more interested in the sands of Syria, or the plains of Afghanistan or the fine points of international trade deals with China than with Dayton, Ohio…then how should voters feel? I imagine this cynicism is worse in other nations.

    Modi appears to be tapping into aggravated resentments. Beijing is gearing up to make sure that Sino resentment is checked always and everywhere (Xi Jinping just threw a Hong Kong bookseller into prison for 10 years. Bloomberg and Trump like Xi. Indeed, I think Bloomberg has more in common with Xi than Bloomberg does with an average US citizen.)

    Sanders is coming on. Trump is in power.

    The Banana States of America, here we are!

  4. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    28. February 2020 at 04:42

    One swallow doesn’t a summer make. If the president after Trump is also corrupt, then it is time to say that the US is seriously moving towards being a banana republic. Right now we are at n=1.

  5. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    28. February 2020 at 04:46

    Also, just for context, weren’t most states in the US south banana republics for most of their history and up until the 1970’s?

  6. Gravatar of Njnnja Njnnja
    28. February 2020 at 04:50

    I believe it was the political commentator Michael Barone who coined the term, “All process arguments are insincere, including this one.” It is very difficult to have a reasonable discussion about process because it is presumed that the other side is just goal-seeking for its desired outcome.

    I’ve read this blog for a long time, so I know that your process arguments are, in fact, sincere. However, as the overall level of cynicism in society has risen, there has been a bit of a Gresham’s law of process arguments. Insincere process arguments that secretly advocate a particular outcome are widely made, while sincere process arguments that would help us make better decisions are few and far between (since they might lead to an outcome undesirable to the speaker). As a result, the level of “process-discourse” is abysmally low.

  7. Gravatar of Jose Jose
    28. February 2020 at 06:00

    Prof. Sumner
    What do you make of Mike Bloomberg practically trying do buy the nomination?

  8. Gravatar of Shyam Vasudevan Shyam Vasudevan
    28. February 2020 at 06:19

    The myth that the Modi government is pro-business should have died circa 2016. Not all right-wing governments are pro-business

  9. Gravatar of rjones rjones
    28. February 2020 at 07:06

    It is ridiculous to argue Trump is corrupt or an authoritarian, esp after the russia conspiracy and Ukrainian baloney attempted coups.

    It is not ridiculous during a pandemic to ask that officials speak with one voice to avoid creating a panic. If this desire bleeds over into disinformation then independent experts can correct it. But we dont need, during a near crisis, a bunch of mixed messages being sent by the government.

    People are scared. Stop all this anti-trump garbage for a while and actually do something to help everyone get through this.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. February 2020 at 10:31

    Aladin, Modi is basically a fascist and murderer. And you ask why I have a problem with him? Read the recent New Yorker article.

    iluvtacis, Hopefully we don’t change very much, but the rot tends to work gradually. Imagine 5 Trumps in a row—where would we be?

    Burgos, There’s some truth in both your comments. It’s time to sound the warning now, not when it’s too late.

    Njnnja, Yup, most process arguments are phony. I’d say 99% of pundits want either “conservative” or “liberal” judges. I want good judges. Check out my recent Econlog post on labor unions and the electoral college, for an example of how people are selective in their outrage.

    Jose, I don’t like Bloomberg or Trump, but I don’t mind billionaires using their own funds in campaigns.

    rjones, You said:

    “It is not ridiculous during a pandemic to ask that officials speak with one voice”

    Yes, if you are a dictatorship. In a free country you want many voices, with many points of view. Voters need to know that Trump’s view that it will all blow over by April (which might be true) is not the only point of view.

    As far as your other points, I don’t take seriously commenters who spout Fox News-type nonsense.

  11. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    28. February 2020 at 12:36


    Yes, my biggest concern about Sanders is not that he’ll be anything like a left-wing Trump, but that his victory will bring the Democratic Party closer to adopting banana republic MMT-based policies and a very unrealistic(non-realist) foreign policy. I don’t like the idea of Stephanie Kelton being CEA, for example, and the CBO being increasingly ignored, if not eventually corrupted.

    Process does matter, and also I wish people would keep in mind that even given the considerable failures of the establishment in recent decades, there’s no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Experts are far from perfect, but better than populists.

  12. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    28. February 2020 at 14:01

    What do you understand by “process”? Your criteria seem rather soft and arbitrary to me. Is it more than that the person in charge should not be an asshat according to your subjective opinion?

    But it gets much better. You like to call yourself a “utilitarian”. Wouldn’t you say that utilitarianism is an ethical theory that determines right from wrong by focusing on outcomes? And now you are saying that “process” is everything??? So which way is it? Scott, you really are a jester.

    But in case you didn’t notice, Trump was put into office by descendants of Western Europeans.

    …who were afraid of immigrants from current banana republics.

    Not to mention that most of the white people’s countries of origin were also quite banana republic style by today’s standards. That’s why they left in the first place. See: Immigration from banana republics is really bad indeed.

  13. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    28. February 2020 at 14:16

    There are fundamental process arguments that don’t reflect political ideology at all. For example, a President should not order criminal investigations, or even suggest them. Especially regarding investigations of individuals or specific companies, decisions to investigate should be bottom-up, evidence-based, and consistent with the law and Constitution. I don’t know why this is so difficult for Trump supporters to understand.

    Also, civil servants should not serve a particular President and should not be subject to dismissal by political appointees. There should be no loyalty oaths in the White House, except to the Constitution and the people. This is really basic. People who disagree want dictatorship, not republican government.

    Unfortunately, the Constitution’s many flaws are becoming more important than ever. The Justice Department, in my view, should be completely independent of the White House, only depending on Congress and the President for funding. We need a Constitutional amendment to dictate this, and that the Attorney General is alway appointed by the party with the second highest number of votes in the Presidental election. Make it explicit in the Constitution that any office holder, including the President, can be criminally prosecuted while in office.

    Also, I think we should put severe limits on campaign contributions, if for no other reason than decisions like Citizens United have seriously undermined confidence in our political institutions. Corporations should not be allowed to contribute to campaigns in any way, shape, or form, and any issue adds should have to include the name of the corporate sponsor, and there should only be one sponsor-per-ad. Even Milton Friedman had serious problems with corporate campaign donations.

    Also. limit individual campaign donations as they are currently, except make bundling illegal.

    Pay office holders and government employees at above market rates for positions with similar responsibilities, to not only attract the best and brightest, but to retain them and make them less suseptible to revolving door corruption. The President should make millions of dollars-per-year, and members of Congress should make at least higher 6 figures in the House, and 7 figures in the Senate, to list a few examples.

    I could go on, but what’s the point?

  14. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    28. February 2020 at 16:49

    I like the basic sentiment of your suggestions.

    It seems to me we already went through a set of reforms like that as a nation during or immediately after the late 19th century “gilded age”: Where we tried to implement reforms so that civil servants weren’t just all political appointees who were given to the winning party’s supporters. I believe that was called the “patronage system” and that president Garfield was assassinated by a member of his own party for suggesting reforms to it.

    In any case, it’s been a while. Probably time for another round of reforms along the lines you suggest. If we could ever unite enough to pull it off.

    That’s why I don’t want to hear from the Democratic candidates what progressive or liberal programs they want to pass. None of that’s going to pass anyway because the GOP isn’t going to lose the filibuster and they’re going to remember to pretend they hate deficits again.

    What I want to hear is what reforms they plan to work with congress on to limit their own power. That’s something the myopic Republicans might actually get behind (with a Democrat in the WH, it’d be dream come true for them). We just don’t tell them that the idea is to put in place safeguards to prevent future Trumps from causing more Trumpian damage.

  15. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    28. February 2020 at 16:53

    My comment above is directed to Michael Sandifer’s comment, not to Scott’s post.

  16. Gravatar of Akash Garg Akash Garg
    28. February 2020 at 17:03


    I am a Hindu who resides in the United States (son of an immigrant). My knowledge of Indian history is fairly objective, but everything I know about current Indian politics is heavily skewed by the friends I have in Temple. I was asking not out of any sort of malice or trying to impose my views in any way, I am just curious that’s all.

    I am asking because I am biased and because I don’t have a full perspective, not because I need to show your wrong. Go read new Yorker (an article you didn’t even link to) and calling him basically a fascist doesn’t help me and is just an uncalled for response.

  17. Gravatar of Simon Turkel Simon Turkel
    1. March 2020 at 05:25

    Critical point. Thank you.

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