The Declining Talent Pool of Government

This is a review of The Declining Talent Pool of Government (2010) by Torun Dewan and David P. Myatt. American Journal of Political Science 54 (April): 267-286. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

The “benchwarmer” dilemma: You want your best 11 players on the field, but in order to motivate your players, you’ve got to threaten to replace them with an inferior player from the bench.

Imagine you’re a soccer coach. You’ve got 14 players on your roster, 11 of whom are on the field at any given time. How do you motivate your players to give it their best? In part, their personal ambitions drive them to play hard. But what “sticks” as a coach do you have to punish slacking off? You’ve got only one punishment: Taking a player off the field and substituting a player off the bench.

This creates what we might call “the declining talent pool of soccer,” or more simply, the “benchwarmer” dilemma: You want your best 11 players on the field, but in order to motivate your players, you’ve got to threaten to replace them with an inferior player from the bench. Thus, one of these situations may result: Your 11 best players might give less than a full effort (knowing that their imperfect effort is still better than a benchwarmer’s full effort), or your inferior benchwarming players might be the ones you put on the field.

The same problem arises when choosing government officials. The result is inferior governance.

The “Benchwarmer” Dilemma in the British Cabinet

In recently published research, Torun Dewan and David Myatt argue that the same dynamic limits the performance of governments. They’ve got the British cabinet in mind. With salaries and benefits defined by statute, the British Prime Minister’s only “stick” to motivate junior ministers is the threat of removal. But since ministers generally come from a small pool (the House of Commons), the PM can’t actually remove a minister unless the PM is willing to substitute in a less desirable alternate.

Thus, the longer a party controls the British cabinet, the less talented it will be at governing. Either the ministers remain in their positions for so long that the threat of removal loses its credibility, or else talented ministers are replaced with inferior ministers so often that the overall talent level crumbles. Eventually, the cabinet becomes so ineffective that that majority loses control of parliament, allowing the other party to start the same process all over again with its (initially) fresh talent pool.

Is There a “Benchwarmer” Dilemma in U.S. Elections?

I like Dewan and Myatt’s argument. It makes a lot of sense. It helps explain why there is often a “honeymoon” period after elections when the new government seems so effective.1 In large measure, their argument works so well because it focuses on the British cabinet, where roughly 90 cabinet members (ministers and junior ministers) need to be drawn from a pool of 350 or so majority-party members of parliament. After all, the soccer analogy that I use above might not work so well if there were 1000 players on the roster and only 11 on the field.

Or would it? I think that the “benchwarmer” problem from the soccer analogy can apply just as well to American elections. Consider a member of the U.S. House running for reelection in his district. The only punishment that his “boss” (his voters) can threaten him with is removal from office, whether in the primary or in the general election. They have observed the incumbent over the past two years–longer if he has served several terms–and they understand his strengths and weaknesses. By contrast, they may be mostly unfamiliar with the challenger, who may be a political newcomer.

Thus, voters are faced with a dilemma: Should they keep the star player (the incumbent) on the field despite imperfect performance, or should they substitute in a less experienced, less tested benchwarmer? Elections aren’t merely a referendum on the incumbent’s performance.2 Instead, it’s an evaluation of the incumbent that takes account of uncertainty about the challenger’s ability to fill the incumbent’s shoes.

The effect of all this might be that incumbents know they can safely underperform without having to worry much about losing their seats. Maybe that’s why over 90% of U.S. House members get reelected every two years.3 Despite all the recent hubbub about 2010 being an anti-incumbent election year, I’ll be stunned (like Sides and Yglesias) if that pattern changes much this year. Voters find it better to stick with the devil you know than with the benchwarmer you don’t.

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  1. guest Unregistered
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    What about the fact that, in the U.S. scenario at least, the incumbent may have been herself a “benchwarmer”? It seems the British example is more applicable because there is a singler authority determining which cabinet members constitute the “talent” and which potential members constitute the “benchwarmers.” How would that be determined in the U.S.?

  2. Posted July 6, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    My extension of the logic to U.S. elections is imperfect. But why must there be a singular authority determining talent? (Even if we needed one, the median voter could play that role.) The point is that incumbents know that voters would rather have the devil they know than the devil they don’t, and that dynamic allows for some underperformance, defined however you wish.