WASHINGTON -- Markets are mechanisms for generating and disseminating information. The term ``market failure'' denotes instances when markets behave inefficiently, preventing optimal outcomes because of barriers that prevent new products from competing, or because consumers receive insufficient info about competing products. Iowa's political market, called caucuses, where barriers to entry were negligible and information was abundant, worked well.
Like some other American arrangements (e.g., the Electoral College, judicial review), no deliberation planned Iowa's system to function as it now does. But Monday night the nation's vetting of Democratic candidates began efficiently because a critical mass of information about Howard Dean, most of it impulsively and imprudently supplied by him, had reached that state's Democratic consumers. They responded by slowing the slide of the world's oldest party toward nominating a political novelty unsuited to the national market.
Dean is a problematic product because the fuel that launched his rocket -- a combustible brew of anger, pugnacity, moral vanity and intellectual condescension -- severely limits the apogee of his trajectory. Television enforces intimacy with candidates and presidents -- they are in America's homes nightly. Many intense Democrats have had the fun of picnicking on Dean's ideological red meat but are now flinching from the prospect of having, or of asking less-partisan Americans to have, prolonged intimacy with Dean's sandpapery personality and equally abrasive agenda.
Gratuitously abrasive. Not only does he promise to raise middle-class taxes, he breezily acknowledges that because of his protectionism, ``prices will go up at your local Wal-Mart."
The evidence from Iowa is sobering news for the White House. It is that the Democratic nominating electorate is serious about replacing George W. Bush. It understands that, come November, there would be many more Bush Democrats than Dean Republicans. In 2000, only about 10 percent of Democrats voted for Bush. Dean would be the Democratic nominee most apt to drive up that number.
In 1964, Goldwater supporters had the theory of ``conservatives in the woodwork.'' It was that millions of potential Republican voters stayed home in presidential elections because the conservatism of Republican nominees was too tepid. Offer ``a choice, not an echo'' and voters would pour out of the woodwork. They did not in 1964. But this year Dean's theory is -- was -- that lots of liberals are lurking in the woodwork, waiting for a candidate as furious as they supposedly are.