Barack Obama Politics

An Encroaching Technocracy

[digg-reddit-me]In watching how the debate over health care reform is playing out in the progressive opinionsphere, the same theme keeps being repeated: this fight – and the policies that come out of it – are a test of whether or not our media-political system works anymore, whether or not it is still relevant. This theme has been repeated like a worn-out mantra by progressives from Steven Pearlstein to Matt Yglesias to Matt Taibbi to Ezra Klein (and I’m sure a number of other authors I’ve missed.) There’s a lot to this – after all, the media coverage of big issues has been poor and our political institutions seem too clearly in the pocket of entrenched interests. Lies spread virally and can barely be swatted back. The filibuster allows any single member of the Senate to put a stop to any piece of legislation and distorts what Congress can do and slows down what it does. More important, the process playing out is messy – with good and coherent policy seemingly being the last thing on everyone’s mind. The focus instead is on hardball political tactics – which are more interesting if less important than the policies they are used to push or oppose.

But if this system we have now fails, what is being proposed to replace it?

Ezra Klein recently made the semi-obvious connection I made earlier – as I wrote about Obama’s focus on technocratic institutions as a means of reform:

[M]any expect the Environmental Protection Agency to simply embark on its own campaign to regulate carbon emissions. If you look at health care, ideas like the Federal Health Board or the Independent Medicare Advisory Committee are an explicit effort to entrust the continual process of health-care reform to a more agile body than the Congress.

On issue after issue, the gridlock encouraged by the filibuster is not simply promoting inaction, but extra-congressional action. After all, the fact that Congress cannot solve problems does not mean the the problems don’t need to be solved. [my emphasis]

His observation that this is where we are moving is certainly correct – especially if our political institutions fail to take on the long-term systematic issues of climate change and health care. But I’d like to see him take more seriously the consequences of this. What are the implications for the type of society we live in if those decisions of greatest consequence are made by these technocratic institutions instead of elected bodies? (Though it’s worth mentioning that all of these technocratic institutions he mentioned – as well as other ones such as the Federal Reserve and the potential National Infrastructure Bank – all are responsible to elected institutions.) I also haven’t seen much commentary on the fact that Obama is placing great emphasis on these types of institutions to make gradual reforms outside of the political process. It’s an elegant solution to complex political and policy problems – but it’s certain to have a downside.

Our nation has been avoiding systematic problems to focus on a worthless Culture War since the Baby Boom generation ascended to positions of power – so it is clearly overdue that we tackle them. But what are the consequences if we entrust “extra-congressional” institutions with reform and management of so much of our government and our country? We already do this to a remarkable degree – from the many quasi-independent executive branch agencies to the Fourth Branch of Government, the Federal Reserve. And though these organizations are – in the end – accountable to elected officials – they have significant potential to pushback and do what they think needs to be done. Remember the blowback when George W. Bush and his administration tried to assert its authority over reports issued by the Environmental Protection Agency? Can you see the pushback already building over the proposal to allow the Congress to audit the Federal Reserve on demand?

You can make the argument that Bush shouldn’t have tried to change the facts presented in these EPA reports. (I would make that argument.) You can make an argument for the independence of the Federal Reserve. But what type of system do we end up with if we remove politics and direct accountability from more and more of our governing institutions?

[Image by Son of Broccoli licensed under Creative Commons.]

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