Posts Tagged ‘Reform’

Obama and the Technocrats

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Last week I wrote about Obama’s focus on using technocratic institutions to tackle the nation’s most intractable problems. I attributed to Obama a particular attitude towards our current media-political system – one consistent with many reformists – and then explained how Obama was seeking to push the change he had campaigned on, the difficult choices, onto these technocratic institutions, thus solving his political and policy problems at once. But by outsourcing significant authority to these bureaucratic and independent (and thus not quite accountable) organizations – from IMAC to the Federal Reserve to the National Infrastructure Bank – Obama was bleeding authority from elected institutions. At the same time, I tend to agree with the reformist critiques that recount the massive failures of our current media-political system to tackle most (if not all) long-term structural problems.

But since I’ve written this, I have come across a number of pieces challenging this idea from various perspectives on the left.

Mark Schmitt, an editor for the progressive The American Prospect, saw Obama’s approach as the opposite of what I did – though he focused on national security and justice issues. Schmitt agrees with the reformist attitude I attribute to Obama, writing:

[T]he idea that America’s “existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability” flies in the face of all observed reality. For at least eight years, those institutions consistently failed to deliver accountability, and the Department of Justice and courts likewise failed to punish some of the greatest abuses of power in our history.

But he is himself frustrated that Obama does not share it. He concludes:

It takes some discipline to understand that organizational culture, not organizational structure, determines success or failure. And it takes a lot of patience to wait for an organizational culture to turn around and resist the temptation to add a commission here, a new agency there. Obama’s organizational discipline was the hallmark of his campaign, and we can only hope that his unyielding insistence that “our existing democratic institutions are strong enough” will eventually make them so.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells writing in The New Republic strongly disputes any attempts to link Obama’s technocrats with Kennedy’s technocrats (as I did) – writing that the Kennedy men weren’t brought down by their knowledge and rationality, but instead:

Their error was an excess of ideology; they were not empirical enough.

He concludes that the brilliant men of the Kennedy administration are different from the brilliant individuals of Obama’s:

Kennedy chose as his defense secretary the president of a car company. Obama chose the sitting secretary of defense. Obama’s brainiacs–people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner and Peter Orszag–come from a different meritocracy than Kennedy’s did. They are not brilliant generalists. For better or for worse, they are experts.

It is clear that Obama’s technocrats are of a different sort than Kennedy’s – and I made that point as well. It also seems that many of them are students of history and have attempted to learn the lessons of their predecessors – from John Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s “best and brightest” to Clinton’s New Democrats. But I’m eager to see some commentary dealing with the fact that Obama has found an elegant solution to many of these intractable and politically fraught problems – from global warming to health care to financial regulation to infrastructure spending – an independent, technocratic institution that removes political considerations from these decisions and thus receives relatively broad bipartisan support. (I believe the independent agency proposed to tackle each of these problems has some bipartisan history.) And then to tease out what the potential implications and pitfalls of this are.

Because while Schmitt and Wallace-Wells make good points in disagreement with my thesis – their supporting facts do not undermine my point, just their broader generalizations from these facts.  Clearly – Obama respects existing institutions more than I gave him credit for – especially in the areas of national security and justice (and even financial regulation you could argue.) But it’s also clear that Obama’s solutions to many difficult domestic policy questions are to outsource the hardest decisions to incrementalist, technocratic, independent institutions.

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What Do Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Che Guevera Have in Common?

Friday, July 31st, 2009

 Answer: Not much.

But Democracy in America’s anonymous blogger seems to think that some of liberal bloggers Ezra Klein’s and Matt Yglesias’s recent posts suggest a new and profound (indeed revolutionary) disenchantment with our means of governance. DiA cites Klein who recently wrote:

[Health care] like climate change, is a litmus test for our government. Both are serious, foreseeable and solvable threats to our society. One threatens to bankrupt the country. The other threatens irreversible damage to the planet we live on. Responding to such threats is the test of a political system. And our system will fail it. We will not avert catastrophic climate change. We will not protect ourselves from health-care inflation.

Yglesias recently wrote this post I’ve noted before explaining how our current media-political system can be manipulated so easily by people acting in bad faith – and how that leads to bad policy outcomes.

DiA tries to summarize this generation of pundits and policy wonks – led by Klein and Yglesias:

Mr Klein exemplifies the generation of young left-leaning policy wonks, journalists and activists who have been formed politically by the reaction against Bush-era conservatism, and for whom the Obama presidency represents the first experience of wielding political power. Like Mr Klein, many of these young progressives are fundamentally moderate, process-oriented wonks who, long before the Obama campaign even began, had accepted that the pragmatic limitations of real-world American politics rule out any utopian, or even first-best, solutions to most public-policy problems. They have happily dedicated themselves to figuring out what kinds of reform are possible within the constraints of corporate and interest-group lobbying, ideological and partisan divisions, and America’s kludgey, creaking 220-year-old machinery of government.

But now, DiA suggests, they have abandoned this moderation and want a revolution – that they have become disillusioned about our media-political processes due to Obama’s lack of success.

Certainly, Klein and Yglesias are extremely critical of the processes by which policy is created and by which the public views and understands policy debates. They believe that this system is broken. But both believed this before Barack Obama’s recent troubles – as Yglesias himself pointed out in response to DiA.

What DiA is missing is that reformists (towards both the right and left, but here I will look only at the left) have long been extremely critical of our media-political process works. Just two days ago, in The American Prospect, executive editor Mark Schmitt wrote:

[T]he idea that America’s “existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability ” flies in the face of all observed reality. For at least eight years, those institutions consistently failed to deliver accountability, and the Department of Justice and courts likewise failed to punish some of the greatest abuses of power in our history…

As Al Gore wrote in his book describing The Assault on Reason:

American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.

It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I am not alone in feeling that something has gone fundamentally wrong.

Or look at Lawrence Lessig’s lecture on Corruption – which eloquently makes the case for “disinterestedness” as one of America’s key founding principles which has been since lost. Read Glenn Greenwald’s blog – which constantly points out the deep and serious faults in our media-political processes. Obama himself made a number of these arguments. Virtually every intellectual reformist has a “theory of what’s wrong” – and what none of them seem to disagree with is that something is wrong.

While in other times, reformers may have focused more on accomplishing something regarding important issues – temperance, Wall Street greed, environmental issues, discrimination – today, the central problem facing reformers is how to reform the system itself. This is the essence of the reform movement today – from Obama to Gore, Lessig to Yglesias, Klein to van Heuvel.

Reformers have presented compelling critiques of how the media presents issues; of how Congress deals with issues; of how long-term problems such as an increasing number of uninsured, spiraling health care costs, climate change, copyright expansion, and many others are ignored or marginalized because any attempt to address these issues involves significant obstacles and risks in the present for an uncertain future benefit. One of the key beliefs that makes reformers reformers today is their understanding that America’s political system is broken and that our traditional democratic institutions just aren’t up to the job of managing serious and difficult areas and making rational, long-term decisions when the payoff only comes after policy-makers are out of office.

This idea was the basis of my post yesterday discussing Obama’s focus on outsourcing authority to independent, technocratic institutions as a way of getting around our broken media-political system.


Is Obama Leading Us To A Technocratic Dystopia?

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Implicit in many of Obama’s policy proposals and programs is an assumption shared by many reformers (from here to here to here): that America’s political system is broken and that our traditional democratic institutions just aren’t up to the job of managing serious and difficult areas and making rational, long-term decisions when the payoff only comes after policy-makers are out of office. I’m not sure that they’re wrong – but I’m wary of the decision made by the Obama administration to focus on creating a technocracy to manage these areas.

In many of Obama’s programs and proposals, there is a bureaucratic independent or quasi-independent agency that is designed to manage whatever process is relevant to the program and that receives from the Congress authority to make decisions on its own. To the technocrats’ credit, in most cases, although the decision-making is outsourced to these agencies, Congress has some sort of limited veto over them. The appeal of outsourcing authority to these institutions comes from the fact that they are theoretically insulated from politics and are capable of making minor decisions over a long period of time which – if managed properly – can effect significant changes. The idea is that – rather than forcing through a controversial and wholesale change – you set up an independent agency that will gradually manage things in order to achieve the changes needed. This makes a great deal of sense politically – as the agency can be tasked with some anodyne goal that everyone can agree on – and as it makes controversial decisions,  politicians can distance themselves from each individual decision while still supporting the independence of the organization (as you often see with the Federal Reserve). They can say they didn’t vote for this or that specific proposal – and that they oppose it – but that given the authority of this independent agency, there’s little they can do. On a policy level, this also makes sense – as any attempt to push through wholesale reform is limited by one’s knowledge at the time the legislation is drafted. Better to experiment and try various small steps and set up different incentives to accomplish the same thing than to attempt to impose some pre-made solution. It’s also worth noting that these technocratic institutions are often supported on a bipartisan basis – while specific reforms are generally opposed by one side or the other. The appeal is obvious – yet the anti-democratic impulse is disturbing.

One example of these organizations is the IMAC (or Independent Medical Advisory Committee) which would be a technocratic institution that would set the pay rates for reimbursement of various Medicare programs and eventually perhaps for all government-sponsored insurance (as MedPAC does now) and also compare and evaluate what treatments work best to treat different conditions and make recommendations. Unlike MedPAC which simply advises Congress, IMAC would make annual recommendations which would take effect if accepted by the president and not vetoed by the Congress. The White House has been selling this plan as a way to take the politics out of Medicare reimbursements and restrain costs. A similar approach helps explain why Obama is pushing for the Federal Reserve (the organization to which the IMAC is most often compared) to be the regulator of those institutions that are “too big to fail” as well as tracking and regulating various other systematic risks – despite their role in the collapse that just occurred. What the Federal Reserve is known for is its independence from political pressure and its technocratic bent, thus making it the perfect vehicle for Obama’s efforts to reform the financial industry even though it clearly failed so recently. There is the proposal for a National Infrastructure Bank which would direct federal transportation money – again, independent of political concerns. The cap-and-trade program would likewise gradually institute dramatic reforms by giving authority over to a technocratic institution that would manage carbon emissions – distancing these actions from politically accountable leaders.

On each individual proposal, the solution seems compelling, but as an overall trend, it is disturbing. When Obama was elected, many claimed that there was a similar feeling of hope and progress to when John F. Kennedy was elected – and as then, when Kennedy gathered “the best and the brightest,” Obama has reinvigorated the idea of public service. But the downfall of these Kennedy men was their belief that they could “control events, in an intelligent, rational way.” Obama’s technocrats do not seem to have this same hubris. Their hubris is of a different variety: they believe that they can best manage complex areas and achieve needed reforms not through political action but by creating bureaucracies onto which they put the difficult political decisions.

But what kind of system do we end up with then? As rules and regulations are created by technocrats and then merely accepted or rejected by the elected officials. This system seems to resemble an oligarchy with democratic checks. With the Federal Reserve along with other less independent agencies already deputized to take care of most government responsibilities, we have already started down this road – but it doesn’t seem wise to double down on this approach. Unfortunately, I do not offer a solution – only a concern.

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Health Care Reform: Choice and Security

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

There’s been a lot of commentary and puzzlement in the opinionsphere about exactly how Obama is trying to sell his health care reform. Part of the problem is that our system is messy – and Obama does not feel it is feasible to try to start anew. So, instead, Obama is seeking to accomplish two goals with his reform: to “bend the curve” of overall spending on health care; and to provide some form of health insurance to those Americans without it. The problem is that each of these problems seem to be inherent parts of our status quo – as the health insurance industry has sought to drive down medical costs not by incentivizing cheaper effective treatments as in most industries, but by purging the sick from its coverage. Ezra Klein describes this business model most vividly:

Private insurance is a bit like a fire department that turns a profit by letting buildings burn down.

But, as medical professionals swear an oath to provide aid to those who need it, hospital emergency rooms and the government then are forced to pick up the slack. Thus, the health insurance model does not reduce the cost of health care but merely pushes these costs onto the rest of us. This is at least part of the reason America pays about $6,500 more for health care per person – as David Leonhardt writes:

We may not be aware of this stealth $6,500 health care tax, but if you take a moment to think, it makes sense. Over the last 20 years, health costs have soared, and incomes have grown painfully slowly. The two trends are directly connected: employers had to spend more money on benefits, leaving less for raises.

In exchange for the $6,500 tax, we receive many things. We get cutting-edge research and heroic surgeries. But we also get fabulous amounts of waste — bureaucratic and medical.

One thing we don’t get is better health than other rich countries…

This isn’t the only thing causing health care costs to rise so quickly – but it is the most obviously flawed compenent of our system and one of the drivers of the escalating costs and declining level of care. And it is very unclear what benefits – if any – our health insurance model provides. It is an industry which seems designed purely to create profits for a select few and disburse costs to the population at large.

Obama has done rather well in making this case – in attacking the status quo. But the question is: What is he offering? Matt Yglesias suggested, “Health care security” and I think that’s about right. Obama expressed the same idea:

Reform is about every American who has ever feared that they may lose their coverage…

At the same time, as Ezra Klein points out, most people are currently satisfied with their health care – and want more choices rather than less. Klein suggests:

The answer, put simply, is that you don’t institute rapid change. You don’t take what people have. But you give them the option to trade up to something better. As the theory goes, if the current system really is so inefficient, and your alternative really is so much better, then the lure of lower costs and better quality will persuade Americans to switch to the new system of their own accord.

The policies to address these issues are there – in some form in the plans being discussed. The measures that deal with these should be strengthened. And the positive case for health care reform should be simple, always repeated the words choice and security:

Health Care Reform: Delivering Security and Choice to the Middle Class

[Image by dmason licensed under Creative Commons.]

Ten Principles of Liberalism

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Barack Obama’s incipient presidency has set off a furious debate over what his administration’s principles are. George Will described Obama’s administration on this past Sunday morning as the Third Wave of government intervention and expansion (with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society being the first two. Will, for some reason, declined to mention TR’s introduction of the regulatory state, as does almost everyone.) Right-wingers from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin have described Barack Obama as a “socialist.” Meaghan McCain and Niall Ferguson deride what they characterize as a leftist agenda. On the other hand, supporters of Barack Obama’s candidacy have criticized him for betraying his progressive vision and defending the status quo. Others have defended him against charges of socialism and suggested he stands for good old-fashioned liberalism.

At this moment in history, as capitalism seems to have failed, as American international power is at an ebb, as globalization seems destined to continue, as the threat of terrorism continues to grow – evident both in our vulnerability and in the number of our enemies, as the nation-state which derives its legitimacy from providing for the needs of its citizens seems to be evolving into a market-state which is legitimated by the opportunities it offers its citizens – at this moment in history, Barack Obama has become president. The liberalism I am attempting to describe in this post is merely a sketch – but it is a sketch of what I see to be the right approach in this world – which as I have commented before, seems to have much in common with what I identified in the summer of 2007 as the Obama approach. As liberalism tends to be pragmatic rather than theoretical, many of these principles have regained prominence most specifically in response to recent problems in the world and with the Bush administration. I am focusing here on those aspects of principles which distinguish liberalism from other political philosophies – specifically, progressivism, various leftist movements, conservatives, libertarians, and extreme right-wingers. 

Here are the 10 principles of liberalism – whose three goals are to allow individuals liberty, opportunity, and community.

  1. Doubt v. Action. These two competing impulses are at the heart of all the rest of these principles. A Hayekian doubt about the efficacy of centralized planning coupled with a Rooseveltian (TR or FDR) need to act – to conduct “bold, persistent experimentation” while acknowledging that our “grasp on the truth is always provisional.” This balance was best articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote that while “We must exercise our power,” we must be remain aware that power corrupts even ourselves. Hayek similarly explained that “we needed to think of the world more as gardeners tending a garden and less as architects trying to build some system.” Liberalism was never utopian, but today’s liberalism has been tempered by the failures of big-state liberalism – as well as the failures of anti-regulatory “free” market fetishism. Only conservatism, properly defined historically, attempts a similar balance.
  2. The Market & the Government. Contemporary liberals reject the doctrinaire distinction between the “market” and the government that animated so much of the conflict in the 20th century. The free market should not be treated as some theoretical utopian ideal or as a perpetually lost state of innocence. And the government is not some evil force which must be reduced until it is of a size that it “could be drowned in a bathtub.” Rather the government and the free market exist together – and in a capitalist republic such as ours, each is dependent on the other. The free market does not exist in a state of nature but must be created by and maintained by the society and the state which provide the values and the rules and other conditions without which a market cannot be free. In other words, a free market is a product of a just government.
  3. Empower individuals. One of the key roles of government then – in creating a free market – is to empower individuals to participate in market freely, as individuals. A market is less than free if employees can be held hostage by large corporations and health care burdens1. To empower individuals then, the government must ensure that there is sufficient technological and transportational infrastructure; the government must ensure that basic needs can be met by individuals – for example access to health care; and the government must ensure that every individual has the opportunity to get an education. At the same time, individuals must be empowered to shape and control government more directly. Liberalism in a market-state must exhibit a preference for the individual over the corporation and government and must empower individuals against bullying and coercive measures of these large institutions.
  4. Predictability & stability. Government in a market-state must be predictable and the economy and society must be stable. Neither of these is an absolute good – both are contingent goods – as without predictability and stability, economic growth is impeded and liberty is impossible. Related concepts are sustainability and resilience.
  5. Reform. (Not revolution.) Liberalism has embraced a policy of reform – presuming that the status quo is not perfect yet acknowledging that rapid change could lead to worse. Reform is the balance liberalism strikes between stability and progress. This distinguishes them from conservatives who embrace the status quo over any change (standing athwart history yelling stop!) and leftists and right-wingers who embrace revolutions of various types to overthrow the current order as fundamentally wrong. The focus on reform is informed by the balance between doubt and action. Perhaps the best understanding of what reform means for a liberal can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s advocation of the word “tinkering.”
  6. Preventing destabilizing concentrations of power and encouraging fair processes of distribution. Liberalism acknowledges that power tends to become concentrated – sometimes in particular branches of the government (for example, in the presidency in the unitary executive theory); sometimes in corporations (as they become too big to fail); sometimes in a particular class of individuals (as they control more and more wealth.) Liberalism sees that such concentrations of power are incompatible with democracy and liberty – and that while such concentrations of power will empower certain individuals – they do so at the expense of most people. While socialists and communists and other utopians believe equality must be created – liberals merely seek to prevent extreme concentrations of power in the hands of any minority. At the same time, as Confucius said, “In a country well governed poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed wealth is something to be ashamed of.” Which is why liberals must ensure that power is distributed through a fair process. Political power has been distributed by a constitutional order that needs to be tweaked now and then – and sometimes shaken up, as with the abolition of slavery. Economic power similarly is distributed in a market that sometimes is entirely unjust – as pollution imposes costs on some that are paid by others; and of course with the issue of slavery again. Government must step in to ensure that such unfair practices are not allowed. The goal is not to prevent someone like Bill Gates from having so much wealth, as his wealth is small enough to pose little threat to stability no matter what he does (almost) – it is to prevent 75% of the power from being controlled by 5% of the population – which does pose such a threat.
  7. The Rule of Law. Liberals embrace the fact that our nation was founded “as a nation of laws, not men” and that laws, while sometimes inconvenient are the foundation of our social bargain. Our leaders swear to uphold the law and to remain subject to it. That means if say, a President authorizing wiretapping in direct contravention of federal law, then he must be prosecuted.
  8. Aid to the disadvantaged. Liberals believe in the moral principle that a society and a government cannot be judged without taking into account how it deals with the disadvantaged – especially those who are disadvantaged as a result of the inevitable flaws in the system we choose to embrace. Liberals subscribe to the idea that “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
  9. First among equals. Liberals acknowledge that America has often been and remains a force for good in the world – but they believe that it detracts from this when it considers itself unrestrained by any law or treaty and unilaterally imposes its will. This creates instability and unpredictability – as well as encouraging other nations to form collectives against us and to obtain weapons of mass destruction to prevent an invasion and provoke a standoff. Instead, liberals see that America has been most effective and done the most good when it acted as “first among equals” in the community of nations. As technologicaland macro-economic forces have been rapidly decentralizing power, America remains the single most potent force in a non-polar world – but it detracts from it’s power when it acts alone and delegitimizes the trust the world has given it to act responsibly.
  10. Diversity and federalism. Liberals – embracing their fallibility as human beings, and acknowledging that their grasp of the truth is always provisional – embrace diversity and federalism. Diverse viewpoints, diverse cultural, cultural, economic, etc. backgrounds all should be welcome and protected so long as they do not attempt to impose their specific view on those not willing. This is why liberals must embrace federalism – which has traditionally been a conservative principle. Liberals seem to be embracing the idea of federalism – at least with regards to the issues of gay marriage and medical marijuana.


  1. As Daniel Gross explained in Slate, “An affordable national health care policy, which could allow people to quit their jobs and launch businesses without worrying about the crippling costs of premiums or medical costs, might be a better spur to risk-taking than targeted small-business loans.” []

Quote of the Day

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

To give up the task of reforming society is to give up one’s responsibility as a free man.

From an essay “The Challenge of Fear” published in 1967 by Alan Stewart Paton, a white South African writer, liberal political activist, and author of Cry, The Beloved Country (which has been made into a movie twice – in 1951 and in 1995, and into a Broadway musical.)