Posts Tagged ‘Technocrats’

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.

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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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