Those who point to the dysfunction of our political institutions generally raise several distinct but interwoven phenomena. The first is the increased role of ideology in American politics. Both parties have become far fonder, if not necessarily more adept, at abstract thinking, for better or, usually, for worse. Ideological polarization between the two major parties is greater than it has been since the Civil War. As has often been pointed out, until about a quarter-century ago there were always some Republicans who were more liberal than some Democrats, and some Democrats who were more conservative than some Republicans. This overlap used to express itself most vividly geographically and in terms of generations. Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy depended on using anxiety over changing racial relations to get the Democratic South to vote for him, and it worked. But those white Southern Democrats have since vanished; they or their progeny are virtually all Republicans now. In the meantime, liberal Northeastern Republicans have become extinct. Richard Nixon himself would have a hard time finding a solid place in today’s Republican Party; he’s way left of center in today’s GOP terms.One result of the disappearance of ideological overlap is that leaders in both parties feel freer to make broad moralist assertions about what is right and wrong in American politics because they no longer need worry about alienating members of their own party. It used to be that proper management of party discipline required horse-trading and understatement; now it requires rigidity and exaggeration. Naturally, a dialectic of vitriol tends to emerge from this circumstance, growing on itself to the point where those of different parties rarely even speak to one another, at least civilly. Getting to pragmatic compromise is obviously much more difficult under such conditions.According to many analysts, since ideological polarization prevents the institutions of government from reaching compromise, it thus paralyzes the government’s capacity to adjust to rapidly advancing new circumstances in the world—thus a link between explanation grouping number one and explanation grouping number two. Some believe further that, at a time of waning social trust in the United States, politics-as-usual has morphed into a form of identity politics, and those who anchor their personalities in political terms are not wont to compromise easily, or at all.1 Other problems compound ideological polarization, such as gerrymandering that produces too many noncompetitive congressional districts. There are also longstanding constitutional issues, such as the one that enables Senators representing only 17 percent of the U.S. population to control agriculture policy. The Senate, too, has balled itself up into a situation in which the filibuster is overused, and in which one typically needs a supermajority, not a mere 51 votes, to pass any significant program into law. There is plenty of broken institutional china to choose from.All these problems, some analysts reason, are exacerbated by aspects of technology. Our political discourse is no longer a two-way street, where candidates and citizens exchange views on a regular basis even if Republican and Democratic politicians do not. Rather it has become a one-way torrent of Gatling-gun like distortions from mass-junk mail and television ads beamed at citizens. The increased sophistication and professionalization of political consultancy, using the most advanced statistical techniques social science can provide, have also contributed to the bifurcation of the electorate by campaign professionals. To raise the enormous and still escalating sums of money to run a national or statewide campaign, one has to activate the core, but often to win the election one has either to move toward the center or, much more popular lately, to tear down the reputation of the opponent with negative advertisements. So wild ideological simplifications combine with attack ads to produce two-barreled campaign strategies that both disorganize our stock of knowledge about public policy and tend to alienate any potential voter with a brain.Of course, these dysfunctions at the top of our political system are well known, since some have been extent for many years. And there is no shortage of proposals to fix them, some wise, some counterproductive and most in current circumstances all quite fanciful.Among the most fanciful is the geographer Etzel Pearcy’s proposal, now more than thirty years old, to redivide and rename the fifty states into a more coherent 38-state scheme that, Dr. Pearcy asserts, would save at least $4.6 billion a year in fixed costs.Another is to split up the large states, like California, into smaller units in order to bring people closer to their government. Similarly, there is the perfectly sensible, and completely impossible for now, idea that when we do the census every decade we should increase the size of the House of Representatives to match population growth. We used to do this, going from 65 at the start to 105 in 1790 to 142 in 1800 and so on, but stopped doing so in 1910, even though the population of the country has more than tripled since then. The result that the original ratio of representative to population at the time of the founding has gotten totally out of whack—it’s now approximately 710, 770 voters to 1 congressman. That’s absurd. (Below, in proposal number 8, I advocate an even more radical way to achieve the same end.)Another proposal is that we de-politicize redistricting after each census. It is shameful what the political parties have done with this responsibility in recent years, but it is not inevitable that things remain as they are. California has removed the responsibility for redistricting to a non-partisan committee, possibly the only smart thing that has gone on in California politics in more than forty years. If California can do it, other states can, too. Congress, perhaps, could make them; this is, however, extremely unlikely.Then there are the counterproductive or plainly unconstitutional proposals, many of which are by now well known: term limits, a constitutional amendment to mandate balanced budgets, mandatory public financing of elections and others. We spend way too much time discussing these bad or impossible ideas to the exclusion of far better ones.2 That’s one reason nothing has changed.Whatever the state of play regarding dysfunction at the “high” politics, decision-making levels of government, there is also institutional dysfunction at the administrative/bureaucratic level of American government. This form of dysfunction, while less obvious and harder to fathom, is more profound and probably more important than the first sort. It’s not just that government can’t make timely and sensible policy decisions, it’s that it can’t implement decisions except in wasteful and often counterproductive ways. The reason, many believe, is that government is insulated from competition, along with those sectors of the economy it dominates but does not directly manage, notably justice and prison functions, healthcare and education. The result is that government and these related functional sectors are organizationally hidebound and risk-averse because they are able to avoid virtually all pressure to innovate and adapt.3 The very idea of a public-service union contributes to this not only because it protects bureaucratic operations from pressures to be more efficient, but through the huge power in numbers such unions wield as active fund-raising and voting constituencies in their own right.The dialectic of expansion and ossification of the American bureaucracy is no recent development. It is part and parcel of the huge and rapid enlargement of the purview of the Federal government after the onset of the Great Depression and then the struggle to win World War II. It is also bound up with a legal development that few well-educated Americans have ever even heard of, called for short Humphrey’s Executors. This refers to a 1935 Supreme Court decision that allowed the delegation of legislative authority to administrative agencies. That Court decision eventually led to the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) of 1946, one of the most important documents of contemporary American political culture that, again, virtually no one has ever heard of.This is not the place to go into the many ramifications of these developments, but, in a nutshell, they allowed Congress to write fairly vague laws and then let bureaucrats write the regulations to turn these laws into actual legal and administrative realities. This same decision and subsequent interpretations of it also reinforced the subordination of Executive Branch departments and agencies to Congress rather than to the White House. It means, to simplify somewhat, that the President of the United States cannot fire a high-ranking bureaucrat just because that bureaucrat disagrees with his policies. The bureaucracy is legally autonomous, and Congress, not the White House, controls its budget. It is for this reason that some legal scholars, including recently elevated Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, have proposed a more imperial Executive to solve the problem of unresponsive and persnickety bureaucracies.As the size and scope of the Federal government grew—and let’s leave aside for now the much-discussed reasons why it grew as it did—the percentage of the discrete decisions and judgments it made fell increasingly to the unelected reg-writing bureaucrats whose authority was ratified by Humphrey’s Executors and the APA. Most of the expansion, though engined at the Federal level, expressed itself in the states through the legal concept of cooperative federalism. As government grew, too, its transactional costs increased not arithmetically but exponentially. There is a scientific principle behind this observation: Whether in a given animal or a distributed system, the larger the weight the greater the proportion of bone (or internal structure) needed to support it.4 One critical implication of this principle is that economies of scale can in time give way to destructive diseconomies of scale—just ask a dinosaur. Bureaucratic creep, too, can cause the passing of a tipping point where growing transactional costs outweigh benefits from scale, and technological change can move that tipping point over time. But institutional arrangements are generally conservative, so it is easy to pass tipping points from economies of scale to diseconomies of scale without noticing the change for a long time.This observation in turns throws critical light on the common quip that American citizens are like little children, wanting a whole range of government services but not wanting to pay for them. This is sometimes true, especially in California for some reason I have never quite understood. But this plaint ignores a dynamic inherent to an expanding administrative bureaucracy. Most of the capillary-scale things that government does, and here I include local and state with the Federal government, no citizens of the United States have ever asked them to do. Rather, these functions inhere logically to the nature of administrative systems.5A law may ask regulators to accomplish a certain goal without legislators having thought through what may be involved. It is natural to an administrative bureaucracy to want to cover all bets in getting the assigned job done, not least because that tends to widen the permanent base of its budget share. But it is just as true and probably more relevant that attempts to affect any social environment tend to beg the efficacy of each successive generation of rules whenever the definition of the mission is inherently open-ended. In such circumstances, every administration-bound definition or rule-set tends to sire more specific definitions and rule-sets as the generic, open-ended goal of the organization—say, safety in the work place, or environmental health, or national security—proves both expansive by dint of progressive success and hence eternally elusive. Thanks to Humphrey’s Executors, there is no practical limit on how far bureaucracies can push out their standard operating procedures except the amount of money Congress provides them. And Congress tends not to say “no” very often, because who wants to be accused of making work places unsafe, of polluting some asthmatic’s air, or of jeopardizing American security?Thanks to this natural dynamic, bureaucracies tend to violate Occam’s Razor in spades in the form of administrative mission creep unless someone from on high stops them. If no one does, then over time the accumulation of such overreaching leads to a bureaucratic metabolism that is at once large and slow—like a whale heart—trying to circulate managerial blood to an enormous amount of tissue. This has nothing whatsoever to do with what any citizen with even a scintilla of common sense (except if he or she happens to be a self-interested lawyer) would knowingly ask a government to do. The point is that the gratuitous complexification of routine and often functionally marginal administrative procedures is unhelpful, to say the least—and it does not come cheap.That’s not all. The paradox is that the Federal government today is both too large and too small at the same time. It is too large in what it promises to do, and too small to be able to do it—the later partly a reaction to the longstanding and hardly arcane complaint that government is too ponderous. The solution—you remember Al Gore “reinventing government”, right?—was contracting, a domestic form of outsourcing. We have applied it with alacrity to logistical support within the military. This same approach characterized the way the Bush Administration set up the new Department of Homeland Security, and the result has been disastrous.6 All this looked like making government smaller at first blush, but not if you read the fine budget print. What it actually created, as Don Kettl puts it, is “a bigger government with more shared responsibility [that] has created a system in which no one is fully accountable for anything government does” on the level of providing basic services.7In such a system it becomes impossible to follow the money from authorization and appropriation to who actually spends it and how. A lack of accountability all through the sprawling network of middle managers and accountants tends to bring out the worst in human nature, too. How else can Amtrak, with a captive clientele, manage to lose money—and not a small amount of money either—selling food? Largely because, we are advised, workers all along the supply chain are stealing it, and no one seems to think they are responsible for stopping the theft.This datum, breathtaking as it is, is just a single dot in a huge matrix of third-party payments, obscure and non-interoperable accounting methods and look-the-other-way public-union-protected bureaucratic careerism. As outrageous as the Amtrak example is, take a wild guess what the whole picture looks like. A recent Institute of Medicine report estimate that 30 cents out of every dollar spent on medical care in the United States is squandered through unnecessary care, byzantine paperwork, not least of it caused by the extremely expensive and counterproductive HIPPA regulations, and outright fraud. That’s 30 percent, or roughly $750 billion each year in waste. Why? In part because in very large, essentially unaccountable bureaucracies shielded from best-practice competition by their association with government, it’s no one’s job to stop this sort of waste.8Moreover, as the administrative bureaucracy of government and its related functional domains has both grown and become less effective at the same time, the quotidian habits of democracy have atrophied. Economists and social scientists interested in economic behavior sometimes use the phrase “rational ignorance.” What they mean by this is that small capillary-level regulatory decisions that government makes by the tens of thousands each year are much too insignificant for citizens to know about, to care about, or certainly to rouse themselves to do anything about. It doesn’t make sense for the average person to spend time and energy becoming knowledgeable about such small-bore policy debates, especially if it depends on esoteric technical or scientific knowledge that is not easy to come by. It makes even less sense to care about these things if legislators are not making the actual decisions, while bureaucrats and contractor personnel are. The more that government is taken up with such below-the-radar kinds of arguments and judgments, the more the average citizen tends to feel that this is really none of his or her business. And of course, the larger the scope of government authority and the more detailed its managerial purview grows to be, the more rational ignorance and political passivity condition the sense of what it means to be a citizen in this American democracy.The result of this is, among other things, to open the door wide indeed for the logic of collective action; small numbers of people who care about these kinds of decisions are very likely to get their way if nobody else can be bothered to object. This, too, is not a new insight. Before Mancur Olson put his finger on this phenomenon in the 20th century came William Graham Sumner in the second half of the 19th, and before Sumner came Condy Raguet in the first half of it.9The problem here, as everyone concerned with this issue has recognized, is that these small-bore decisions multiply and compound themselves over time, ultimately creating a corpus of government behavior that tilts the playing field toward special interests and against the general welfare. (This is not corruption as such, at least not yet, but as a famous folksinger once said, you don’t need a weathervane to know which way the wind is blowing. Discussion of the third grouping is coming soon to an essay near you.) Therefore, when a critical political mass of citizens does espy a genuinely salient public policy issue and wants to weigh in, at least the citizens who can manage to tear themselves away from the lowbrow allures of our politically anesthetizing celebrity culture, it often turns out that reality has already been shaped by relentless, persistent and personalized lobbying in such a way as to bias or at least limit the range of outcomes of salient-issue political engagements.If one takes together all these aspects of dysfunction relevant to the administrative/bureaucratic functions of the Federal government, and leaves aside the polarized high politics of decision-making for a moment, a view of deep damage accumulating over time at the metaphorical cellular level of governance emerges. If one wants to push the anatomical metaphor a bit further, one might describe it as septic. It doesn’t matter what the brain thinks or wants or orders, for nothing it can do will offset the underlying condition that distorts, thwarts or mashes up every well-intentioned programmatic signal that comes down.It is largely on account of all this that a group of Republicans, beginning in the middle to late 1970s, could accuse government itself of being the problem rather than the solution to national challenges. Corporate-friendly Republicans did not mind the logic of collective action when it worked to the benefit of business interests, as it usually did. But not all Republicans were corporate-friendly back then just as the Tea Party movement today, in its rare lucid moments, is capable of knowing corporate welfare when it sees it. Moreover, not all the special interests getting their licks in were pro-business; the aforementioned public service unions, trial lawyers, one-issue activists of various kinds and others besides figured out how to play the logic-of-collective-action game as well.These anti-government Republicans were not just whistling Dixie; they had a point, although a point that they took way too far, with disastrous consequences ever since. It is not just that large numbers of Americans don’t trust government to be effective stewards of their tax dollars—who can really blame them for that? It’s that they are alienated from government itself as a democratic decision-making system, the result being that they don’t want to cure the sick baby but, as Frank has phrased it, drown it in the bathtub instead.It is important to be clear about what this means politically. Blue-model liberals either do not or refuse to understand the basis of this criticism, so they think it is disingenuous from the get-go. It’s all just a cover for selfishness; Grover Norquist doesn’t actually believe the nonsense he spouts about “starving the beast” to get runaway government under control, or the absurd myth holding that tax rates are the only factor that really counts when it comes to economic growth and jobs creation. This is just the way Republicans appeal to the baseness of the base of the rich people to whom they cater. This accusation is both true and not true. Republicans have indeed made an art out of appealing successfully to selfishness. It’s hard to imagine a better example than the Family Business Estate Tax Coalition, the group of super-wealthy families that have attacked the estate tax since the early 1990s, and apparently now stand on the verge of complete victory. But yes, actually, Norquist does believe what he says and, as I have suggested, his view of “the beast”, however rigid, extreme and harmful it may be, is not without some basis in reality. (The tax “argument”, on the other hand, has no basis in reality at all.)Speaking of rigid, extreme and harmful, the ideological turn in American high politics has a tendency to transform any analysis of government efficiency and effectiveness into a passion play, a morality tale of good guys and bad guys with little to no gray area of nuance in between. Here is where the two aspects of political/institutional dysfunction—the high politics/decision-making aspect and the bureaucratic/administrative aspect—join to form a genuine monster. It’s why, I suspect, it is so common to hear bureaucrats and administrators demonized together as an evil coven of surly DMV employees. It’s the American way; we incline to turn everything, particularly foreign policy, into a secularized version of a John Calvin sermon. But this rap isn’t true, of course. Bureaucrats aren’t bad people, merely self-interested ones enmeshed in a system over which they themselves have scant control. In a system that no longer works very well, however, that’s all they need to be to get most everyone else pissed off at them.The result of the combination of selfish and principled opposition to taxation is of course the Tea Party, which has all but turned the Republican Party into an insurgent movement within American politics. This is not the place for an extended analysis of the Republican Party. Suffice it to say that throughout the 20th century there has never been a single or unified tendency in the GOP. To simplify somewhat, it has had its pro-big business wing, its populist “moral majority” wing, and its libertarian wing. The views of these three wings sometimes overlap and sometimes conflict, depending upon the issue on the table, but they are not in principle fully reconcilable. That is why when one wing rises in prominence, the other two usually work to limit that rise. The Tea Party is unusual because it constitutes a two-winged Republican movement, which is largely why it has been able to fly so far so fast: It comes out of both the populist (selfish anti-taxation) and libertarian (principled anti-taxation) wings. Yet it is funded largely by big business (not least the Koch Brothers) for its own purposes. This is fundamentally manipulative, an attempt to harness and turn the energies of this movement in a direction that betrays its own populist instincts.10 It will be interesting to see if and when the Tea Party types ever catch on to this, and what they then do about it.However that drama turns out, it should go nearly without saying that, to the extent that we have a significant caucus within our body politic that rules out the possibility of effective government policy as a premise, then to that extent it’s going to be hard to get anything constructive done. That attitude, if grown pervasive enough, will paralyze any institutional arrangement, even an effective one, if we can figure out what one would look like under present circumstances. These days this argument is joined over the pre-eminent question of the Federal budget deficit. But it doesn’t take a budget deficit to join this argument, because the argument was born and grew more popular, with no little responsibility falling on Ronald Reagan, at a time when deficits were far less menacing than they are today.Clearly, a general anti-tax bias is on the rise in our land, which helps to explain why the current presidential campaign has been so boring, and until fairly recently so bereft of any actual ideas. Governor Romney did promulgate his 59-varieties jobs plan early in the political season, but he has not emphasized that during the heart of the campaign, preferring instead to aim his rhetoric at needed government cutbacks and rescissions. While some creativity can be involved in this, as with the Romney-Ryan Medicare proposal, the general thrust of the approach tends to be boring even if one agrees with it. This same bias makes it dangerous politically for President Obama to propose anything new and bold, so he hasn’t. Mistaking the meaning of his 2008 “mandate”, thinking he was the next FDR, he did get bold with healthcare and saw what happened: It tanked his popularity, which has remained pretty much tanked ever since. As a rule, too, the liberal Left in American (as well as West European) politics for many years now has thought of itself as mere custodians of the welfare state devised in the postwar era and “perfected”, in the view of many, in the middle1960s. They have tried to expand the welfare state at moments that seemed either politically propitious or otherwise necessary, but it has been many years since this school of American politics has had a new idea. Instead, with money scarcer and the Republicans challenging their basic premise, Obama and company have their hands full with a rearguard defense of the “blue” status quo. You don’t get new thinking from that.The two ideological poles of American politics today, one blue, one red, are both one-eyed, and so perennially look past each other. Ideological liberals believe that government is the way to solve all problems, and that we are a wealthy enough nation to afford such solutions if only our politicians will tax our wealthy at historically “normal” rates—meaning the rates roughly between about 1940 and 1990. Most will claim that they believe in the efficacy of markets, all else equal, but that markets are not automatically efficient, especially when corrupted by corporate lobbying, and that there are some domains of social life that should not be subject to full-frontal economic rationality. Many justify redistributional policies by reasoning that corporate plundering and greed creates the need for them in the first place. But with one eye closed, they see nothing wrong with how government works today.Ideological conservatives, on the other hand, believe that government cannot do anything right (except maybe national defense), and that what it does do is usually counterproductive since it distorts free markets to benefit those not pulling their own weight—the hangers-on, sycophants, self-styled victims and modern-day courtiers who suck from the ample teets of big government. Some will admit that markets can be imperfect, but with the other eye closed they are blind to systematic efforts by the plutocracy to avoid paying taxes and usually insist that government attempts to bound or regulate markets invariably lead to even worse consequences.There is no need to choose between these accusations. If we open both of our eyes for a change, we ought to be able to discern some truths, as well as many exaggerations and outright falsehoods, in both points of view. The old blue big government model no longer works under current global economic and demographic conditions, and those who defend it, while they think of themselves as progressives, are actually reactionaries. In that, Republicans are right. But anti-government Republicans, those of the now ascendant libertarian persuasion in particular, have completely left the reservation of logic and common sense—and in that Democrats are right. Libertarian and most Tea Party Republicans believe, and Charles Murray said this to me in so many words, that government is incapable of creating social capital; it can only destroy it.11 They say this despite the history of the Homestead Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the GI Bill—we will return to these histories before long—and they say it, too, with the assumed conviction that while government can only destroy social capital, huge agglomerations of corporate power cannot, or at any rate do not, do so.As I see it, both the liberal pro-“blue” and the conservative anti-government narratives are backward-looking, which is why the 2012 election campaign has been so frustrating to observe. Yes, it’s true, we have a clear choice with Paul Ryan and his budget plan joined Governor Romney on the GOP ticket: Americans can choose, it seems, whether they want a government that consumes 30-40 percent of GNP under a blue model, or a 15-25 percent under a red model. The only problem is that the way the choice is presented by the parties gives us the option of going back to 1965, or to 1925. Obviously, we can’t do that, and we shouldn’t want to.America’s political institutions are so fouled up at both the politics/decision-making and the bureaucratic/administrative levels that one can actually make a plausible case that all the variance we are trying to account for lives here. One can make this case regardless of political affinities, too. Liberals argue that our economic situation, touched off by the financial collapse of autumn 2008, is all the fault of anti-government, market-fundamentalist types obsessed with deregulation. Conservatives argue that our economic situation is what it is because we are hopelessly in debt thanks to the futile and counterproductive meliorist entitlement policies of bleeding-heart liberals who invariably care more about intentions than outcomes. Both are partly right, but also partly wrong or, better, incomplete, in their analysis—which brings us to part three, next time.1An argument mooted toward the end of David Brooks’s The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (Random House, 2011).2So argued in Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, “Five Delusions about Our Broken Politics”, The American Interest (July/August 2012).3Unfortunately, it is so far impossible to measure productivity in these sectors. See Tyler Cowen, “Reversal of Fortunes”, New York Times Book Review, August 12, 2012, p. 14.4See Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Harvard University Press, 1971).5There is a wealth of scholarly insight about this and related phenomenon. For a classic, see James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy (Basic Books, 1991).6See Salvatore Pescarelli, “Staff Infection: Inside the Department of Homeland Security’s Contracting Mess”, The American Interest (May/June 2009).7See Donald F. Kettl, The Next Government of the United States: Why Our Institutions Fail Us and How to Fix Them (W.W. Norton, 2008).8It is worth noting in passing that not all large bureaucratic/administrative structures manifest the same degree of dysfunction. Professional civil service cultures differ from country to country and from time to time. In France, for example, where statism has a much longer and deeper history than in the United States, institutional forms have evolved that enable the bureaucracy to discipline itself far better than in the United States.9All these sources are cited in my “Terms of Contention.” Here is how Sumner put it in 1877: “A small group . . . who know what they want and how they propose to accomplish it, are able by energetic action to lead the whole body. . . . An organized interest forms a compact body, with strong wishes and motives, ready to spend money, time, and labor; it has to deal with a large mass, but it is a mass of people who are ill-informed, unorganized, and more or less indifferent. There is no wonder that victory remains with the interests.”10See Jeremy D. Meyer, “Tea Time”, The American Interest (November/December 2011).11See “Our Polarizing Culture: A Conversation with Charles Murray”, The American Interest (May-June 2012).
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Published on: October 15, 2012What’s Wrong, and How to Fix It, Part 2: Political/Institutional