Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Defense of Congress

Another terrific Ezra Klein interview, this time of former car czar Steve Rattner (and again: Ezra Klein's interviews are one of the very best things on these intertubes.  Consistently substantive, interesting...excellent). 

Rattner doesn't like Congress.  At all.  

That's not surprising.  First of all, because no one likes Congress.  But, in this particular case, because of course a technocrat hired by the executive branch to solve a national problem is going to find Congressional meddling obnoxious.  Members of Congress stand of for seemingly random particular interests against the national interest, and besides that Members of Congress are not exactly known for only speaking when they have actual expertise.  Or even a vague knowledge of the subject matter.  So here's Rattner: 
EK: Tell me about dealing with the Congress.

SR: When you actually deal with them to try and get something done? It's impossible. It is so divisive, so parochial and so petty. If you look at the auto rescue, the only time Congress really got involved was over the dealers. Here we are, laying off thousands of workers and restructuring these companies, and the only thing that animated Congress was the dealers. In terms of the body as a whole, they were just obstructionists.

I think that if we didn't have TARP, the whole economy could have imploded before Congress figured out what to do.
He's right that Congress is divisive, parochial, and petty.  That's how it was designed!  Now, let me explain why that's a good thing.  I'll make three points. The first two defenses of Congress are on grounds of efficacy: it may be the case, after all, that adding divisive, parochial, and petty voices into the process may very well yield better policy than just turning things over to experts.  The third will not depend on efficacy at all, but instead turns to the inherent value of political action.

(1) In a nation of over 300 millions, conflicts between national and particular interests are inevitable, and it's important for particular interests to have some way of being heard, and have a chance to win.  For example: suppose that there are two plausible plans for rescuing the auto industry.  One would net the nation (in some sense) an additional $300M, but at the cost of wiping out several thousand auto dealers who would be saved under the other plan.  Which is better: an extra one dollar per person, or saving those dealerships?  I don't know -- but I'm glad that the dealers can organize and fight for their interests and have a portion of the political system eager to fight for them, because I'm fairly certain that there are at least some cases in which I think we'd be better off sacrificing overall efficiency in order to protect those who would be hurt by it.  Congress is a marvelous machine for channeling the voices of parochial interests.

Some caveats are in order on that point.  Someone in the system should also be looking out for the big picture.  I'm confident that we're apt to get that from the Madisonian system of separated institutions sharing powers -- that's going to be Rattner's position in this scheme -- but it's worth remembering that the president may care a lot more about swing voters and swing states than he does about everyone else, so it's not a given.  Also, while I think it's very good that Congress (and Madisonian democracy in general) allows interests to emerge and bargain and battle, one should never assume that all interests are on equal footing as a result.   Still, that some particular interests are ignored or shortchanged is not, in my view, a reason to ignore all parochial interests.

(2) Rattner could be wrong.  Not about Congress -- but about the substance of the issue.  Yes, we can design a system in which politicians make big policy decisions, and then turn it over to bureaucrats and technocrats to implement those policies in the most efficient way possible, and we could shield those bureaucrats and technocrats from "normal" politics, instead of the American system in which, through Congress, politics always intrudes on how policy is carried out.

We could, but alas it would not, in fact, purge bias from the system.  Bureaucrats and technocrats are, after all, people too.  They may not be driven by re-election, and they do have expertise that politicians rarely have.  But they too have career and job goals (promotions, bigger budgets for the agency, autonomy from political interference) that can undermine their objectivity.  Think Sir Humphrey Appleby next time you're tempted to put too much faith in neutral expertise (you have watched Yes, Minister, right?).  On top of that, the very training that gives these folks their expertise can also lead to all sorts of pathologies: think Bay of Pigs, or Vietnam, or the Rubin Treasury Department.  Congress is divisive, yes.  A little divisiveness is often exactly what's needed.

(3) Should qualified experts make policy?  Even if they would be better at it, there's still a case to be made for divisive, parochial, and petty voices in national policy-making.  What is bureaucracy?  It isn't rule of the people; it's rule of anonymous functionaries.  We are to be governed by desks -- what Hannah Arendt called "the rule of nobody," or what Max Weber called an "iron cage" from which humanity could not escape.

They feared bureaucracy not because it was inefficient, but precisely because it was so effective.  They were terrified it would leave no room for people to actively choose how to organize themselves in the world.  In other words, it isn't just bad because the technocrats (rule of, what, technique?  Do we want to be ruled by technique?) might be wrong; it's bad because if they're right, then we'll (inevitably?) always leave everything to them, and in that world we, ourselves, no longer get to do politics.

And that is terribly important.  Part of why the Founders thought that democracy was a good thing was because they learned, through their revolution, about the human capacity for public action, and they wanted "the people" to have the opportunity to develop and enjoy that capacity -- to experience public happiness.  For them, and for many democratic theorists, democracy was not just about "getting it right" in terms of making public policy match popular preferences, but it was about opening participation in public life to new people because such participation was valuable for its own sake.

Now, of course, we don't all do politics.  By 1787, Madison and probably others realized that in a free nation the pull of private happiness would always be strong, and many would never feel the urge to get involved.  But they created a system with incentives for involvement, because (thanks to those separated institutions sharing powers) such involvement is meaningful in the crassest self-interested ways, and that opens up the chance that you'll find your involvement meaningful in more subtle ways.  Without Congress, with all of its divisive, parochial, and petty way, that just doesn't happen.


  1. Guess I'll be the first to point this out:

    "Part of why the Founders thought that democracy was a good thing was because they learned, through their revolution, about the human capacity for pubic action"

    Somebody has some awkward muscle memory.

  2. Let me get this straight: the Founders wanted Congress to be divisive, parochial, and petty because, otherwise, advocates of parochial and petty interests would feel left out and helpless to change policy? Call me naive, but I'd prefer a system where there isn't such a huge potential for such minor concerns to be given outsized influence in the halls of power.

    Instead, we have a situation where I, as a member of the majority, need to constantly worry that the voices of very loud but very tiny minorities will sway legislators to act contrary to the best interests of the nation as a whole.

    And I don't really get the idea that, if we let bureaucrats and experts make more policy decisions, we will "inevitably" leave everything to them and thus lose our ability to "do politics." Why can't people trust, but verify? In other words, when the bureaucrats are right, leave them alone; when they are wrong, organize for legislative solutions. The idea that a more empowered technocracy would lead to some mass public disengagement from politics -- just seems really far-fetched.

    To me, the most telling part of your post is this:

    Someone in the system should also be looking out for the big picture.

    I think that's exactly Rattner's point. Except he realizes, unlike you, that it can't just be one branch of government taking the big-picture view -- because the President can't pass legislation by himself.

    When one branch of government is divisive, petty, and parochial, the entire government operates that way, sinking to the lowest common denominator. Maybe the Founders intended that, maybe not. But the argument that this is an objectively good way for government to operate is just not persuasive.

  3. I was hoping you would comment on this interview, Jonathan. Thanks - very interesting points on the very real value of a "petty" comments. I have often found your posts in defense of the current system of American government, as infuriating as it may often be to everyone, compelling, especially when so many folks talk about it as "broken."

    On a similar note, I wonder if you might be interested in commenting on the recent Christopher Hitchens article, wherein he complains about how awful and venal modern politicians are? Seems like the sort of thing that could have easily been written 50 or 100 or 200 years ago and no one would know the difference. Do you think his arguments here have any merit?

  4. As I've said before, I have real doubts that anything we're seeing today can fairly be called "Madisonian" or imputed to the "design" of the Framers. At the very least, we have to be careful about claiming that they valued "democracy," (a) because many of them didn't, and said so ("the Democracy" was a term of abuse well into the 19th century, often used in the same sentence as "the mob" or "the rabble"), and (b) because even where we find praise of democracy in the late 18th century, we have to be carefully not to read it anachronistically in light of our own understanding of the term instead of theirs. As to a Congress driven by interest groups, this seems hard to square with Madison/Publius's famous contrast between (good) representative bodies, which would

    "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves";

    -- and, on the other hand, (bad) representation, in which:

    "Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people."

    So in Madison, we have "the true interest of the country" versus "partial considerations" and "local prejudices." Does not sound like a ringing endorsement of interest-group politics to me.

    As to rule by experts, that ideal came along a hundred years later, so we don't have the Framers' opinions on it. But I think a case could be made that the public-spirited, non-prejudiced legislators they were talking about were their idea of experts, i.e. people who understood public problems and their possible solutions better than average people do and would apply that knowledge / wisdom (their nearest equivalent words for "expertise") in the public's behalf. Hamilton, in particular, strikes me as a Framer who would have welcomed a certain amount of "technocracy," at least in economic matters. And let's recall that virtually everybody's choice for first president was George Washington, who as a general had proven that he was a (nonpartisan) expert in his field, i.e. military affairs and defending the country.

    None of this is to say that the system today is not functioning well, or that if it isn't, the fault lies with some kind of departure from the Framers' ideal. I'm not an originalist, so I think the question of what Madison and Hamilton thought is mostly academic. But I'm also an academic, so I think it's worth trying to get the history right regardless.

  5. Anon,

    Thanks (and fixed). I just fix typos w/out showing that they were fixed, but how timely! I get an excuse to link to this:

  6. Further to my comment above, I think more needs to be said about Hamilton on this issue. It's easy to default to Madison as somehow spokesman for the Framers because he was a better writer, but Hamilton probably had more influence on how the new government actually came to work in practice. Anyway, I'm imagining what Hamilton would like best or least about our current system if he saw it now. I can't believe he'd look kindly on a fractious, interest-group-driven Congress; he'd probably say, "This is why I favored having a strongman president-for-life."

    On the other hand, I think he'd be delighted that there's an entire intellectual field, widely respected as a kind of "science," whose practitioners do nothing but study the economy and make policy recommendations that have a scientific imprimatur but that somehow almost always conduce to the interests of the bond markets and the merchant / banker / stock-jobber / rentier class. When he further saw that there's a powerful central bank that can intervene in the economy directly, that it's an official federal agency but well-insulated from politics, that its chairman is one of those putative scientists and that his pronouncements are generally treated as oracles of wisdom, he'd be happier than a pig in snuff. And if you then told him, "Ah, but Alex, we believe our venal, cynical, self-interested legislators are a tribute to your Founding intentions," he'd try to shoot you with Aaaron Burr's dueling pistol.

  7. Economics of Contempt (link below) has a post about Rattner's account of his interaction with Sheila Bair that illustrates #2.

    The FDIC is an independent agency headed by a powerful technocrat who does not take marching orders from the Oval Office. If Rattner is to be believed, Sheila Bair is an ambitious woman who wasn't above using the GM bailout to increase the FDIC's power & her own prestige.

    As a result, Bair focused on problems--illusory problems according to Rattner--with the proposed bailout in order to engage in horse trading. In other words, his interaction with a well-intentioned technocrat wasn't much better than it was with Congress (which, after all, passed TARP which enabled all that nonsense to begin with).

  8. I'm watching Yes Minister right now! I love NetFlix Instant Play and my Sony BluRay!


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