Monday, November 4, 2013

Kludgeocracy and Representation

My column today over at TAP is an argument with Steven Teles, who has been writing important things about the US policy-making process as a "Kludgeocracy." Generally, I think his diagnosis is correct, including the causes of kludges, but I think it's mostly a good thing, not a bad one. I'm somewhat skeptical about how much of a net bad thing it is in terms of policy efficiency, but I'm confident that it's a good thing in terms of democracy.

I want to highlight my argument about democratic accountability, which Teles argues would be enhanced if "constitutional norms forced government to act directly and transparently or forgo action altogether" because it would be easier to see what government does and therefore easier for voters to reward or punish. Here's my response:
I think this is largely a myth. Modern government, even the streamlined version Teles wants, is still going to do far too many things for this kind of accountability to work. Voters, after all, have only one ballot. They can’t possibly use it to hold politicians accountable for multiple successes and failures, even in the unlikely event that they are attentive enough to properly assess those policies...

On the other hand, kludgeocracy increases accountability—dramatically. Individual politicians have a real opportunity to make significant policy changes on many occasions. The very fact that there’s no one who is “in charge” is exactly what can make it hard for politicians to entirely duck a constituent’s demands. And we have plenty of evidence that politicians do respond to constitution demands, even if failure to do so probably wouldn’t show up as a significant electoral effect.
I really want to emphasize the point that to the extent that democratic accountability is about the voters, it's just an incredibly blunt instrument. Voters, and especially swing voters, simply are not going to flip their votes in most cases over policy choices. Instead, this sort of accountability functions mainly as an imperative to incumbent politicians: avoid doing things that anger voters! That's especially the case with policy outcomes; presidents know, for example, that they really don't want to be up for re-election while the nation is losing a war or suffering through a recession.

(Yes, there's a problem that a lot of liberals worried about in 2012 of incentives for the out-party to deliberately attempt to produce negative policy outcomes, along with sufficient institutional means for the "out"-party to affect policy which the "in" party would then take responsibility for. I tend to think it's a real, albeit overrated problem...but it's not really the problem that Teles is concerned with).

The "no policy disasters!" impulse is a good and healthy one in a democracy. It's crucial. But it's also very, very, limited.

What I think does a lot more of the work of real democracy falls, in my way of thinking of things, under the broad category of representation, which I think is far more more nuanced than electoral accountability. Representation isn't just about policy congruence between representative and constituents. It's also about what those representatives actually spend their time working on -- what they actively attempt to accomplish, as opposed to just how they vote on the House or Senate floor (for more on representation, see here and here). But for that to be meaningful, there has to be more that legislators can do than merely voting. Thus the current US system; thus kludges.

In other words, I believe that what the US system discovered is the incredible capacity of representation; and what that system, with its multiple veto point and initiative points, can do really well is to take advantage of that capacity.

And that's why I care about this argument. To me, the successes of democracy are in large part about groups or even individuals pushing politicians, and politicians responding by making promises and then attempting to carry out those promises. But while everything can't be about individual politicians (and this is on of the reasons that parties are important, and that it's important for parties to be permeable so that newly interested citizens can at least potentially affect party positions on questions of public policy), it's important that those individual politicians do have the tools available to tap into the full capacity of representation.

As I argued in the piece, I'm not even convinced that the resulting messy policy is a net negative. But even if it is, I'm generally willing to accept that price for meaningful democracy.


  1. I guess one of my biggest problems with a lot of anti-Maddison arguments is how they seem to rely on the trick of writing about potential alternative systems as version of Plato's ideal forms or something. So you want a simple policy making system because simple is better. And you want fewer veto points because veto points are infringing on the purity of the simple system.

    It's a lot like Linz's argument that political actors have to be granted "legitimacy" by elections before they can start working. And if they don't have "legitimacy" well then we are all doomed.

    Take the British system which is supposedly "better" and "simpler" than our terrible system. The big issue right now seems to be a fight over rising energy costs. The Tory stance seems to be the system is fine and heating costs will go down once we are able to repeal some of these awful environmental regulations that Tony Blair forced on the noble energy companies back in 2001. While the Labour stance seems to be, "Let's have a nationwide energy price fixing scheme!" Both of these strike me as being pretty poor policy choices. But that's the very real debate and policy choices that the "better" and "less kludgey" Westminster system is actually producing right now.

    To put it another way, what exactly is the cash value of coming up with a really simple policy outcome that has no chance of actually being enacted?

    1. longwalk, I don't think you're understanding the (for want of a better word) "anti-Madisonian" position. It's not about purity or legitimacy as values in the abstract. It's about the very practical questions of who's able to make things happen and how the system puts choices before the voters.

      My view, put simply, is that it's more democratic and (in most cases) likely to lead to better policies if people know which party supports and is responsible for which policy outcomes, and which party is opposed to them. Multiple veto points cloud all that up, as does giving multiple, opposed parties (or coalitions) real power at the same time. (Linz-ian "legitimacy," for me, just means they claim that power based on being elected, as opposed to, I don't know, having seized it by force or something. But the problem for transparency -- i.e. for voters knowing whom to reward or blame at the next election -- would be essentially the same regardless of how the power is acquired. That problem boils down to both parties being able to "win elections" and control their own parts of the government within the same broader term of office.)

      To apply all this to your last question: the value of making proposals when you're in the minority -- a real minority, without power, as in the Westminster system -- is that you (a) highlight what's wrong with the ruling party's position; (b) stake out a clear alternative position, so voters have a clear choice when they next go to the polls; and (c) possibly force the hand of the ruling party, as I believe may be happening on the energy issue in the UK right now, because the ruling party has to worry that the public might agree with you and vote for you next time. Those are all real "cash values" if you ask me.

      Now, you may say that the result, in this case, is two generally bad alternatives. But is that less likely to happen in our system? This pro-kludge argument that JB is making is perhaps one the better arguments that it is, i.e. that our system somehow retains a capability to produce better outcomes than a more transparent system with fewer veto points. Maybe good policy is actually made by patchwork, or at least can be made that way more often than we know. So, perhaps the UK would be best served right now by a kind of hybrid, ACA-style energy policy, with Labour goals achieved through Tory methods or something like that. All I can say is, I really doubt it, first because the ruling coalition is already in a position to patch something together that way if it feels enough pressure to respond to opposition proposals, and second because it really wouldn't be fair to British voters for both parties to go before them in 2015 credibly claiming responsibility for popular policies and blaming the other side for unpopular ones. The Tories and Lib Dems should have to step up and say, "You've had five years to see what happens when you give us power; do you want five years more, yes or no?" and then live with the consequences. (Granted, the Lib Dems might get away with trying to have it both ways, i.e. running as internal critics of their own government -- but I doubt it. I think they're going to get clobbered, and rightly so, for giving up their political identity and becoming junior-varsity Tories.)

    2. But is the Westminster system really that much more "transparent" or "clear" or whatever? I have a hard time believing that considering that there seems a to be a whole lot of center left people outraged that their voting for the Lib Dems didn't cause a socialist revolution or something. Especially considering that the way Parliament works is dictated by centuries of unwritten social mores about conduct and behavior. For example there doesn't appear to be anything really there to stop the monarch from technically asking the loser in an election to form a government regardless of how the public actually voted and trying to force a majority party to seat a minority party government. Now if Queen Elizabeth actually tried to do this it would be insane and unworkable and create a giant crisis. Which is one of the reasons why nobody tried to do this in Parliament in 200 years, but there's nothing really stopping a monarch from doing this other than the unwritten rules of tradition.

      It's not clear to me at least this this is actually a better or more "transparent" system.

    3. longwalk, sorry to ping-pong between threads, but see my answer to you below about UK party manifestos. Yes, it's a lot clearer to voters there (I believe) what the parties stand for and what's likely to happen once they're in office. Granted, "hung parliaments" are a wild card, and the Lib Dems have demonstrated that a party can completely bollix things up for itself. That party has rightly been hammered for essentially junking its 2010 manifesto to support most of the Tory program(me). But this affects mainly the future of the Lib Dems. No one in 2015 is going to give the Tories, as clearly the coalition's senior partner, a pass over unpopular policies of these past few years, and absolutely nobody is going to blame Labour for anything that happened in government between 2010 and 2015. Labour will therefore be able to present a very clear alternative; then, we see what happens.

      As to the hypothetical about the queen, that's just not an issue, and the fact that you bring it up suggests to me that you're not really talking about the functional realities of the different systems. It is, as you say, a well-established part of the unwritten British constitution that the queen appoints the election's winners to rule. If she did otherwise, the unwritten rule to that effect would promptly become a WRITTEN rule to that effect, along the lines of the Parliament Act that formally took most power away from the House of Lords. But she won't, because she'd rather not be the monarch who presides over the abolition of the monarchy.

    4. I think it's pretty clear that what really needs to change is those terrible party broadcasts:

    5. We don't want to lose the Monster Raving Loony Party's, though. ;-)

    6. I don't think it is purely a policy issue. Minority parties don't have any accountability at all unless they are stripped of all power and have to watch the minority shove policy victories down their throat.

      Losing a fair election should mean total devastation. Because minority parties always want to pretend they don't have to listen to voters and change.

  2. Well, I just addressed this one in the previous thread, but I think it brings up a couple of points. The first one, that I spoke about previously and that I will follow up on, is that given a system that, for whatever reason, relies on kludges, it is very imperative that the people who implement those kludges make sure they actually work. It is in the nature of work arounds and patches that no one really likes them to begin with, and if they don't work then the general wariness rapidly turns into poison. I think this is part of the danger with the ACA. The GOP already hates it, and liberals never really wanted it. If it doesn't work, you have a toxic situation with people on the right saying "we told you so!" and people on the left saying "Idiot!" and pointing northward. The potential for this type of poisonous dissatisfaction seems very high in kludgeocracy, which is why it places great burdens on politicians and policy professionals to be on the top of their game.

    And perhaps that is related to what makes dysfunctional parties such a problem. In a kludgeocracy, where everything has to be patched together both politically and in terms of policy, it is crucially important that a party be well-functioning to accomplish any of its goals. Perhaps, to get away from the GOP for a moment, that is one reason Jimmy Carter stands out as such a disastrous President. He was handed a rare opportunity in 1977 to actually accomplish some of his party's priorities (national health care not least) and absolutely squandered it. That is an opportunity that parties in a kludge system simply cannot waste if the system is going to function at all.

    1. Anastasios, thanks for the comment on the other thread, here's some thoughts for both: I agree with you, and would add that, in kludge world, a well-functioning party needs to be represented by well-functioning leaders. After all, since kludges exist outside the safe realm of convention or tradition, they require personal leadership to be shepherded to success.

      So to the ACA conversation, if a flunky of Nancy DeParle relays a message to a fluky of Boehner about this and such urgent funding need, and Boehner's flunky passes it up the chain to a response of "Who the [EXPLETIVE] is Nancy DeParle????" with the phone slammed down and no further consequence...

      ...well, maybe Boehner's an asshole. But in kludge world, it seems imperative to me that someone else needs to be making that phone call.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Whoops, wrong email account. Here's what I want to say: But I really don't think that these sorts of political pathologies are unique to our system or even that much more pronounced. As far as I can tell everyone in Britain is disgusted and fed up with their system too. The general national mood seems to be everyone hates Cameron, the Lib Dems are somewhere between a joke and a national disgrace and everyone is worried about if Miliband "has what it takes." Everyone is fed up and disgusted and Parliament is full of criminals and blah blah blah.

      In short the mood is "toxic" because the economy sucks and London has been turned into the world's largest tax haven. But that doesn't seem to me to be a product of the Westminster system, it's just a product of nobody having any money, or I guess the human condition generally.

    4. longwalk, as a P.S. to my answer to you above: for me the things to compare aren't broad indexes of satisfaction / dissatisfaction, which as you suggest tend to track the economy's performance there as here. It's what happens during election campaigns. I've been a close observer of (and occasional small-time participant in) several UK campaigns since the 1980s. I just cannot think of a UK equivalent of the kind of nonsense we see in America -- for instance, House Republicans running (successfully) against ACA in 2010 on the grounds that it damaged Medicare, even as they themselves support the Ryan plan to eliminate Medicare altogether. Granted, the latter position is public, and it's partly Democrats' fault if they don't highlight it better. But in the UK, the voucher scheme would be written into a "party manifesto" and published ahead of the election, and there is simply no way it would somehow slip under the radar the way it seems to do here.

      Likewise, it wouldn't be possible in a UK-style system for a world-class cynic like George W. Bush to claim credit as a presidential candidate for some policy in Texas that actually passed over his veto. That whole concept, of an executive presiding (whether to his advantage or not) over policies made by the other side, during his term of office, is one of the voter-baffling peculiarities of our system. Or, as a third example, there was Bush's effort to privatize Social Security in 2005. True, people here pointed out that he hadn't campaigned on this, and his push failed -- but a UK prime minister who tried something similar wouldn't just fail, s/he would be completely discredited, because the political culture that has developed around the UK's constitutional rules puts the emphasis I just mentioned on policies that are set out explicitly in manifestos and advertised during the election campaign. UK voters and media have come to insist on that, knowing as they do that the winners will actually get to implement their policies.

      Here, by contrast, it's all a giant smoke machine -- workable if the parties and their leaders are basically honest, but unfortunately that condition has fallen into eclipse on one side in this past generation.

    5. All that about party platforms and transparency has some truth to it. But I'm really not sure, at the end of the day, that it's any different for actual voters. It still gets down to the extreme limits of the ballot (as I discussed in the TAP piece). Plus, to some extent, the reality of normal voters, but really it's the ballot above all that's front and center in my thinking.

  3. Sorry to be a comment hog, but there is another issue as well. I remember is Stephen Fry's specials about America for the BBC he interviewed Peter Gomes, the chaplain at Harvard. Gomes, a black gay Republican, made the comment that "this country does not do complexity well. Even when the complex answer is obviously the necessary one, we long for simple and clear solutions."

    Gomes may well be on to something. Let's leave aside fraught notions of national psychology and just say that there are aspects of American culture that lean heavily to a preference for clear, transparent, and simple solutions. Place that against a country that requires kludgeocracy, perhaps because of its very size and diversity never mind its political and constitutional system. We therefore have a culture that is maladapted to the realities of the country in which that culture exists, or perhaps a poltical and constitutional system that is maladapted to the culture of the people it purportedly serves. If Gomes is right, we culturally incline toward wanting clear, transparent, systematic solutions to national problems, while the structures of our nation guarantee opaque, complex, contingent arrangements. After all, both left and right in the matter of health care really seem to long for elegant, clear, transparent solutions that they believe would be far superior to current arrangements: single payer on the left and the free market on the right. The ACA, and for that matter the status quo pre-ACA, seemed calculated to be a running sore, as it was guaranteed to inflame dislike and dissatisfaction from all sides. And I suppose that is how a cynic would answer you, JB. That is the system that you celebrate as guaranteeing participation and democracy, they see as perpetuating pain, dissatisfaction, inefficiency, and rage, and eventually its own destruction.

    1. Good stuff and I was right there with you until you got to "its own destruction."

      I don't see any self-destruction on the horizon.

      And maybe all that "pain, dissatisfaction, inefficiency, and rage" is what you get when 300 million, very different, people try to participate in a democracy. All that pushing and pulling actually seems to get us to a pretty good (if really kludgy and inelegant) result.

    2. I don't know if self-destruction is on the horizon, either. There isn't any shortage of people who think so. Of course, there never has been. One of these days, they'll be right -- after all, they almost were in 1860.

      Less in an apocolyptic vein, it really does seem that that the solutions that do best in America are those that are the simplest and most transparent. One thinks of Social Security and Medicare. Now, a ready answer is that these programs really aren't simple and transparent, it's just that people have simplistic ideas about them. That may well be true, but it also may make all the difference.

      There is plentiful ammunition against the ACA from both sides, but oddly, both sides often come down to different versions of the same argument -- it's just too damn complex, people don't understand it, and they are going to end up hurt or at least not helped by all this kludginess and complexity. From the right it takes the form of "Sigh, idiot, have you never been to the grocery store? See how cheap and plentiful food is? Why can't you do that with medicine?" From the left it takes the form of "Sigh, idiot, have you never talked to Canadians? See how popular and efficient and cheap their healthcare system is? Why can't you do that with medicine?" You just don't have that with Social Security and Medicare, except on the fringes, although I grant you those fringes can be very loud.

      I think part of the exasperation people feel with the Obama administration is that they just didn't get how big a problem this was and still is. I remember talking to my brother, quite an intelligent person although without a college degree, about the ACA as it was being developed. He said, repeatedly, "well, why don't they just put a tax on my income like they do with Mom's social security and let me buy into Medicare?" He honestly tried to understand the ACA in outline, but repeatedly through up his hands and said "Why on Earth do they come up with garbage like this?" After that, any time I saw an administration official explaining the benefits the ACA would bring to the population, I inwardly thought "That's nice, fool, but they don't understand that. They understand you take this much money from my check and you give me Social Security. That they get." And whenever defenders of the ACA express puzzlement as to why people, particularly like my brother, aren't grateful, I think "Because you didn't give them anything, doofus. Give my brother Medicare, or Medicaid, or something called an Affordable Care Insurance Card, and he'll get it. Kludge together some kind of opaque regulation and wait for gratitude, and you better like the sound of crickets."

    3. Regarding the ACA, the questions of "why didn't they..." is very different from "how will this affect me."

      "Why didn't they..." is going to have a very complex and frustrating answer. But it's also a sign of a healthy democracy!

      Ultimately, the popularity of the ACA will depend on the answer to "How will this affect me". Here people are confused. Complexity is part of it. But bigger problem is that there a lot of disinformation. And it's not "real" yet. The reality of it will push out the disinformation. This is already starting to happen.

      The real answer to "How will the ACA affect me?" is not THAT complicated.

      Do you have insurance now? Then it won't really change anything. If you don't, you might qualify for Medicaid, and if not you can purchase insurance from the exchange. You might qualify for a tax subsidy. You'll pay a tax penalty if you don't get anything.

      I subscribe the a version of the JB thesis: "Obamacare" will never be popular. But every component of it will be popular. Once it's in place, it'll "work" just fine, and going back to the old system will be unthinkable.

    4. I'm not at all sure I agree with any part of your argument. I tend to think a much superior political system, such as that of Westminster, would produce much superior, which often means simpler and more elegant, solutions. Nor do I agree that we necessarily have a healthy or well- functioning democracy.

      On the specifics of the ACA, I tend to agree it will survive, largely because there is no real choice. I doubt anyone will even think about Obamacare in a few years. Obama will be gone, and attention will have moved on as well. Talking about Obamacare will date one as surely as raving about the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

  4. I'd like to take issue with one little phrase of yours, JB, that I think is both right and troubling.

    "avoid doing things that anger voters!"

    Let's say that you're right (and I think you are). Where does that lead? Once the low-hanging Pareto-optimal fruit are gone, you're left with gridlock. But, note the type of gridlock: a gridlock strongly biased in favor of the status quo.

    Now, what if we then suppose that these voters aren't particularly bright, or, at a minimum, are easily panicked animals. Then we have a system in which politicians are strongly incentivized to tilt at windmills that really matter but aren't all that manipulable. Like the economy. Sure, many policy choices have huge repercussions here, but at the end of the day, all government can really seem to do is avoid disaster. They aren't sitting on a magic bullet, because if we had figured one out, both parties would have adopted that. (I'm not just talking about our current economy, but generally).

    So, what if there are really policies that are very good for us as a whole, but involve transaction costs and some people would do worse in them? Such utilitarian outcomes are killed off in our system. But, shouldn't we eat our vegetables? Our system, essentially, plays a minimax strategy. Not very risky, sure, but it also has a tendency to not get you very far.

  5. I disagree. You say "the successes of democracy are in large part about...attempting to carry out those promises."

    That can't be right: an attempt shouldn't count as a success. It is a failure of democracy when the kludges make it too hard for the promises to succeed.


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