Sunday, March 14, 2010

Thoughts On The Current Policy Quagmire

It's become the conventional wisdom that our government is incapable of solving big problems.  Health care, global heating, peak oil, federal deficits, structural reforms, and most environmental problems all typically make the list.  So why can government tackle some issues, but not these?  Perhaps each issue's unique characteristics are to blame?  While each problem obviously contains unique challenges, certain common characteristics exist that allow us to generalize a bit.  Most of these problems are massive and complex, requiring major policy solutions.  These solutions require simple, fixed, upfront and well-understood costs to achieve benefits that are vague, amorphous, far-off and complicated.  So what about these big, complex issues makes them so difficult for government to solve?  There exist many explanations. 

The most basic answers focus on individuals.  Cognitive biases in human psychology make certain issues troublesome to deal with.  People have a difficult time conceptualizing the benefits of solving environmental issues, for example, yet they understand the costs of higher taxes very well.  People discount the future too heavily, so they favor and reward short-term promises over long-term solutions.  People tend to think that the status-quo is safer than it actually is.  Some explanations centered around individuals focus on leadership: Obama isn't making the right decisions.  Leadership and inspiration is difficult with big, complex issues.

Other explanations emphasize social groups and collective decisionmaking.  Democratic and Republican lawmakers don't have casual friendships anymore, so rejecting compromise is dispassionate and easy.  On the larger scale, commentators claim the public cannot make up its mind.  Party identification has been falling for decades, and now we have a massive group of impatient independents in the ideological middle who simply ping-pong back and forth, preventing either party from amassing enough power or popularity to solve all but the smallest issues.

Still other explanations do away with people altogether, instead focusing on institutions and big, structural factors.  In this category, the senate filibuster is to blame.  Legislative committees and executive agencies, jealously guarding their turf, don't coordinate.  Solutions to big, complex issues lose cohesion.  Legislative politics incentivizes short-term strategic action and hard-nosed opposition.  Gerrymandered districts pack The House of Representatives with extremists, who go on to win Senate seats, infecting that body.  Our constitution grants too much power to states and minority factions.

All these explanations have merit, and are probably all true to some degree.  Yet most of them have trouble explaining the recent change.  Government has solved big, complex issues before.  We've always had the filibuster, and the senate managed to pass big, transformational legislation.  Human psychology hasn't changed too much over the past 40 years, I'm guessing.  What is it about now that makes these issues especially impossible to solve?  I don't know the answer (or even if there is one; it could just be random factors), but I do have a thought.

Over the course of history, and especially in the last 40 years with the information revolution, technology and scientific knowledge has increased rapidly, leading to new levels of understanding about how the world works.  This pattern is apparent in all aspects of life: the world is becoming increasingly technocratic.  Better statistical techniques identify more and more correlations.  Experts know more and more about less and less.  Modern social science is giving us drastically better information about individuals and populations.  Our understanding of the world is becoming better and more complex.  The implication for government is clear: while politicians may not be more calculating than they were in the past, they are certainly better informed and more accurate.  The 2000 presidential election was a revealing flash-point.  That incident showed everybody that nothing matters except winning.  Bush became president, end of story.  The ends do justify the means, because voters only remember the ends.  If the minority party can hold out in opposition long enough to deny the majority any achievements, the minority will soon find itself in the majority, pursuing its ideal policies.  We may not like the harsh, misanthropic findings of social science, but their explanatory power is impossible to ignore.  Increasing quality and analytical rigor of political decisionmaking means it's easy to be "rational" in the formal sense.  An unfortunate and unintended result of this medium-term consequentialism is that long-term policy solutions are increasingly politically irrational.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting hypothesis (conclusion?) in your last paragraph. Now the question is, what can Obama and his aides do about it. Somehow they need to change the perception that they're "failing"; the press and the political right are really having a field day.