Teles: Kludgeocracy

Why are public policies seldom simple? Why did we wind up with Obamacare instead of Medicare for All? Why is cap-and-trade more popular than a carbon tax? Why do we have 401(k)s and Roth-IRAs instead of higher social security benefits?

Political Scientist Steven Teles of Johns Hopkins has just written a comprehensive analysis of how this happens, why, and what we might do about it. His name for the problem: Kludgeocracy. By defining the issue, he hopes that “greater attention will be placed on the rickety, complicated and self-defeating complexity of public policy across multiple, seemingly unrelated areas of government activity.” Please go read it. To whet your appetite:

Similar stories [to Medicare Part D] could be told in a variety of other policy areas, where liberals got bigger government, but conservatives funneled benefits to  business while keeping liberals from reaping political credit. The conclusion of the last three decades of ideological trench warfare is that the American public got a more active, but also incoherent and frequently ineffective, state.

If you need a shorter version, Wonkblog has interviewed the author:

In most cases, “privatization” does not really mean that a function has been given back to the market. It means that we have a highly subsidized, regulated, sometimes monopolized activity in which there is private ownership but a high degree of public control. When you do that, you often lose a lot of what is good about markets, and in fact you create very strange kinds of private actors who are in fact totally dependent on government. And that often incentivizes them to be more oriented to lobbying and influencing government than to serving their customers. And that’s where kludgeocracy is not just a complaint about “efficiency” but a complaint about the kind of governance that is generated by complexity.

Our insistence on kludging together reactive policies has long been a frustration of mine. This paper was a breath of fresh air.


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