By now, the SIZE of American government is roughly fixed. Over the next few decades, Americans will debate its counter-productive COMPLEXITY. America has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country. Today much of American public policy resembles what computer geeks call a "kludge": "an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose...a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem." (Oxford English Dictionary)



This Post on Kludgeocracy is the second in a Series by Steven M. Teles, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. This Post analyzes Causes. The first reported Costs, the third will treat Cures.

The full article "Kledgeocracy in America" appeared in National Affairs 17 (Fall 2013) at http://www.nationalaffairs.com/ . An earlier version was published as a working paper by the New America Foundation's Next Social Contract Initiative and Economic Growth Program.




Steven M. Teles, National Affairs 17 (Fall 2013)


The costs of kludgeocracy... are considerable. Addressing the problem, however, requires that we understand why American politics turns to kludgey solutions so regularly. A condition as chronic as kludgeocracy inevitably results from many causes at once, but the key interlocking causes in this instance are the structure of American government institutions, the public's ambivalent and contradictory expectations of government, and the emergence of a "kludge industry" that supplies a constant stream of complicated, roundabout policy solutions.

We were all taught in school that American institutions were designed to constrain the growth of government. This is, of course, why some on the right tend to defend our founding institutional heritage, while many liberals as far back as the Progressive era have voiced considerable skepticism about the Constitution's architecture. But there are reasons to question the idea that federalism and the separation of powers limit the growth of government: A great deal of political-science scholarship shows that when we look beyond spending and taxation and focus on the policy tools that the United States has historically relied on more heavily - such as regulation, litigation, and tax expenditures — the activity of the American state is not significantly more limited than those of other industrialized countries.

American institutions do, in fact, serve to constrain the most direct forms of government taxing and spending. But having done so, they do not dry up popular or special-interest demands for government action, nor do they eliminate the desire of politicians to claim credit for new government activity. When public demand cannot be addressed directly, it is met instead in complicated, unpredictable ways that lead to far more complex legislative solutions.

The most obvious reason why American institutions generate policy complexity is our system's numerous veto points. The separation of powers means that any proposal must generate agreement at three different stages - each house of Congress and the president. But opportunities for vetoes turn out to be more extensive than the simple text of the Constitution would imply. Most legislation has to pass through separate subcommittee and committee stages, each of which presents opportunities for legislators to stymie action. Many ambitious proposals are considered by Congress under "multiple referrals," in which more than one single committee is given jurisdiction. This multiplies the number of veto points, as we saw with the Affordable Care Act, which had to pass through five separate committees in Congress. Finally, the super-majority requirement for breaking a filibuster in the Senate, combined with the intense partisanship that accompanies most major policy reforms, means that any single member can stall the progress of a piece of legislation, and a cohesive minority can kill it.

A superficial analysis would predict that this proliferation of veto points would lead to inaction, generating a systematic libertarian bias. In practice, however, every veto point functions more like a toll booth, with the toll-taker able to extract a price in exchange for his willingness to allow legislation to keep moving. Most obviously, the toll-taker gets to add pork-barrel projects for his district or state in exchange for letting legislation move onto the next step. This increases the cost of legislation, even if, as John Ellwood and Eric Patashnik have argued, it might be a reasonable price to pay for greasing the wheels of a very complicated legislative machine.

But the price of multiple veto points is much larger than an accounting of pork-barrel projects would suggest. First, many of our legislative toll-takers have a vested interest in the status quo. In exchange for their willingness to allow a bill to proceed, therefore, they often require that legislation leave their favored programs safe from substantive changes. Consequently, new ideas have to be layered over old programs rather than replace them - the textbook definition of a policy kludge. Second, the need to gain consent from so many actors makes attaining any degree of policy coherence difficult at best. Finally, the enormous number of veto points that legislation must now pass through gives legislative strategists a strong incentive to pour everything they can into giant omnibus legislation. The multiplication of veto points, therefore, does not necessarily stop legislation from passing, but it does considerably raise its cost and, more importantly, its complexity.

America's federal system of government also does its part to add to policy complexity. In a purely federal system, in which governmental functions were clearly differentiated between the national and state governments, federalism would not translate directly into complexity. But that is not American federalism as it is currently practiced.

Many of our major social programs were created when the South, and to a lesser degree urban political machines, exercised a veto over expansions of federal spending that failed to leave the details of administration to local officials. The decline of these regional power centers did not, however, lead to a more streamlined national pattern of policy development. Even as the government expanded in the 1960s and '70s in areas ranging from the environment to education to health care, the federal government and the states continued to share the duties of governing in a complex web of responsibilities. While states and localities actually administer essentially all programs in these domains, the federal government is deeply involved as a funder, regulator, standard-setter, and evaluator. The result is the complicated "marble-cake federalism" structure that characterizes almost all domestic policy in the United States, making clear lines of responsibility hard to establish.

American political culture and ideology have also, in sometimes obscure ways, contributed to kludgeocracy. One of the clearest findings in the study of American public opinion is that Americans are ideological conservatives and operational liberals. That is, they want to believe in the myth of small government while demanding that government address public needs and wants regarding everything from poverty and retirement security to environmental protection and social mobility.

This ambivalence in expectations creates a durable bias in the actual outputs of American government. The easiest way to satisfy both halves of the American political mind is to create programs that hide the hand of government, whether it is through tax preferences, regulation, or litigation, rather than operating through the more transparent means of direct taxing and spending.

Housing is perhaps the most striking and perverse example of this pattern of government growth through seemingly non-governmental means. The 30-year, fixed interest-rate mortgage exists on a mass scale only in the United States, and only because of massive distortions of the free market by government-sponsored entities like Fannie Mae. Added on top of that are the deduction of mortgage interest from taxable income - the third-largest exclusion in the tax code - and the delay in capital-gains taxation on home sales when another home is purchased. Taken together, the tax code and government-sponsored enterprises amount to a massive housing-welfare state. And although it delivers benefits to many citizens, this set of programs is fundamentally regressive - vastly favoring people in the highest tax brackets and artificially increasing the prices of homes, thus increasing barriers for first-time home buyers.

A similar pattern can be found in government subsidies of retirement savings (for example, through IRAs and 401(k) plans), employer-provided health insurance, and student loans. All of these aspects of what Christopher Howard has called our "hidden welfare state" fail to serve their putative goals while also redistributing upward. IRAs and 401(k)s, for example, do not appear to actually increase personal savings; instead, their main effect is to cause wealthier investors to shift their savings from taxable to untaxed accounts (from which, again, the wealthy gain the greatest savings since their tax rates are highest). But these programs are not generally thought of as "big government" because they operate primarily by channeling resources to mutual-fund companies, health insurers, and the housing market through the tax code.

Where our government does spend, it increasingly does so indirectly. The myth of what George Mason University's Michael Greve calls "our federalism" creates a bias toward sending money to the states, even though the cash always comes with a laundry list of regulations and requirements attached.

The strategic decisions of conservatives over the last 50 years have abetted the growth of such public misunderstanding of government. A half-century ago, conservatives found they were unable to stop the growth of the federal government's role in education, but, as Patrick McGuinn has shown, what they were able to do was force that funding to come in the form of multiple small programs, on the theory that these would be less likely to grow than a simple, clean handover of cash to poor districts. They turned out to be wrong - this division of funding helped facilitate the growth of small, powerful interest groups that have made it virtually impossible to untangle our ineffective web of federal education programs.

More recently, Republicans have faced similar questions regarding how to deal with an irrepressible public demand for government action, and in many cases they have decided to concede on the condition that the growth of government cut their allies in on the action. During the George W. Bush administration, Republicans sued for peace over the popular cry for a prescription-drug benefit for the elderly, but had enough power to ensure that the program would not be administered through the existing Medicare system. Instead, as Kimberly Morgan and Andrea Campbell show in The Delegated Welfare State, conservatives insisted as a condition of their cooperation that the program be administered through privately run plans.

This was more than just a payoff to business interests. Republicans hoped that by sidestepping the Medicare bureaucracy, they could make the system more cost-efficient and encourage better consumer and provider decisions. Just as important, however, it would also cut the chains connecting citizens and government, leading the elderly to associate the improvement in their standard of living with private providers instead of the state. If they couldn't stop the program entirely, then programmatic complexity would make it difficult for Democrats to take credit for it, and make it less likely that the program would increase citizens' support for government overall.

Similar stories could be told in a variety of other policy areas, where liberals got bigger government but conservatives funneled benefits to business, keeping liberals from taking political credit. The result of the last three decades of ideological trench warfare is that the American public got a more active, but also incoherent, ineffective, and politically intractable state.

Finally, kludgeocracy is now self-generating, as its growth has created a "kludge industry" that feeds off the system's appetite for complexity. In the name of markets and innovation, and driven by increasingly strict (and often arbitrary) limits on government personnel, the United States has created what public administrators call a "hollow state," in which core functions of government have been hired out to private contractors, operating under the oversight of increasingly overwhelmed civil servants. Christopher McKenna, in his book The World's Newest Profession, shows that, for over half a century, management consultants brought in to advise governments (at great expense) have - not surprisingly - recommended a greater role for consultants and contractors.

This army of consultants and contractors then became a lobby for even greater transfer of governmental functions to outsiders - including, as Janine Wedel shows in Shadow Elite, the transfer of such core roles as formulating policy recommendations and overseeing contractors. This kludge industry, having pulled the fundamental knowledge needed for government out of the state and into the private sector, has thus made itself nearly indispensable. And with its large, generally non-competitive profits, the kludge industry has significant resources to invest in ensuring that government continues to layer on complex policies, and hence continues to need to purchase more services.

As vital as the material interests of consultants and contractors have been in encouraging policy complexity, an important role has also been played by the army of think-tank analysts on all sides of our politics. As the institutional and cultural incentives reinforcing kludgeocracy have gotten ever more intense, the suppliers of policy ideas have generally adapted to kludgeocracy rather than resisting it.

For example, instead of repeatedly making the case for fairly simple and direct mechanisms of social insurance, writers in liberal think tanks have pushed for often bewilderingly complicated policies to increase savings under the banner of "asset-building" strategies. Conservative policy scholars, meanwhile, have seen in the privatization of government's administrative functions a way to reduce the power of the bureaucracy.

Much of the preference for complexity comes from trying, against the background of permanent austerity, to get the equivalent of two dollars in social benefit out of one dollar (or less) in governmental effort. But some of it comes from a preference for clever or innovative policy mechanisms; relatively simple, direct uses of governmental brute force are just not as interesting. Whatever the cause, policy intellectuals are very much a part of the kludge-industry problem.



Steven M. Teles is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. His specialties include social policy, law and public policy, and political analysis. Previously he taught at the University of Maryland, where he was an associate professor of public policy, and at Yale Law School, where he was a visiting lecturer. Teles earned his PhD from the University of Virginia and completed postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies and Princeton University.“I’m slightly out of the mainstream of regular American political science. I don’t do game theory or highly quantitative work,” Teles says. “I’m interested in the role of ideas. I do qualitative work in archives. Hopkins has got to be one of the best, if not the best, departments outside the mainstream of ordinary political sciences.”

Teles has written the Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law (Princeton University Press, 2008). His research for the book included accessing the private archives of the Olin Foundation, the Federalist Society, and other organizations. “I was interested in things other people weren’t—where does the organization of a movement come from and what are their challenges?” he says. Teles has also co-edited books on Conservatism and American Political Development (Oxford University Press, 2009) and on Ethnicity, Social Mobility, and Public Policy: Comparing the USA and UK (Cambridge University Press, 2005). His current projects include a book on political analysis and policy design. Teles’ non-academic interests include skiing and discovering the best ethnic restaurants in the Baltimore area.

推荐 6