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 third and last in a Series by Steven M. Teles, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. This Post treats Cures. The first reported Costs, the second analyzed Causes.

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)


Kludgeocracy is not an accident -- it is a predictable consequence of deeply rooted features of the American regime. It would be facile, therefore, to pretend that its baleful effects can be reduced without major (and extremely unlikely) changes in our larger system of government and political values. But institutions can be changed at the margins, values can shift incrementally, and, in any case, knowing what one would do to reverse the problem is helpful if only to think about how to keep the problem from getting any worse.

The deepest cause of kludgeocracy is the structure of American governing institutions, and the incentives that they provide for individual politicians. Any attempt to chip away at policy complexity must involve reducing the number of extra-constitutional veto points in our system. These are not features of the original design of our system of government but are more like barnacles that have built up over time. If anything, removing them would lead to institutions that function in ways that are truer to the founding design.

The first reform that would tend to reduce kludgeocracy would be to eliminate or radically reduce the filibuster in the Senate, which increases the number of members who can demand changes in legislation as the price of their vote. Second, we should reduce multiple referrals to congressional committees, which create extra opportunities for rent seeking and produce policies with fundamentally divergent logics that need to be reconciled with one another (before they even reach a House-Senate conference). Both of these changes would increase the power of the congressional majority, and reduce the power of individual members to demand adjustments that add to policy complexity. A more majoritarian Congress -- regardless of which party had the majority -- would also be more likely to effectuate wholesale changes in policy, be it to the right or left.

These sorts of institutional changes are hardly unimaginable. In fact, in the last few years the filibuster has faced greater criticism than at any time over the last four decades. And at least in the House, the trend since the Gingrich years has been in the direction of greater power for the majority leadership and less for committees. If the Senate were to become as majoritarian as the House, the institutional hooks that facilitate complexity would be reduced considerably.

Public policies would also become less kludgey if Congress shifted the power over the "micro-design" of policies away from Capitol Hill and toward the agencies that will actually have to administer them once they are passed. This is not a plea for greater delegation of congressional power to the executive. In some ways, it is the opposite. Congress often avoids actually producing a piece of legislation that is worthy of the name -- a general, abstract statement of authoritative lawmaking and basic policy design -- and instead passes a wave of specific measures unconnected by any general logic. It does too much of what the executive is best equipped to do, and too little of what it actually has the authority to command. Giving the people who will actually have to administer policies greater power over the design of those policies would likely increase their simplicity.

We should also thoroughly reconsider our system of federal grants to the states. Michael Greve recently suggested that we adopt a norm of "one problem, one sovereign." In other words, in policy areas like education or health care, give the problem either to the federal government or to the states to deal with, but don't give it to both. If the federal government wants to expand access to health care, it should pay the bill and administer the program itself. In education, either we should considerably nationalize education (by, for example, creating a national voucher paid for out of tax funds that would go directly to individuals and pre-empt local funding through property taxes) or cut out the complicated web of federal education funding and regulation altogether. A realignment of responsibility for both of these problems is conceivable; we could relieve states of the costs of Medicaid entirely and send education -- lock, stock, and barrel -- back to the states. This was, in fact, what President Reagan proposed back in the 1980s, and it is still a sound idea.

This is an area where the conservative majority on the Supreme Court could actually generate greater pure nationalism, forcing federal programs to be fully and openly run by the federal government, by establishing rules that make it harder for Democrats to expand federally supported, state-administered social-welfare programs (like Medicaid). Democrats would vociferously object in the short term, but over the long term constitutional standards like these might actually serve the interests of liberalism as well as conservatism better than the law of anything goes. Democrats would be prevented from proposing policies that, as Suzanne Mettler has shown, actually fail to serve their political interests over the long term by hiding the hand of government when it delivers benefits. And they would be forced to rediscover their capacity to argue transparently for social action in the interest of social justice, rather than trying to come up with ever more complicated kludges.

Another potentially valuable reform would be to change institutional rules in Congress to increase the visibility of policy complexity's costs. Shining a light on the costs of kludgeocracy would encourage more publicly-spirited politicians to seek to minimize them, while their more electorally minded colleagues would be made to worry about being held responsible for them. As the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued, what counts is what's counted. While Congressional Budget Office deficit scoring powerfully influences politicians as they consider policy options, the large compliance costs associated with our kludge-ocracy are uncounted, and thus invisible. Requiring that CBO issue an estimate of governmental and private compliance costs along with its deficit scores may reduce somewhat the incentives to lower deficit estimates by substituting more complicated alternatives for straightforward programs. Moreover, the addition of an extra "distributive score" to CBO estimates would reveal that kludgey policies typically redistribute upward rather than downward. Mettler has shown in experimental work that tax expenditures are considerably less popular when the fact that they disproportionately benefit the wealthy is made clear.

While institutional change is likely to come incrementally, if at all, a more direct, near-term strategy is an attack on the kludge industry, given that it both lives off of and helps create demand for policy complexity. The best place to start could be the Department of Defense: The growth of the private military over the last few decades has been explosive, and congressional efforts at deficit reduction have put the Pentagon's budget on the chopping block. Increasing the salaries of high-level federal workers throughout the government and reducing caps on their numbers could also go hand in hand with drastically cutting the amounts that agencies can spend on consultants and contractors.

Much of the kludge industry has benefitted from the ideological support it has garnered from Republicans, who have seen the army of consultants and contractors as an attractive alternative to government bureaucrats. But the increasingly populist spirit of the Republican Party may be a signal that this cozy relationship with the kludge industry is coming to an end. Republicans are starting to recognize that companies that receive the vast majority of their business from the government are not really in the private sector at all. Private profits and public risk is hardly a conservative combination, and it is not hard to see how the spirit that has lately led conservatives to question government support for the big banks could be turned against the rest of modern government's corporate dependents.

Going further than just attacking the crony capitalism inherent in kludgeocracy, however, will require deeper reconsiderations of the orthodoxies of both conservatives and liberals. While it is hard to imagine in an era of tax pledges, Republicans convinced that kludgeocracy is a problem will need to rethink their exclusive emphasis on controlling direct federal taxation and spending. Resistance to carbon taxation, for example, has not eliminated pressure for action on global warming; instead it has deflected it into highly inefficient and incomprehensible regulations and subsidies. Limiting growth in federal taxation has redirected pressure for social protection into the hidden welfare state, rather than encouraging greater self-reliance. Trying to stop the growth of nationally administered social and regulatory programs has not led to freer markets; it has only encouraged the spread of complex inter-governmental kludges.

Conservatives might do better to insist that if we are going to have a government of a certain size, it should be national, transparent, and tax funded. There is no way in a democratic polity for the public to get less government than it wants — demand for state action will always yield a supply. But conservatives should insist that voters get only the government they are willing to pay for directly and out in the open, and liberals should not be able to expand government beyond that point through complicated mechanisms that hide the hand of the state. Insisting on constraints that force state action into the open would lead to a government with higher levels of outright taxing and spending, but one that was less sprawling, less intrusive, more democratically accountable, and more transparent than today's kludgeocracy.

Liberals, too, will need to change their thinking in order to claw back kludgeocracy. Perhaps above all, they will need to accept constitutional constraints that they currently identify with conservatism. Two areas in particular come to mind. First, liberals should look more favorably on constitutional interpretations that make joint federal-state programs more difficult to establish and administer. Such interpretations include Chief Justice Roberts's ruling in the 2012 Obamacare cases limiting the penalty on states that fail to join the law's Medicaid expansion.

Second, liberals should also come to accept various quasi-constitutional rules (like those Congress sometimes imposes on itself) establishing super-majority requirements for the creation of any new deductions or credits in the tax code. While these rules make it harder to engage in forms of shadowy government activism, liberals should insist that, in exchange, majoritarian rules govern all other lawmaking. So long as a 60-vote majority is required for any meaningful action in the Senate, the inclination to buy votes with complex kludges to piece together a super-majority is irrepressible. A Congress that operated under rules that restricted hidden taxing and spending but enabled more transparent forms of both would probably be one that passed fewer, but larger and more effective pieces of major legislation. In the long run, this would be in the interests of both liberals and conservatives, even if they found it frustrating in the short term.

Few of the reforms sketched out above have much of a chance of being enacted at the moment, since the institutions and practices they propose to alter are too deeply entrenched to remove quickly. But there are levers for change short of major institutional reform, the most important of which is a shift in problem definition. Grand "problems" do not naturally appear in politics — it is only through research, discussion, deliberation, and argument that we patch together smaller, individual problems into a complex whole that comes to be defined as a critical "issue." For example, air and water quality, public lands, and toxic waste were all thought of as discrete problems until writers and a nascent movement made "the environment" a problem that politicians were able to discuss as one issue.

Only when Americans give a name to what ails their government, therefore, will we be able to achieve a system that is simpler, more effective, and better for democracy. Introducing kludgeocracy into the public vocabulary as a recognized problem will be an uphill battle. First, ordinary citizens will need help seeing the problem and recognizing its manifestations in their daily lives. When they get frustrated trying to navigate federal education-aid programs, or flustered trying to understand their taxes, or perplexed at the complications of our civil-litigation system, they need to recognize their problem as a part of a larger set of issues that links to other, seemingly unconnected grievances and frustrations. Clarifying such links is the quintessential work of public intellectuals, writers, bloggers, researchers, and entrepreneurial politicians.


While it might seem like an uphill climb, a simpler, less kludgey government is an immensely attractive goal, and should appeal to Americans of all parties and ideologies.

Imagine a world in which the tax code was scrubbed clean of byzantine savings incentives and Social Security payments were increased instead; in which tax deductions for health insurance were eliminated and either Medicare was expanded or subsidies for catastrophic insurance in a competitive market were established; in which taxes on pollution were imposed but complicated regulatory and subsidy schemes were thrown out; in which government contractors and consultants were purged and a sharper division was established between federal and state responsibilities; and in which a maze of loans, grants, and subsidies was replaced with vastly more straightforward programs to help Americans pay for college tuition and housing. Imagine a world in which constitutional norms forced government to act directly and transparently or forgo action altogether. Americans would have a government that did fewer, simpler, bigger things, and they would be able to more effectively reward politicians for policy successes and to hold them accountable for failures.

The politics of that world would be neither more "liberal" nor more "conservative" in any simple sense. Government would be bigger and more energetic where it clearly chose to act (and so received public sanction for doing so), but smaller and less intrusive outside of that sphere. Unlike the kludgey mess that neither party seems willing to take on today, that would be a vision of American government worth fighting for.



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.

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