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Debugging Our Democracy | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Debugging Our Democracy

It’s “on the road” week here at Altercation. As your pinch-hitter—Reed here—I’m posting from wintry Minneapolis, where despite a recent record heavy snowfall for December, they’ve been enjoying a far-warmer-than-average fall. This, after the Twin Cities experienced the fourth-warmest winter on record last year. But, you know, Al Gore is fat or something.

As for Eric, he’s enjoying the sunny climes of the Caribbean on the Nation cruise. But there’s no resting on our laurels around here. He’s written a new Think Again column on the mendacity of perhaps the world’s most powerful media mogul entitled “Murdoch, Murdoch, Everywhere.” One addendum I’d add to his thorough, Rupertian roundup. Right after this column came out, the New York Times reported that yet another editor within Murdoch’s empire embroiled in the phone hacking scandal, James Harding of The Times of London, will also step down. But that wasn’t even the most outrageous piece of news from that Times story. Instead, that had to be the revelation that Murdoch gave his former News of the Worldeditor, the disgraced Rebekah Brooks, who is currently facing conspiracy charges, a whopping $17.6 million severance package. Dick Armey, it seems, has nothing on Brooks when it comes to being handsomely rewarded for spectacular failure.

Debugging Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson

If there’s one broader lesson we can draw from the ridiculous posturing around the manufactured “fiscal cliff” crisis that has gripped all of Washington these days, it is this: our democracy can no longer effectively handle the basic task of responsible governance. And a not insignificant portion of the blame can be laid at the feet of a easily manipulated press. Of course, this diagnosis is by no means revelatory. Many have come to the same conclusion. Almost two years ago, Eric wrote at length about our “Kabuki Democracy” and deconstructed how our “maddeningly complex” political system, as currently constructed, routinely fails our citizenry, thanks, in part, to a complicit media that makes little attempt at honest, clear reportage of policy and process issues.

Coincidentally, this week, I stumbled across a very engaging essay by Johns Hopkins political science professor Steven Teles that offers up a similar critique—that our governing mechanisms and policy solutions almost invariably involve counterproductive, Rube Goldberg contraptions that only obliquely address the issue at hand. I admit that I discovered the essay only after it caught the attention of some conservatives on Twitter, who seemed to appreciate its insightful observations even though Teles, as one Cornerite claimed, was “of a center-left bent.” (Admittedly, this ideological appellation is of little relative value based on the extreme right-wing positions around which conservatives are now encamped­­.)

Anyway, Teles’s essay is quite good and worth a full read. It only stumbles in a few, rare spots, like trying too hard to nitpick liberal policy strategy. And though he makes an awful lexical choice as part of analogizing what plagues our democracy—which has transformed into something he calls a “kludgeocracy”—his big-picture view is spot-on:

The dictionary tells us that kludge is “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” […]
 

“Clumsy but temporarily effective” also describes much of American public policy. For any particular problem we have arrived at the most gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated response. From the mind-numbing complexity of the health care system (which has only gotten more complicated, if also more just, after the passage of Obamacare), our Byzantine system of funding higher education, and our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from the welfare state to environmental regulation, America has chosen more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than any comparable country.

Simple, elegant solutions have been rendered increasingly extinct, in other words. As an example, Teles points to the remarkably efficient, almost frictionless policy mechanics of Social Security and compares that to increasingly complex, time-intensive, and financially less efficacious private sector savings tools, like 401(k)s and IRAs. And yet, among lawmakers and thinktank policy wonks, we have witnessed an almost unceasing assault on the former and preference for the latter over the last two generations. Playing along with this inversion of what works for what doesn’t work as well (or at all), lobbyists that obfuscate the real impact of policy, an incestuous thinktank culture that profits from selling ever more complex policies, and, not least of all, Teles notes is a news media that feeds its newshole covering all these policies:

Entire networks like CNBC, the financial planning industry, and a small army of financial publications have sprouted up to profit off the public’s confusion—and to waste time that would be better spent on almost anything else.

That the media willingly, if often subconsciously, marches in lockstep with this drumbeat for bank-shot policymaking isn’t surprising. Having been stripped of its much of its authoritative voice because the rise of the Internet, the Washington press corps has tried to find a new, comfortable home in interpreting the impenetrable horse-trading that colors Washington now. As a result, we encounter breathless insider journalism about reviving the stumbling economy that just “know[s]” the age of Social Security retirement and Medicare eligibility need to go up and that benefits from both programs need to go down. Or we see self-absorbed pundits bemoaning our federal deficit while, in the same breath, they vociferously object to the deficit reduction mechanisms of the fiscal cliff while championing debt-ballooning tax cuts for the rich.

This wrongheadedness exacts a toll on our democracy, however, Teles argues. It begins to create an intellectual construct that holds any simple solution up for ridicule and dismisses any policy that would provide a direct benefit to the public as unserious. Hence, the recent financial crisis and housing bust occasioned various end-around bailouts that had to pass through numerous private-sector actors before any assistance ever reached regular citizens.

Blogger Duncan Black—Atrios—often spoke of how “helicopter drops” of money right into the hands of the unemployed or struggling homeowners would have been more effective than the convoluted solutions the federal government settled on. And it’s hard to argue he’s wrong. No wonder, then, that this built-in inefficiency begins to corrode the public’s faith in the government in the first place. And on those rare occasions that the policies do work, the message has been muddied, playing right into conservatives’ hand. Again, Teles:

Ms Suzanne Mettler argues in her important recent book The Submerged State, our complex, hidden welfare state conceals the presence of government action, leading citizens to mistake as “private” market structures those programs that are in fact pervasively shaped by government. Mettler’s research shows that Americans who benefit from educational savings programs through the tax code (like 529 plans) do not experience them as government at all, despite the fact that they redistribute huge sums of money. The same is true for the deduction for employer-provided health care, and a variety of other pieces of the welfare state hidden in the tax and regulatory codes. This facilitates the myth of independence and rugged individualism upon which modern conservatism is based.
 

Kludgeocracy is also bad for liberalism by creating both the reality and image that government is incompetent and/or corrupt. The complexity of the tax code, for instance, facilitates tax cheating and creative accounting, and along with it the impression that tax compliance is actually lower than it is. Much of the legitimacy of the law, and the willingness of citizens to contribute to public goods, rests on the perception that others are doing their share. Complexity helps eat away at that perception, which is crucial to support the expansion of beneficial state activity.

This is why even nominal legislative successes, like the Medicare Part D expansion, can have negative repercussions. When the Bush administration passed (completely unfunded, I might add) the law, it also intentionally kept its administration in the hands of private insurers, despite the fact that letting Medicare officially run the program and, more importantly, negotiate the rates for prescription drugs, would have unquestionably been simpler and more cost effective. Even when government does get something done, conservatives are adept (and more than willing) at undermining its long-term efficacy.

Again, the same dynamic is evident with regard to climate change legislation. Rather than adopt the fairest, simplest program—a carbon tax—the Obama administration tried (not very hard) to stand up the more contrived cap-and-trade scheme. Having failed, it left us with the status quo, which is probably the least best of all policy choices, individual tax subsidies for renewable energy companies.

That our sticky, rickety ability to govern forces us to incessantly choose policy choices from the bad/dumb end of the solution continuum doesn’t come across in the media coverage, though. Indeed, even a mild progressive victory like ObamaCare, which took a Herculean effort to get passed, can be characterized in the op-ed pages of the mainstream media as having been something that deserved  “more careful consideration” because “no one has read it” before it was “jammed” through Capitol Hill. That’s right, a mildly conservative healthcare bill that had to pass five separate Congressional committees before several contentious full floor votes were spread across several months was actually indicative that our government moves too fast. (If you want to see a real example of ramrodding unpopular legislation, check out Lansing, Michigan.)

So, why does our democracy suffer from Lincoln’s famous critique of McClellan? Because, as Teles explains, there are innumerable veto points now built into our policymaking system, every one of which extracts a kind of transactional toll. But while many of these waypoints are embedded too deeply in our Constitution to be streamlined or improved upon, there are some roadblocks that enjoy no such protection. One of these is the filibuster, which has been abused so egregiously in recent years by Republicans that, just maybe, it will be rightfully rolled back to its original, rare intended use. (It's reform is the number one item on Teles's agenda.) But perhaps the most prominent obstacle in need of change is our press corps, which often engages in hypocritical double-dealing rather than truth-telling. For instance, its bemoaning of the ineffectual nature of the Senate while simultaneously inculcating and normalizing the notion that a 60-vote threshold is needed to get anything done.

Teles concludes his essay with a sober assessment of how difficult changing our democracy for the better will be. And he assigns some responsibilities to all parties involved, including regular citizens and policymakers. But the greatest burden for progress, he sees, really rests upon those who serve as the connection between the former and the latter and that help shape the expectations of both. But before they can start fixing our broken democracy, the shapers of public debate—the press and pundits—need to recognize that they’re already part of the problem, too.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

Also, I’m doing the Twitter thing here—(at) reedfrich. Speaking of which, Lord knows I don’t agree with David Frum too often, but after yet another senseless shooting spree took the lives of innocent Americans this week, he took to Twitter to argue once again about the folly of our nation’s gun obsession. (He did two columns on this topic for CNN earlier this summer here and here.) Since, on this point, we’re of like minds, I pointed him to a 1997 study that fully debunked the methodology behind one of the gun lobby’s favorite talking points—that Americans engage in more than two million “defensive gun uses” every year. To his credit, he wrote a post on the study over at The Daily Beast (and was nice enough to give me a hat tip as well).

The Mail:

Chuck Gribaudo
Re you recent article [“Lie of Omission”]

The sun neither rises or sets.

The earth rotates.

Reed replies: Sorry, Chuck, but I’m not having your too-cute-by-half attempt at pedantry here. While I didn’t take the time to fully explain the physical science behind the frame-of-reference phenomena we colloquially call the earth’s “sunrise” and “sunset,” I did so because I wasn’t going to waste my reader’s time or insult their intelligence, a courtesy you seem uninterested in extending to me. Ironically, your comments miss the point in much the same way the fact-checking sites do. For, the salient part of my analogy was not about the celestial mechanics that produce our sunrise, but that this mechanism is incontrovertibly fixed in one direction and so the location of the sunrise is an unquestionable, easily provable fact, one that anyone drawing breath on the planet, even a journalist, is qualified to defend from “lies” that say otherwise. It’s precisely when the willingness to obsess over the semantics of an argument obscures understanding the foundational lie or truth therein that journalism fails its professional duty.

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