Long Live the Kludge

Last week’s buzzword was “kludge,” as everyone from Paul Krugman to Michael Lind decided that the Affordable Care Act was a perfect example of “What’s Wrong With America.” It’s an argument that Steven Teles made recently in an important essay at National Affairs.

For Teles, a political scientist from Johns Hopkins, the way the United States is governed has become increasingly incoherent and even unworkable in policy domain after policy domain. His diagnosis is that our current state of affairs is the result of the accumulation of “kludges”—a term from computer programming for temporary patches. U.S. policy is dominated, he argues, by these ad hoc workarounds, rather than systematic policies. In the short run, make-do kludges are often good enough. But over time, they pile up, one upon another, and the result eventually becomes impossible for anyone to make sense of. Moreover, even when total policy catastrophe is avoided, ad-hoc “solutions” are rarely efficient, and all those inefficiencies add up over time into a real, substantial net loss to the nation.

I fully agree with his description of U.S. policy-making. I also agree with his verdict on its causes. He identifies our Constitution’s system of separated institutions sharing powers as the source for the “kludgeocracy.”

Because, Teles argues, our system of governance has so many veto points—from a bicameral Congress to judicial review to federalism, and more—it’s almost impossible for a clear, simple, coherent policy to emerge. Instead, policymakers are constantly adjusting in order to either accommodate or avoid those veto points. Accommodating may mean adding extra detail. For example, the original plan for the ACA was to have one national health-insurance exchange. However, to get it through Congress, the plan changed to individual state exchanges—and then, because Republican-led states opted out, the eventual program has turned out to have the federal government running numerous state-based exchanges, while also providing needed services for the minority of states running their own marketplaces. Far more complicated! Avoiding veto points may mean even less coherence in the final agreed-upon policy; consider situations under divided government when the administration attempts to do by regulation what it cannot pass through Congress, even if it means accepting major constraints on a program because administrative action often can’t do what laws could do. That’s what’s happening now with climate; since Congress won’t pass anything, the Obama administration is attempting to do what it can under the scope of old laws, but they can only do what those laws, written with other problems in mind, allow.

Thus our incredibly complex tax code; thus our system of education with responsibility spread widely among various agencies in national, state, and local governments; thus the Affordable Care Act.

I agree with Teles about all that. However, while he looks at “Kludgeocracy” and sees mayhem, I see mostly success. Here’s Teles:

Kludgeocracy is also a significant threat to the quality of our democracy. The complexity that makes so much of American public policy vexing and wasteful for ordinary citizens and governments is also what makes it so easy for organized interests to profit from the state's largesse

Is it the United States’ inherent kludgeiness that makes public policy vexing? On the margins, sure, but the main thing that makes policy vexing for most citizens is the basic circumstances of a modern welfare state in a very large and immensely diverse polity. There are simply way too many policy areas for most citizens to even begin to have any kind of expertise, at least apart from the few of us who are obsessed with it. I don’t see how that changes if each of those many policy areas is less opaque.11. Suppose, for example, federal taxes were radically simplified: no deductions, no exemptions, and a unified income tax rather than separate income and payroll taxes. Would that really change the debate over tax levels? I suspect that we would still have a nation of people convinced that both everyone richer and everyone poorer were somehow not paying their fair share. And I suspect that most people would be equally able to form opinions of whether their own taxes were too high or too low.

Is it true that the U.S. system “makes it ... easy for organized interests” to get their way? Absolutely—but that’s a feature, not a bug. After all, in a democracy, organized interests aren’t something external to the system; organized interests are, at the core of it, just citizens engaging in politics in groups. In a nation of over 300 million, citizens are generally going to have to organize into groups in order to be effective politically. But it’s a good thing that they—we—have the opportunity for political efficacy in groups. And what do we have to thank for this? Kludgeocracy! Those veto points Teles and other critics of Madison’s Constitution gripe about are also initiative points.

Want something done in education? A local school board might be able to do it. Or a governor. Or a state legislator. Or a member of Congress. Or, perhaps, a state or federal judge. And that’s without getting into directly lobbying the bureaucracy, or more properly, bureaucracies at various levels. Yes, that could be bewilderingly complex, but the good news is that a group doesn’t have to master all of that to have an effect; all that’s needed is an “in” at any of these initiative points. Without kludgeocracy, that’d be impossible.

Teles wants to streamline all of this: less influence for congressional committees and more for party leadership, less influence for Congress and more for the bureaucracy. Teles claims that his call for Congress to move “the power over the "micro-design" of policies away from Capitol Hill and toward the agencies that will actually have to administer them” would not in fact boil down to “greater delegation of congressional power to the executive.” His streamlined Congress would be better able to form cleaner statements of policy in that sort of legislation. By leaving the details to executive branch agencies, Congress could focus on basic policy questions; the details could be left to specialists rather than fought over by politicians with policy claims.

But he’s thinking along the wrong dimension. The battle isn’t between Congress and the executive; what’s at stake here is the elected branches vs. the permanent bureaucracy. In Tales’ preferred government, bureaucrats unstressed by hyperactive meddling from Congress would have little incentive to appease citizens and groups of citizens who complain about the effects of some law and its regulations. A great outcome if the goal is clean, systematic policy. Not so great if the goal is citizen efficacy, which is meant to be the charming trump card of our frustrating and messy democracy

What all of this means is that a kludgeocracy has, in theory at least, a far better chance of becoming a government “of” and “by” the people than the alternative of a government of efficiently designed policy solutions.

What, however, of government “for” the people? Teles isn’t just arguing for coherent policy because it’s aesthetically pleasing; he points out, correctly, that there are costs for all this complexity.

One of these costs I’m simply not competent to judge: the direct penalties of more complex policy. I agree, in general, that the inefficiency of piling kludge onto kludge does have costs. All I would argue is that government by kludge also, in a large and diverse nation, probably ameliorates some of the (also real) ways that a uniform policy can impose disproportionate costs on small segments of the nation.

The other cost Teles outlines— that kludgeocracy prevents accountability—I find not very compelling at all:

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.

I think this is largely a myth. Modern government, even the streamlined version Teles wants, is still going to do far too many things for this kind of accountability to work. Voters, after all, have only one ballot. They can’t possibly use it to hold politicians accountable for multiple successes and failures, even in the unlikely event that they are attentive enough to properly assess those policies. 2 2. And yes, even if those policies are far more transparent than they are now, voters who can’t even keep straight that Medicare is a government program are hardly going to find it obvious that, say, school financing is a success or a failure. at any rate, that single ballot also is going to be used for registering party and ideological preferences, not just for rewarding and punishing policy performance—and as we know, swing voters are both less likely to have strong party ties but are also less likely to be well informed about politics and public affairs.

Voters do punish and reward politicians for economic performance, but that’s mostly not relevant to the kludge argument. Responsibility through the ballot is a blunt instrument, registering little more than recent recessions and good times. It doesn’t even manage to account for overall economic success or failure since the last election, let alone the kinds of lost potential implied by inferior, kludgey, policy.

On the other hand, kludgeocracy increases accountability—dramatically. Individual politicians have a real opportunity to make significant policy changes on many occasions. The very fact that there’s no one who is “in charge” is exactly what can make it hard for politicians to entirely duck a constituent’s demands. And we have plenty of evidence that politicians do respond to constitution demands, even if failure to do so probably wouldn’t show up as a significant electoral effect.

Kludgeocracy does have some costs in terms of policy inefficiency—costs which may potentially be offset by the very ad hoc solutions and workarounds that collectively cause that inefficiency. Overall, however, the gains in democratic efficacy are important enough that I can only say: long live the kludge. 

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