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November 04, 2013 4:12 PM The Great “Kludge” Debate of 2013

By Ed Kilgore

I’m not going to pretend to cover this topic exhaustively in a single post. But I do want to note the increasingly wide-ranging debate touched off by Steven Teles’ National Affairs article identifying “Kludgeocracy” as a central problem in American governance. Here’s Teles’ point of departure:

A “kludge” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes. Any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept.
“Clumsy but temporarily effective” also describes much of American public policy today. To see policy kludges in action, one need look no further than the mind-numbing complexity of the health-care system (which even Obamacare’s champions must admit has only grown more complicated under the new law, even if in their view the system is now also more just), or our byzantine system of funding higher education, or our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from welfare to education to environmental regulation. America has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country.

Teles focuses on three particular “kludgey” habits we have in American public policy: achieving public goals through private actors; scattering responsibility for public programs throughout an intergovernmental system of federal, state and local governments; and the use of obscure regulations and tax code provisions to accomplish policy purposes indirectly. He attributes all of them to a combination of constitutional inhibitions of more direct and less complex means of government interacting with narrow private interests exploiting the “kludge,” usually on behalf of the wealthy and the powerful. And he blames the lack of transparency and accountability which “kludge” produces for a general breakdown in the the ability of government to function and in the ability of citizens to effectively exercise control over it. Hence: “kludgeocracy.”

The breadth of the Teles’s argument has been obscured somewhat because of its immediate hijacking by those using it as a cudgel with which to pummel Obamacare, particularly among single-payer advocates on the Left (though right-wing libertarians hostile to government regulation of the private sector have their own reasons for celebrating the goal of eliminating “kludge” in a very different direction). I’ve written already about columns by Mike Konczal and Michael Lind arguing against the complexity introduced into social programs by public-private cooperative models, state involvement in federal programs, and means-testing.

But while I’m wary of the use of the “kludgeocracy” indictment to fight any compromise in New Deal liberal governing models (or more accurately, simplistic characterizations of New Deal governing models, never as “pure” as their champions claim) and cooperate with conservatives in undermining the Affordable Care Act, Teles raises some valid and even urgent points about policies crafted via compromises between wildly contradictory points of view, and implemented via wildly uncoordinated actors and institutions. Back in the early 1980s, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt warned presciently that our tendency to conduct most domestic government functions via what he called an “amorphous omelet of intergovernmental responsibilities” was endangering democratic accountability (Babbitt, interestingly enough, also focused on the conflict between universal and means-tested programs, but contra Konczal and Lind, advocated universal means-testing). It is too rarely observed that voters are expected to judge federal elected officials on programs largely controlled by the states, and vice versa. Whether you are a liberal upset about state-level discrepancies in the social safety net or a conservative upset about federal usurpation of state prerogatives, it’s hard to defend a system where no one in particular is in charge of any particular government function.

Beyond that observation, I think Teles’ argument about the inefficiency of “kludgey” policies may understate the problem. I’ve talked about this in the context of economic policies where we often wind up compromising between completely incompatible liberal and conservative assumptions about how to grow the economy and where government fits into the picture. It’s not just a matter of putting up with some inefficiency in how government operates as a small price to pay for keeping the machine running and letting different interests have their say (as Jonathan Bernstein suggests in a generally well-wrought rebuttal to Teles at TAP); sometimes “compromise” disables government altogether or produces outcomes neither party desires (say, Keynesian policies undermined by austerity budgets). Indeed, I’d argue we’re reaching the point where one of the two major parties needs to get effective control of the federal government—even if it’s the party whose follies and perversities I write about seven or eight times a day—in order to create some internally consistent policies, both for purposes of efficacy and of accountability.

Bernstein argues that all the simplification in the world won’t engage the average voter, and that’s a valid objection to Teles’ argument against “kludge.” But most voters are attached to the Donkey or the Elephant—even if they like to call themselves independents—yet have little way to determine which policies or personnel are responsible for which outcome, beyond the predictable assertions of the partisan media that the bad guys are at fault.

In any event, this is a topic that probably bores people uninterested in government as opposed to politics, but is essential to both. We’ll certainly never have any sort of new era of progressive accomplishments so long as we tolerate vast institutional barriers to the coherent design of public policies. It’s a problem not just for the Affordable Care Act, but for any effort to harness the public sector on behalf of the public interest.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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