Kludge, American Style


One of my favorite papers by a political scientist is "Kludgeocracy: The American Way of Policy" by Steven Teles, vintage 2012. In it, Teles explains that our form of governance has become a "kludgeocracy" over time; here's how he explains that concept:

"The dictionary tells us that a 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.' The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to be backward compatible with the rest of a system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes. In other words, Windows. '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."

Teles also explains why kludgeocracy arose in the United States:

"The most obvious reason why American institutions generate policy complexity is our numerous veto points for action. Separation of powers means that any proposal must generate agreement at three different stages — each house of Congress and the president. But veto points 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. Even worse, many ambitious proposals are considered by Congress under “multiple referrals,” in which more than a single committee is given jurisdiction. This multiplies the number of veto points, as in the recently passed health care reform bill, 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 reform, means that any single member of the majority party can stall the progress of legislation.

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

"Unfortunately, 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 action to proceed, they often require that legislation hold their favored programs harmless. Consequently, new ideas have to be layered over old programs, rather than replacing them — the textbook definition of a policy kludge. Second, the need to generate 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 happening, but it does considerably raise its cost and, more importantly, its complexity."

There are many examples, of course; a good one is our tax code:

"The American tax code is almost certainly the most complicated in the Western world, both on the individual and the corporate side. The IRS’s taxpayer advocate estimates that the direct and indirect costs of complying with all this complexity costs Americans $163 billion each year. Included in that cost is the remarkable 6.1 billion hours a year that American individuals and businesses spend complying with the filing requirements of the tax code. The web of deductions and credits also pushes up marginal tax rates for everyone: the Bowles-Simpson commission estimated that eliminating all tax deductions other than the EITC and child tax credit would allow marginal rates on middle-income taxpayers to be cut by half, and those on the top earners by about a third, without costing more money. Getting to anything like that level of tax simplicity is exceedingly unlikely, but it does show how much of a cost in higher marginal rates we are paying to preserve our kludgey tax system."

You get the drift. I was reminded of this excellent paper of Teles today as I was reading a couple of articles. The first was a great op-ed in the New York Times today about, well, California kludge. Yep, you guessed it: California is one of kludgiest states in the nation, which probably accounts for why it is losing population to the tune of 130,000 people per year. Here's Ezra Klein on what he sees:

"The median price for a home in California is more than $700,000. As Bloomberg reported in 2019, the state has four of the nation’s five most expensive housing markets and a quarter of the nation’s homeless residents. The root of the crisis is simple: It’s very, very hard to build homes in California. When he ran for governor in 2018, Gavin Newsom promised the construction of 3.5 million housing units by 2025. Newsom won, but California has built fewer than 100,000 homes each year since. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti persuaded Angelenos to pass a new sales tax to address the city’s homelessness crisis, but the program has fallen far behind schedule, in part because homeowners fought the placing of shelters in their communities.

"Some of this reflects the difficulty of wielding power in a state where authority is often fractured and decentralized. But that does not explain all of it. Watching SB50, State Senator Scott Wiener’s ambitious bill to allow dense construction near mass transit, fail has become an annual political ritual. Last year, Toni Atkins, the Democratic State Senate leader, sponsored a modest bill to allow duplexes on single-family lots. It passed the Senate, and then passed the Assembly in slightly amended form, and then died because it was sent back to the Senate with only three minutes left in the legislative session. All this in a state racked by a history — and a present — of housing racism.

"This is a crisis that reveals California’s conservatism — not the political conservatism that privatizes Medicare, but the temperamental conservatism that stands athwart change and yells “Stop!” In much of San Francisco, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal. Those signs sit in yards zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes that would bring those values closer to reality. Poorer families — disproportionately nonwhite and immigrant — are pushed into long commutes, overcrowded housing and homelessness. Those inequalities have turned deadly during the pandemic.

"“If you’re living eight or 10 people to a home, it’s hard to protect yourself from the virus,” Senator Wiener told me. “Yet what we see at times is people with a Bernie Sanders sign and a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign in their window, but they’re opposing an affordable housing project or an apartment complex down the street.”

"Once you start looking for this pattern, you see it everywhere. California talks a big game on climate change, but even with billions of dollars in federal funding, it couldn’t build high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project was choked by pricey consultants, private land negotiations, endless environmental reviews, county governments suing the state government. It has been shrunk to a line connecting the midsize cities of Bakersfield and Merced, and even that is horribly over budget and behind schedule.

"Smaller projects are also herculean lifts. In San Francisco, for example, it took 10 years to get two rapid bus transit lines through environmental review. It’s become common in the state to see legislation like the California Environmental Quality Act wielded against projects that would curb sprawl. Groups with no record of green advocacy use it to force onerous environmental analyses that have been used to block everything from bike lanes to affordable housing developments to homeless shelters.

"The vaccine rollout in California was marred by overly complex eligibility criteria that slowed the pace of vaccinations terribly in the early days. Those regulations were written with good intentions, as California politicians worried over how to balance speed and equity. The result, however, wasn’t fairness, but sluggishness, and California lagged behind the rest of the nation for the first weeks of the effort. Eventually, the state reversed course and simplified eligibility.

"Some conservative outcomes are intended; California’s voters blocked the 2020 ballot initiative restoring affirmative action on purpose. But some reflect old processes and laws that interest groups or existing communities have perverted for their own ends. The California Environmental Quality Act wasn’t passed to stop mass transit — a fact California finally acknowledged when it recently passed legislation carving out exemptions. The profusion of councils and public hearings that let NIMBYs block new homes are a legacy of a progressivism that wanted to stop big developers from slicing communities up with highways, not help wealthy homeowners fight affordable apartments. California wants to be the future, but its governing institutions are stuck in the past. Its structures of decision making too often privilege incumbents who like things the way they are over those who need them to change."

Wow. To do anything decent and fair--even simple, decent, and fair--is a Sisyphean task, apparently. While this could be said of all democratic governance, the stark contrasts of California seem to stand out like a neon light.

I had been raised in an era when democracy was a virtue, when the whole world aspired to be democratic. It wasn't until I read Amy Chua's World on Fire where she argues democracy and free market capitalism breed ethnci hatred and instability that I began to have doubts. Yes, of course it's better than the alternatives, but the more important question for me is whether democracy gets so bad--like the ateriosclerosis of kludgeocracy Klein describes or the ethnic hatreds Chua discusses--that a heart attack inevitably ensues. And this heart attack then brings an end to democracy, and ushers in an authoritarianism that can cut through the kludge and knock heads together in Tito-esque fashion.

I guess the question I ruminate on is whether this is truly inevitable, and whether the aspiration to democracy is inherently a flawed choice for which our children and grandchildren will one day be compelled to pay. What are your thoughts?