Friday, December 13, 2013

The Problem is Ideology Not Interest Groups

David Brooks has a column today on how we need to strengthen executive authority. He draws this conclusion from a Francis Fukuyama article which argues that the checks and balances in US government have made the country ungovernable given current conditions.

I don't have much to say on Fukuyama's contribution, but I think the Brooks column is terrible. Small changes within the existing political framework to lessen interest groups' influence have a recent history of backfiring. Ending earmarks was supposed to allow legislators to see the bright light of reason and pass clean bills, instead it has allowed them to wallow in a fantasy world where the darkness of ideological purity has eclipsed reason's sun entirely. There is no reason to believe that the Executive is any more able to act purely than the legislative, simply more possibility of ideology blinding them to even the few rays of reason's light that used to filter through attached to interest group's grubby dollar bills.*

Interest groups were always a manageable problem, most of our great legislation was passed with compromises to industry which were relatively minor compared to the advantages of the bill. Far more tragic is that these bills can't pass at all.

The real problem is that much of our political class has been swept away into a sea of ideology which distances them from any connection to the real world. This ideological insanity is focused on the welfare state. There is simply no reasoning with people who believe that the welfare state creates dependency, who ignore our assets to argue that current liabilities are unmanageable, and that have been arguing since Goldwater that Social Security won't be around for our kids.

There is no evidence for these beliefs and it makes it impossible to compromise with since it positions the issues as a zero sum game. One side believes that strengthening the welfare state will strengthen us as a country, the other the opposite.

It's like trying to argue defense policy when the other side believes the biggest threat to our security is Skynet and the rise of the machines. How can you argue defense policy with someone that believes that mechanization is the greatest threat and that our military should go back to black powder to forestall this otherwise inevitable catastrophe? There is no compromise possible here, giving in to this insanity simply weakens us and anything we do to strengthen ourselves will be denounced as making the rise of the machines closer and more inevitable.

The dynamic created makes it impossible to acknowledge even legitimate concerns. The ideologically pure can gain credibility by pointing out flaws in existing programs. Those trying to defend those programs then lose credibility when they either propose reforms, which are denounced in turn for inevitable compromises and flaws, or defend the flawed programs. Since the ideologically pure never have to propose a positive vision, all they really want to do is tear things down, it is easy for them to raise their credibility with the public while the side that actually has to make policy inevitably loses it. Since we only have two programs that really work fairly well, Social Security (excepting SSDI which is an outdated mess) and Medicare A and B (C and D need significant reform), a strong credibility gap is inevitable.

But until the anti-welfare state ideology is put down we can't have real reform. We need a debate over what to do with unemployment insurance, the medical system, retirement planning (Social Security is inadequate and 401ks a complete failure),  anti-poverty programs (welfare reform turned out to be strongly pro-cyclical, though AFDC was terrible, and food stamps aren't really designed for the role they've taken as our primary anti-poverty assistance and fill this role poorly), disability insurance, and a host of other programs. But right now we can't have these discussions. One side gains political capital by attacking them, but then drones on about dependency which shuts off any adult-level conversation. Democrats can't acknowledge the very real flaws because once they do they make an opening to attack the programs. And they can't propose any reforms because that creates another opening.

So Brooks is way off target. What we need is for pundits like him to acknowledge the destructiveness, insanity, and detachment from reality of an ideology that proposes ideas like dependency and the makers and takers line. As long as these ideas remain powerful and current our country will continue to be a mess. This is a cultural war and men like Brooks are its soldiers. It will be won or we will decline based on their efforts and the use of the platform they were given.

So far things aren't looking good.

* I may be pushing the metaphor a bit far.

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