The government efficiency argument

Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein  says that “How government is run, more than what exactly it does, seems set to be the main battleground of American politics in coming years.”  He then cites articles from the New America Foundation that say the government’s approach is to build a  kludge (“a clumsy, inelegant, difficult to extend, hard to maintain yet effective and quick solution to a problem”) and to function like “a giant coupon machine.”  Explains Klein:  “Think clunky Obamacare versus streamlined single-payer health care, or government’s tendency to deliver benefits via the tax code, through deductions, credits and exclusions, rather than by direct payments.”

Do you see where this is going?  But is there a valid point here?

From Ezra Klein’s  After ‘the end of big government liberalism’:

If the basic services provided by the federal government are unlikely to change significantly in coming years, their delivery and design promise to be more contested turfs. The Republican dream of transitioning Medicare to a “premium support” voucher system is one example of the new battleground. The Democratic desire to add a public option to Obamacare is another.

Some of the best thinking on these issues is being done at Washington’s New America Foundation, which has produced three recent papers that deserve attention. In “Kludgeocracy: The American Way of Policy,” Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, takes aim at the political system’s tendency to address problems with “the most gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated response.” Think clunky Obamacare versus streamlined single-payer health care, or government’s tendency to deliver benefits via the tax code, through deductions, credits and exclusions, rather than by direct payments.

Our drift toward kludgeocracy has many causes, Teles argues. They range from the irresolvable tension between the public’s desire for a small, inexpensive government and generous, expansive public services, to the realization by special interests that they can commandeer more of the public purse through programs that are too opaque for the public to notice and too complex for even members of Congress to understand. The result is an inefficient state that citizens find unaccountable, expensive, untrustworthy and impervious to reform efforts.

The paper “No Discount: Comparing the Public Option to the Coupon Welfare State,” by Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal, is a useful companion to Teles’ tale of kludgeocracy. While Teles surveys a broad trend in governance, Konczal drills deep into a single policy dilemma that we confront repeatedly: Whether to provision public services directly, through government-run programs, or to use government as “a giant coupon machine, whose primary responsibility is passing out coupons to discount and subsidize private education, health-care, old-age pensions and a wide variety of other primary goods.”

In recent years, the “coupon machine” theory of American governance — exemplified by vouchers and tax subsidies — has been ascendant. That’s how most of Obamacare works. It’s also the foundation of Republican efforts to reform Medicare and education.

As Konczal argues, “The advantages associated with vouchers are ones of choice, efficiency, competition, budget control and incentive management.” But there are disadvantages, too. For instance, because a privatized welfare state is more opaque and complex than a public one, it creates “new coalitions of business interests, providers, middlemen” who profit from it. The result is not only less democratic control and accountability, but also less efficiency. Understanding when to choose a direct public provision and when to opt for coupons is a crucial task. Konczal’s paper provides an excellent basis for devising a general theory.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    Yeah – the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were certainly not opaque and complex systems, the social welfare state of Greece is an ideal model for democratic control, accountability and efficiency in the provision of public goods.

  • sg

    Meh, the people don’t want to face the truth of what our challenges are, namely that subsidizing problems doesn’t fix them, it just leads more people to find ways to qualify for subsidies. To get better behavior, we have to reward it, but we don’t. We pay people to fail. So, we get more failure. Technology can only do so much.

  • James Sarver

    “Our drift toward kludgeocracy has many causes, Teles argues. They range from the irresolvable tension between the public’s desire for a small, inexpensive government and generous, expansive public services…”

    We have met the enemy and he is us.

  • Paul Reed

    Most Americans want a government to give them free things, be it health care or public schools. The Democrats and Republicans are really just giving the people what they want. And there’s a large percentage of Americans who simply couldn’t survive with their current lifestyle in the free market, and they know it.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Ezra Klein (along with many others) essentially suffers from the technocratic delusion – the idea that if the “experts” were just allowed to design and implement efficient systems in government, education, health care – etc…. then everything would all be better. It’s a very intelligent, articulate and modern form of magical thinking.

  • Cincinnatus

    What Steve Billingsley said @5.

    I honestly stopped reading after his reference to single-payer healthcare as “efficient.” While I agree that Obamacare is a complex monstrosity, the idea that single-payer would be any more efficient in its operations is frankly hilarious. Because the UK’s NHS, for example, is a model of trim efficiency.

    Vast, unitary bureaucracies are the paradigmatic opposites of efficient operation. Not even a monolithic operation like Wal-Mart can claim to be efficient.

    Good job making an accurate diagnosis Mr. Klein, but you’re still a massive tool.

  • sg

    The thing is they can’t bring themselves to punish/fire people who are very inefficient. Many folks are on welfare/unemployment because private industry will not retain workers that can’t, won’t but anyhow don’t make them money. This annoys the living fire out of government/politicians because they want everyone employed no matter how unproductive they are or how unprofitable they make the company. It is the Soviet Union all over again. Folks pretend to work and the gov’t pretends to pay them. The only way to get much out of the least motivated folks is to take away their food if they don’t work. We won’t take away their food, and they don’t work. It is pretty simple. Nothing new under the sun.

  • sg

    the irresolvable tension between the public’s desire for a small, inexpensive government and generous, expansive public services

    Um, two different segments of “the public” there. Married employed people want smaller government. Single women with illegitimate kids want expansive public services.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Kludgeocracy is what we get when we want government to “do something” that it is inherently incapable of doing.

    Lets get rid of the Rube Goldberg regulations and devolve things that the states can handle themselves back down to the states. And then let the states devolve power to counties and municipalities wherever possible.

  • SKPeterson

    Mike Westfall is an anarchist who cares not for the oppressed.

  • SKPeterson

    We also have this fascinating little insight into government efficiency:

    http://www.mygovcost.org/2013/01/30/no-charge-for-that-hiding-millions-and-getting-away-with-it/

  • Apocryphon

    “Yeah – the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were certainly not opaque and complex systems,”

    Totalitarian regimes are nightmares of bureaucracy. Absolute power does not beget streamlined systems.


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