Steven Teles Explains "Kludgeocracy"

By Joseph Lawler

Political debates in America generally revolve around the size or role of the government. In a new paper for the New America Foundation, though, Steven Teles argues that an increasingly more significant problem with the government is its complexity and opacity. Teles even gives this development a new name: “kludgeocracy.”  

Teles argues that “kludgeocracy” – the desultory and convoluted nature of government policy – makes any ideological analysis of the U.S. political system problematic. Furthermore, both left and right should be worried about how government policy is, more and more, defined by its “kludginess.” Conservatives should be alarmed that, even if they are able to stop the enactment of large-scale, sweeping legislation, the government still grows – but by back-door means that are less transparent and possibly even more harmful. Liberals, on the other hand, need to be aware that even the best-intentioned programs are diverted away from the intended recipients by an unaccountable governance structure, and re-routed to interests that are able to use the system’s complexity to their own advantage.

According to Teles, kludgeocracy is primarily an institutional problem, one that can best be addressed by making structural changes to the U.S. political system.   

Teles, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, agreed to discuss his thesis with RealClearPolicy. What follows is an edited transcript:

RealClearPolicy: What’s an example of "Kludgeocracy" in action that readers might find familiar?

Steven Teles: Well, the most obvious example would be the tax code, and the second would be Obamacare.

A large part of the point of the article is that there are powerful institutional and cultural reasons why we keep turning to "kludgey" ways of designing policy. It's not that policymakers are stupid or venal. There's a powerful "undertow" in our system which draws them to complicated, messy and wasteful ways of designing policy.

In the case of the tax code, I would say that there are a few reasons why it's so messy. The first is that it's easier to add things to the tax code than to subtract them. The second is that transferring resources through the tax code seems less like "big government" than direct spending, even though the effect is the same. The third is that conservatives' immune system to big government in the tax code is lower than to big government through spending, which creates an incentive for those on the other side to push against the point of least resistance. The fourth (there are more!) is that groups that are trying to get special deals find it easier to do it through the tax code than through direct spending, because there's less visibility and the hurdle that they have to get over in terms of the distributive effect of policy is lower – it would be impossible to create a spending program with the distributive effect of the mortgage interest deduction.

How pressing a problem is kludge, really? Should Democrats have opposed or held up Obamacare or Dodd-Frank because of those bills’ complexity?

The tragedy of kludgeocracy is that the causes of it are largely structural, which means that at any one time, actors within the political system almost don't have a choice but to respond with kludgey policies. I supported Obamacare, even knowing all the problems with it, because I believed in the importance of expanding coverage and this was the only plausible device for doing so. If someone voted against Obamacare, it wasn't like a fairy was going to tap us all on the head and whisk us off to the land of single payer.

 That is why, like all big changes, you need to work on changing those structural conditions if you really want to do something about kludgeocracy. It is important to push for simpler alternatives, so as to have them available if it turns out to be possible to pass them. But the 'undertow' in our system toward complexity is powerful and if you don't change it, we'll keep getting ourselves deeper. So I think in the short term, just voting against kludginess is not much of an alternative.

Is complexity and opacity in government just the price of living in a large democracy with a diverse population?

I don't think so.

I think that the fundamental reason is the structure of Congress, although there are others – and that structure has, if anything, become more complex and veto-ridden than in the Founders' original design.

The filibuster, for example, dramatically adds to the necessity for conciliating far more members of the Senate that the original design contemplated.

So consider a Senate without the filibuster--you need to get 51 senators to agree to pass something. But with the filibuster, you need 60. That means 9 more votes, typically reaching beyond the party in the majority, to pass something that could lead to just less legislation, but in general it doesn't. What it does do is create more opportunities for those in that 51-60 vote range to ask for something in exchange for their vote. And what they often require is some weakening of the core design of the policy, some special deal (like the Cornhusker kickback), in order to get out of the way.

That's why I say that the supposed "veto points" of our system operate just as much as "toll booths,” and what the toll-takers generally ask for adds to complexity.

So I'd say it's the character of how our institutions have evolved, along with the other features that I highlight in the paper, that matter--not the simple diversity of our population.

Regarding toll-takers: why should we be worried about cronyism and pork at the margins? Isn’t that a small price to pay to avoid sweeping, over-ambitious legislation?

I would distinguish between avoidable and unavoidable kludginess. The tax code is not inherently kludge -- we've made choices to mess it up with lots of deductions and credits that are just bad policy. But there are other kinds of policies that are inherently complicated. A number of my friends have pointed out that there's no way to make, for example, eligibility determination for disability simple. If you tried to make it a whole lot simpler, you'd start to get into the realm of making bad decisions. But there are other areas where kludgeocracy has really major costs. I discuss Katrina, where the overlap and complexity of responsibility for building the levees had tragic costs. Or the health care system, which the complexity makes cost control very difficult and takes what is already a complicated system -- modern medicine -- and adds complexity that it really doesn't need. And in the case of the tax code, the estimated dead-weight costs of complexity are well over $100 billion. So I'd say this is a very big, and in many cases, avoidable, deal.

Let's say a rank-and-file Democrat or Republican get a hold of your paper. What reaction would you hope for? I.e. what are partisans supposed to do in light of your conclusions?

Well, a couple of things. First and foremost, think institutionally--push to remove the institutional barnacles on our original constitutional system that facilitated kludgeocracy. Not just the filibuster, but also multiple referrals on major legislation. There's no question the health care law would have been simpler if there had been one committee in each chamber that handled it.

Second, I suggest in the paper that there be a CBO score for every major piece of legislation, on the public and private compliance costs of legislation

Third, push back on the web of contractors and consultants in the federal government, and create more room to hire federal employees and pay them more--those contractors and consultants are a major part of the kludge industry that lobbies for more complexity.

Joseph Lawler is editor of RealClearPolicy. He can be reached by email or on twitter.

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