Continuing Conversation... Steven Teles on Kludgeocracy

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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In this week's episode, Roberts talks with political scientist Steven Teles about his recent National Affairs piece, Kludeocracy in America.

In the spirit of continuing our conversation, we'd love to hear from you on the questions below.

Questions below the fold:

Check Your Knowledge:

1. What is "kludge," and why does Teles say the United States is a kludgeocracy?

2. What does Teles mean when he says, "we have a durable bias against undoing stuff we are already doing?"

3. Roberts says that his main take-away from Teles' article is that some elements of our constitutional system that he previously thought were features are actually bugs. What example does he cite to illustrate this epiphany? What other examples could you suggest?


Going Deeper:

4. Roberts and Teles want to draw a distinction between size and complexity, mostly agreeing that the latter is the bigger problem. When thinking about government intervention, why is this distinction important, and which do you believe poses the greater challenge to those who prefer smaller government?

5. Roberts suggests that another problem is the role the federal government plays in corrupting or running "private" enterprises. Teles responds by citing a need to create rules to help decide whether a particular endeavor should be handled at the federal or state level. What kinds of examples does he have in mind? To what extent do you think such rules could be effective, and why?

6. Roberts suggests that were politicians to feel shame about policies such as agricultural prices supports, change might be more likely. Perhaps, for example, were stories to appear in the New York Times, people might be more likely to seek political action. What do you think could elicit this sort of shame among the public, and to what extent do you believe shame can effectively incite political change?

7. Teles argues that our constitutional design was appropriate for a people with more modest expectations of government, but now that our government has "matured" the public's expectations have shifted. What accounts for this shift in expectations? What potential exists for this to shift again and in the direction of a more modest government?


Extra Credit:

8. What is the role of ideas in the political process, according to Teles? Describe how you think Roberts would answer this same question, and how would it compare to Teles's answer?

Comments and Sharing



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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Matt Harmon writes:

1. Kludge is a ramshackle, temporary solution to a problem. Teles says the U.S. government is a kludgeocracy because of its messy, difficult to comprehend legislation governing: health care, the financial industry, the education sector, and the environment.

2. Teles claims it is difficult to peel back bad legislation because of the influence of powerful interest groups that gained cohesion through a law.

3. He cites the example of many lawmakers needing to be paid off in order to get laws passed. Thus, any new law is loaded with favors to the politicians who helped to pass it. This system of hold outs for favors also wastes a lot of money via lobbyists and interest groups who spend rents trying to sway the minds of politicians.

4. Some problems require a large government strictly from a point of influence. Banking legislation on a national level would be difficult to pass and enforce without a big government. Complex government makes it harder for citizens to understand and follow the rules. It also favors interest groups who have the time and energy to understand and then evade or tweak the laws. From that viewpoint, a complex federal government may pose the greater threat to small government advocates.

5. Teles mentions public schools as federally controlled but state run institutions and suggests the states should be cut out of the equation. Getting rid of education funded through property tax and enabling a federally funded voucher system, he says, would allow for greater choice by citizens. He also mentions Medicaid, which is run by the states but funded by the federal government. Reducing the complication by eliminating laws layered on by state governments could make legislation easier to implement and follow. But it may come at the cost of flexibility for state populations that disagree fundamentally with a federal policy.

6. Public shame usually takes a scandal and broken laws. Since big agriculture is not breaking any laws, it is difficult to incite rage at their unwarranted subsidies. Certain news outlets do point out economic inefficiencies due to lobby groups, but these fail to generate shame. A scandal featuring illegal payoffs of politicians would be needed for wide scale public outrage. Only then would politicians feel the need to change laws.

7. When the U.S. was founded most citizens were more concerned with privacy and freedom from government action. As the years passed and the government became more benevolent (ended slavery, passed civil rights laws, created welfare programs) people started to expect privileges from its government. The previous expansion of social programs creates the expectation of more expansion. If people start to feel their rights are being compromised (to choose schools, insurance, etc.), they may push back against the creep of social legislation; but given the high level of medical insurance and social security benefits it is difficult to see the majority of the public advocating for smaller government.

8. Teles says that once there is an idea or story about corruption or inefficiency the media can grab onto it and make it attractive for politicians to swoop in and destroy the laws that allow this corruption. Hence, ideas are a catalyst for destroying bad laws. Roberts, who mentions Dodd-Frank, would likely say that multiple ideas can get jumbled up in the political process, thus producing a muddled solution. This is a less optimistic assessment of the possibility for ideas to eliminate "kludge".

Mike F. writes:

1. Every technical guy who has ever talked to me about a kludge has pronounced it to rhyme with "luge" rather than to rhyme with "fudge."

7. I think a sense of optimism and a sense that you are pushing the frontier to do something great is necessary to want to push free from a safety net that comes with big gov't. The men who formed the US gov't weren't poor men with nothing to lose. They were relatively wealthy men who felt like they had a great feat to perform for posterity if only they could break free from the shackles of English control. I don't think shaming the corrupt officials in our current system or waiting for a disaster to mobilize support for dramatic overhauls will result in any scaling back of the kludgeocracy. It will take a group of leaders who feel like they have something important to do that requires unshackling. American society right now seems lost in angst. I think a better place to look for limited government is in places that aren't very advanced right now, but can take a leadership position in the future. Maybe Africa or Asia.

8. Right now, ideas are just feeding the beast. The conventional liberal/conservative divide is a question of how to tie down business/wealthy or how to tie down gov't. There is no drive to go anywhere positive, just ideas on how to slow down the opposition.

Bogart writes:

3. Teles cited the Filibuster as one such "bug". The second most significant "bug" (The first was by far allowing slavery.) was and still is the lack of the right of succession. Had this been in the original document this nation MAY have avoided the mass slaughters of the Civil War and maybe even WW1. The third is the ability of the Federal Government to collect any taxes. I have over the years come to the conclusion that the Articles of Confederation formed a superior system of central government. Of course the most superior system would be to not bother with a central government at all.

4. I am surprised at the response by Russ to this important question. Size is by far the more important of the two. A government with a budget of $100 could require a library of rules to run but without the hundreds of thousands of armed agents it would be completely ignored. A government of 100 people would not be able to spend at least $3 million on collecting a bill of $1 million from a obstinate rancher and be able with a straight face be able to claim to be saving turtles while killing them.

emerich writes:

1. What is "kludge," and why does Teles say the United States is a kludgeocracy?

Answer: Kudge is new laws built on top of old laws because the old laws didn’t do the job, done over and over for, say, 200 years. The United States is a kludgeocracy because that’s what we’ve been doing.

2. What does Teles mean when he says, "we have a durable bias against undoing stuff we are already doing?"

Answer: He means that instead of undoing bad laws we pass new laws and only realize afterward that the new laws aren’t working they way they were supposed to. Then we do it again.

3. Roberts says that his main take-away from Teles' article is that some elements of our constitutional system that he previously thought were features are actually bugs. What example does he cite to illustrate this epiphany? What other examples could you suggest?

Answer: Roberts thought filibusters make things better by blocking stupid new laws. In fact to break the filibuster politicians have to be paid off with pork to agree to the stupid new laws, resulting in even more stupid new laws. Other examples would be 98.8% of the laws passed since you were born.

Going Deeper:
4. Roberts and Teles want to draw a distinction between size and complexity, mostly agreeing that the latter is the bigger problem. When thinking about government intervention, why is this distinction important, and which do you believe poses the greater challenge to those who prefer smaller government?

Answer: Because complicated things are worse than things that are just big.

5. Roberts suggests that another problem is the role the federal government plays in corrupting or running "private" enterprises. Teles responds by citing a need to create rules to help decide whether a particular endeavor should be handled at the federal or state level. What kinds of examples does he have in mind? To what extent do you think such rules could be effective, and why?

Answer: For example, education policy is a porridge of Federal, State, and local policy. Health care ditto. Rules to keep each out of the other’s way would be great. Can we have some please?

6. Roberts suggests that were politicians to feel shame about policies such as agricultural prices supports, change might be more likely. Perhaps, for example, were stories to appear in the New York Times, people might be more likely to seek political action. What do you think could elicit this sort of shame among the public, and to what extent do you believe shame can effectively incite political change?

Answer: How about annual Oscar award ceremonies for the most egregiously pointless spending programs?

7. Teles argues that our constitutional design was appropriate for a people with more modest expectations of government, but now that our government has "matured" the public's expectations have shifted. What accounts for this shift in expectations? What potential exists for this to shift again and in the direction of a more modest government?

Answer: Our checks and balances worked well when the country was small and most people minded their own business. As government collected more dollars from more people, some people discovered it was worth spending $100 on politicians to get $1000 back. So more and more people minded their own business less and spent more time trying to get dollars from politicians. The potential for a long-term shift in the other direction is 12. (100 being certainty.)

8. What is the role of ideas in the political process, according to Teles? Describe how you think Roberts would answer this same question, and how would it compare to Teles's answer?

Answer: Teles thinks if you destroy the advocates of the failed old policy, things could get better. Russ would probably think the grand new policy will have the same old problems in new form.

Amy Willis writes:

@Mike F re: #8...that's a pessimistic view! (But we understand, of course.) How do you think we can get past that divide? IS a positive direction even possible?

Amy Willis writes:

@emerich The "Oscar" suggestion is great! But would it inspire shame??? Or political action generally? I'm still thinking about whether shame is an effective political motivator, and if so, what the best means of eliciting it is.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

One thing that I think might be really significant is that Senate filibusters used to require that the senator in question actually continue to hold the floor, and no other business could occur during it. This meant filibusters needed to be something the person publicly supported, which greatly reduced the ability of people to extract tolls, because they wouldn't want to be seen as impeding something that they actually do support, but which hasn't netted them enough bonuses yet. The filibuster used to be a "I am willing to stake my career and legacy on stopping this awful thing" measure rather than a matter of course, such that passage of laws normally requires paying off enough people to get 2/3 or 3/5. That is, it used to be possible to pass a law that nobody cares all that much about but most of the senate likes without adding a lot of complexity.

Michael Byrnes writes:

During the podcast, Roberts suggested World War II (or at least some time between World War I and the 1960s) as a kind of turning point, after which "veto points" in the system began to function more like toll booths.

What occurred to me while listening is this: much of that time period corresponds to an unprecedented era of American prosperity. Not the Great Depression or World War II itself, of course, but since the end of World War II the amount of wealth created in the US has been off the charts compared to other periods and other nations.

So, why have veto points become toll booths since the end of World War II? Maybe it is simply because the US is now wealthy enough to pay those tolls (which can be thought of as implicit taxes) and still be fabulously wealthy.

In other words, what has changed is opportunity rather than motive. Roberts says "self-sufficiency is the road to poverty." Imagine a society of subsistence farmers - how much wealth could be extracted from such a society? Virtually nothing, compared to what is possible in the post-WWII US.

That doesn't make it right to use veto points as toll booths, of course. I think there's obviously a real cost to extraction of wealth - a cost beyond even the aggregate amount of extracted wealth. And I would not argue that extraction of wealth is some sort of constant function of the amount of wealth - there are plenty of historical systems (two examples: feudalism and Soviet Russia) where those implicit tax rates are much higher than in the US even though there was much less wealth to begin with.

I suppose the pessimist's view would be that the US is well on its way to becoming another Soviet Russia. I am more optimistic than that - I think we see more kludge, not because of a change in behavior (motive) but because of a change in wealth (opportunity).

Dallas Weaver writes:

Since economists like math.

When any new regulation/rule/law interacts with all existing regulations/rules/laws creating new possible combinations, inconsistencies, loopholes resulting in possible new "interpretations" and expansions of authority, we are dealing with an N! type problem. N! problems grow even faster than exponential functions with time.

Perhaps that is why any new idea to build something new can take 10 times longer for permissions than it actually takes to build.

N! type problems have a growth rate that blows our minds.

Mike F. writes:

Amy - I don't think that a positive direction is possible anymore. At this point, there are so many vested interests in our current kludge that nobody would willingly scrap it for something simpler, less obtrusive and potentially less preferential to their own interests. It is sort of good enough, even if it is not very good at all.

Mike S. writes:

It's pronounced "klooj" by everyone I've ever heard use it in engineering, computer science, and military settings. But it also is usually spelled kluge, not kludge. I've see the variant spelling "cluge". Very odd to hear it used repeatedly in the right metaphoric sense, but so it rhymes with fudge, instead of stooge. I suspect rhyming with stooge makes it sound more comical, which crufty bodges often are.

Maybe since economics, being social, isn't such a hard science*, it needs a different pronunciation. :)

[* by being too hard to be captured by a purely scientific sense of knowledge (see Hayek, Popper)]

Other than that, it was a great econ talk episode, thanks. Wikipedia seems to favor "kludge", but then spends a huge amount of space focusing on the hacker/rube-goldberg engineering sense of kluge.

Harun writes:

Germany also has a federal system, and checks and balances as well.

Do they have kludge?

I'm also not so sure a streamlined government without such checks and balances, like UK parliamentary system, actually is better.

The NHS is the worst model of nationalized healthcare in Europe. France is much better. But, instead of being able to do wholesale changes, the UK also has to keep the NHS and try to inject market forces, etc.

Arde writes:

Question 1.
The term 'kludge' comes from the computer programming and it means a 'clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular problem'. When there are enough kludges, you get a very complicated programme that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes.
Steven Teles says that the United States is a kludgeocracy because the government policies resemble the computer programme with many kludges. The government is complex, incoherent and difficult to understand. Just like in programming it would be better to write a new, simpler and elegant programme than adding one more layer of kludges on top of the existing one. So, the government instead of revising the system in its entirety just adds another layer of policies and legislation on top of the existing ones.
Question 2. What does Teles mean when he says, "we have a durable bias against undoing stuff we are already doing?"
Teles means that once the system is built it is much easier to add more layers than to remove the existing ones. There are the following reasons for this bias:
- multiple veto points, for example, Committees in Congress whose members can block attempts at policy changes
- the current system benefits certain groups and they are well organized and powerful to oppose changes. This includes also many consultants and advisors who make living from complicated systems.
- people have contradictory expectations about government. They want small government that at the same time addresses many public needs. The easiest way to satisfy this is by creating programmes that hides the government but addresses the problems in more indirect (and more complicated) ways.

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