Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Sunday, January 24th, 2010.

Don’t Blame Bureaucrats


Regarding our recent discussion about the purported “flexibility” of private business vs. “government bureaucrats” — there really is a problem with inflexibility in government, but the infamous “bureaucrats” are not the cause.

In the current Atlantic, James Fallows writes about “How America Can Rise Again.” It’s supposed to be cheerful, I think, but it isn’t. This comes near the end:

The late economist Mancur Olson laid out the consequences of institutional aging in his 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative “earmarks,” and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to cut off. No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state. In 1994, Jonathan Rauch updated Olson’s analysis and called this enfeebling pattern “demosclerosis,” in a book of that name. He defined the problem as “government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt,” a process “like hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years.”

We are now 200-plus years past Jefferson’s wish for permanent revolution and nearly 30 past Olson’s warning, with that much more buildup of systemic plaque—and of structural distortions, too. When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry.

Well, yeah. That’s about as concise a description of our basic problem as I’ve seen anywhere. But do we dare revise the Constitution and change the makeup of the Senate? Until very recently I’ve been opposed to any mucking around with the Constitution, but maybe we should be discussing it — not just Senate reform, but Senate revision.

The whole article is worth reading. The problem with it is that Fallows keeps coming up with reasons why America really isn’t going to hell in a handbasket, but I don’t find his assurances very reassuring.

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Can Obama Reboot?

Obama Administration

While I don’t agree with everything Frank Rich wrote in his column today — for example, Rich seems to think Congress should abandon health care reform — but he’s right here:

Obama’s plight has been unchanged for months. Neither in action nor in message is he in front of the anger roiling a country where high unemployment remains unchecked and spiraling foreclosures are demolishing the bedrock American dream of home ownership. The president is no longer seen as a savior but as a captive of the interests who ginned up the mess and still profit, hugely, from it. …

…Obama has blundered, not by positioning himself too far to the left but by landing nowhere — frittering away his political capital by being too vague, too slow and too deferential to Congress. The smartest thing said as the Massachusetts returns came in Tuesday night was by Howard Fineman on MSNBC: “Obama took all his winnings and turned them over to Max Baucus.”

President Obama is only one year into his term. Can he reboot his administration? Can he recapture some momentum? I think it’s possible for someone of great political skill — Bill Clinton comes to mind — to dig out of a hole and reclaim public confidence, but whether Obama can do it remains to be seen.

The return of David Plouffe indicates the White House knows it has to change course. However, it shouldn’t be the job of a political adviser to tell the President to stop being vague, slow and deferential.

Other Stuff to Read: Bob Herbert, “They Still Don’t Get It

Update: It won’t happen, but here’s one way the Obama Administration could shake things up.

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