The Risk of Insular Wonkiness

June 23rd, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Running off to a meeting but allow me to offer a quick reflection on something that came up in two recent endeavors.

1) I went to an excellent conference by the Brooking’s-based Hamilton Project last week on “addressing America’s poverty crisis”—check out the link and peruse the materials (I’ve got a piece coming out soon on the session in which I participated).

2) I just finished a draft of a long paper on wage trends in the US, which included a bunch of thinking on policies to address real wage stagnation and increased earnings inequality.

As I listened to scholars at the conference run through many strong and thoughtful ideas to fight back against poverty, and as I wrote the concluding paragraph to my wage paper (below), I couldn’t help but wonder, “why are we all talking about these ideas as if they have any traction in the near or medium term? How can we ignore the political realities that will block these ideas for probably years to come?”

Finally, it may fairly be argued that the policy discussion above implied the existence of functional politics implemented by fact-based policy makers interested in tackling these issues.  Such an implication was unintended, as I am well aware of the limits of our current political system to deal with the wage problem or any other pressing economic challenge.  However, though that particular constraint looms large in my thinking, it is well beyond the scope of this analysis.

Trust me when I tell you that these sentiments are not meant to sound depressing or dejected.  If you can’t take the dysfunction get out of the capital.  I’m in this for the long game and have often stressed the importance of rolling the best ideas out of the hanger even if the runway is miles long (sorry—in a rush—no time to unmix metaphors!).  Also, who knows what’s possible, even in the near term?  Another also: as I’ve stressed many times, states and localities can’t kick back and wait for DC to find its functionality–they’ve got to deal with problems in real time.

Still, I’m not at all comfortable with the idea that those of us working on progressive policy can blithely ignore the politics, assuming someone else will fix that, while in the meantime, we can just run another specification of the model!

I don’t know the answer to this.  Everybody’s got their skill sets, and certainly, one point of this blog and that of others with greater reach (e.g., Krugman) is to inform the debate with fact-based analysis and shine as bright a light as we can on those who are busily shooting out the lights.  It’s just that more so than other periods in my working life, and I’ve been on this beat for decades, facts and smart policy are on the run.

Clearly, money in politics—more precisely, the toxic mix of increased wealth concentration and the increased role of money in politics—is a big, growing factor here, as the powerful are more than ever able to buy the think tanks, “research,” and policy outcomes they want.

All’s I’m saying is that unless we’re interested in a very insular conversation between like-minded wonks, we need to think and act more in ways that will hasten the day when facts and smart ideas targeted at significant and growing problems are once again welcomed outside the conference room and inside the halls of power.

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22 comments in reply to "The Risk of Insular Wonkiness"

  1. Robert Buttons says:

    “Clearly, money in politics—more precisely, the toxic mix of increased wealth concentration and the increased role of money in politics—is a big, growing factor here, as the powerful are more than ever able to buy the think tanks, “research,” and policy outcomes they want.”

    Part of the problem is everybody’s grandiose notion that I have virtuous and impeccable aspirations and all the others are paid off shysters or dim-witted troglodytes. Let’s admit it: we ALL suffer from confirmation bias.

    To say concentrated wealth is a problem is to admit concentrated power is also a problem. Politically expediencies can just as easily drive bad research. I saw this for myself in the early 90s, when inferior AIDS projects were being funded over worthy non-AIDS projects. Better example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism


    • Barry says:

      ‘Let’s face it’ is a sign that there is no good argument.

      As for concentrated power, concentrated wealth has historically had no problems using state power, and increasing that power when it served their interests.


  2. Larry Signor says:

    How long do we play “…the long game…” before it becomes the status quo? Desperation is a fact of life for many of Americas poor. The short game is the only game in town for them.


  3. Perplexed says:

    -” I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘why are we all talking about these ideas as if they have any traction in the near or medium term? How can we ignore the political realities that will block these ideas for probably years to come?’”

    You are making Larry Lessig’s point here. I’ve often wondered myself to what degree blogging is ultimately just another form of “entertainment”? If the reality is that the existing power structure is impervious to criticism that leads to change, what is being accomplished by all of the activity? The dialogue might be effective in a real democracy, but in a DINO, its ultimately a futile exercise. This is precisely why restoring our Republic is the FIRST thing that needs to be accomplished: http://www.ted.com/talks/lawrence_lessig_we_the_people_and_the_republic_we_must_reclaim. Only when we have restored our Republic and put the power back in the hands of “We The People” will we be able to address other priorities. Elections will cost no more if the voters decide which candidates get the money than if the “Lesters” decide who is “eligible” to be considered for powerful political offices; and “We the People” ultimately have the power to decide who pays these campaign costs without selling any part of the decision making power to acquire the money. What % of GNP is spent on campaigns & elections? Why don’t economists explain these realities?


  4. Smith says:

    If you looked a Elizabeth Warren’s book, it’s full of sound policy ideas which would restore the New Deal. She wouldn’t include them if she thought they didn’t stand a “Fighting Chance” (name of the book). But that’s the exception.

    From Reagan Revolution to Tea Party, why do Republicans propose and Democrats dispose? Because the strategy is triangulation, Clintonism, move a little to the left of wherever the Republicans are, support the dwindling blue dogs, support only measures that poll well, wait/hope for Republicans to self destruct. Above all, don’t antagonize donors, protect incumbency even if it sacrifices the future of the party.

    What prevents Democrats from putting forth progressive policy that would gain traction and win elections are Democrats. Hence in 2010 no one discussed expiring Bush tax cuts, the Democrats lost the House, and 80% of the cuts are now permanent. Most of the benefits go to the rich but I don’t know the current distribution.


    • Thornton Hall says:

      My agenda: free federal post-secondary education that every high school graduate is given as a right, not something that only the elite “qualify” for. Provide what they need: auto repair to philosophy. Phase out student loans and pell grants.

      Tax: carbon, financial transactions, and inheritance.

      Provide free child care to everyone, no means testing.

      Provide universal basic income.

      End TNAF, UI, SNAP and disability.


      • Smith says:

        Post secondary education should be free for the same reason high school education became universal and free a hundred years ago. Germany and France offer interesting examples, but there, ‘universal’ is partly sacrificed for ‘free’. The original 1944 WWII GI bill offers another example.
        But waste must be cut and expenses exposed. Instead the New York Times touts a federal study recommending a minimum six-year graduation rate of 15 percent; and three-year student loan default rate of no more than 28 percent.
        How are 15% graduation rates and 28% default rates acceptable? How can the New York Times endorse this? http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/25/opinion/tying-federal-aid-to-college-ratings.html

        Most important to addressing distortions of excessive income and inequality is taxing income at higher rates, 90% at $2 million (Piketty says 80% at $1 million) by restoring Eisenhower rates. Stop inequality where it starts.

        Free quality child care should be available and not means tested. Again, France provides an example. But this is self defeating (frees parents to work) if limits aren’t set (only 2.1 replacement children go free?)

        There is no need for a universal income, and much evidence an excess of benefits removes too much incentive (see Denmark). Keynesian stimulus, full employment and education is the answer economic to woes, not guaranteed income. (Danish levels of support welcome though).

        Replacing separate programs with income maintenance may be wasteful, destructive and assumes they serve no purpose. Improve them, while working to make conditions cause them to serve less people. Treat cause instead of symptoms.


  5. pgl says:

    Does the Keynes remark “even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist” help at all? I guess the politicians will finally listen to our sage advice once we have departed this earth.


    • Pessimist-Boo says:

      They will listen, because the economist is not around to explain why you are not doing what the economist tried to say.


  6. Eugene Patrick Devany says:

    Bill Gates suggested in March that the job killing payroll taxes be replaced to encourage full employment. Neither the wonks nor the media have the courage to follow through. Why?


    • pgl says:

      Are you referring to this proposal?

      http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2014/03/18/bill-gates-points-to-the-best-tax-system-the-progressive-consumption-tax/

      Gates was not saying we eliminate a form of tax. He was saying we replace payroll taxes with a progressive consumption tax. I think a lot of progressives might find this interesting as long as the funding for Social Security was assured. Good luck getting the Republicans to go along however.


    • Smith says:

      Payroll taxes are not job killing. Bill Gates in a Forbes article (linked by pgl) was quoted advocating traditional conservative arguments (being against minimum wage, for EITC, and favoring a progressive consumption tax). The consumption tax, even termed progressive, is regressive. Reading the rest of the Forbes article, the argument ( Tim Worstall’s not Gates) becomes even more ludicrously conservative. Any flat tax even accompanied by low tax rates for lowest income is a subterfuge to remove the threat progressive rates pose to inequality of the 1%.


  7. Thornton Hall says:

    You’re wrong about what drives the dysfunction. Getting it right leads to optimism.

    We are not where we are b/c of income inequality. Income inequality is one of the results of the actual cause. A great description of the actual cause is in Simon Wren-Lewis’s post on the neoclassical synthesis: idealouges took over macro and broke it.

    It is not a coincidence that after helping to break macro, Milton Friedman advised Reagan. He is one actor out of many in a deliberate effort that goes back to Wm F Buckley and that continues today w/ that woman flying first class for the Tea Party Patriots.

    Along w/ a cabal of psychopaths and grifters (see Rick Perstein on the long conservative con) these people broke our political system on purpose.

    We can break it back!


  8. Nick Estes says:

    For three years now I have begged representatives of the DC progressive establishment to write op-eds and articles for the mainstream magazines and regional newspapers (in print and on-line) so as to reach ordinary educated people and try to move the needle of educated public opinion a little bit leftward at a time. I have had no success whatsoever. Everyone is too busy writing blogs and posting good papers on websites that only like-minded progressives are ever going to read. Most educated Americans have no idea that we could have cured the Great Recession by running bigger budget deficits, because no one has ever explained basic Keynesian economics to them. The Ryan budget comes out every year and no one ever sends out an op-ed to the newspapers in Ohio or Nevada explaining how cruel and unnecessary it is. The Heritage Foundation does this from the opposite perspective, but no one in the progressive organizations seems to think it’s woth their while to reach out to the millions of relatively moderate educated folks out there who are opinion leaders in their communities and on a first-name basis with their Congressional delegation. I guess I will never understand this; it seems so obvious to me. Preaching to the left-wing choir is not going to help nudge general public opinion in a more progressive direction. –Nick Estes, Albuquerque



    • Nick says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head: if only all the ‘wonks’ decided to agree on some common principles and then promulgated them concertedly throughout the parts of the mainstream media not controlled by the ‘one-percent’. Someone like Krugman is often interviewed on various business channels: why not all the others from the ‘wonkosphere’?

      A few red-blooded, raw clashes with the Ryans and Osbornes of the world would be entertaining and raise the issues, if nothing else.


  9. Harold Feld says:

    I am a policy wonk. I am also an advocate. These are not in conflict. Allow me to give you two aphorisms that contribute to our success:

    1. Public policy is not about getting people to do the right thing for the right reason, it is about getting people to do the right thing for their own reasons.

    2. Politics is the art of the possible. Advocacy is about making the impossible, possible.

    Do you think that the current political situation arose out of nothing? Do you think that privatization solutions that were developed by wonks at right-wing think tanks are being implemented now by coincidence?

    I will leave with a third aphorism: “being right is not enough, but it helps more than most people think.”


    • Howard says:

      Excellent point Harold!
      Start with; “It’s the economy stupid”! Here is what would make it easier to get a job. Don’t you feel like your running in place and getting’ no where; here is why it feels like that! Point out that Republicans would like to make the economy worse in hopes of political gain. Compare what would help the .001 percent, what would help the 99% and how current policy skews to the former. Get rid of left and right, fight to redefine the playing field. Even Krugman’s not talking to average Joes who don’t have liberal conscious. If you don’t speak to what people feel, your conceded in the political economy field.


  10. Barry says:

    Jared, remember that the right has spent several decades putting us into the position we are in.


  11. Norm M says:

    Evolution has a brilliant way of taking care of dysfunction and incompetence. The only problem is that it just works on average, and there can be a lot of pain in the meantime. Bush eventually exposed his incompetence to everyone with Katrina, but it was too late to avoid a second term. Similarly, the super rich will eventually be exposed convincingly for actions that are corrupt and destructive. It almost happened this time. If the financial crisis had come a year earlier, the GOP would have lost the 2008 election much worse, and effective and competent policy ideas would have already had their chance. But dysfunction can be relied upon to eventually destroy itself.


    • Smith says:

      Evolution does nothing to dysfunction and incompetence accompanied by propagation. Piketty’s r>g is rightly focused on propagation. If the financial crisis came earlier, then Republicans might have also fixed the economy with large deficit spending and tax cuts instead of fighting recovery. The Reagan years and the Bush II years prove how willing Republicans are to run big deficits when they’re in charge of spending. The Democrats have now put in place important controls on the level of dysfunction and incompetence allowed in the financial industry, which may have the ironic effect of ensuring that dysfunction and incompetence endures instead of catastrophically failing from excess. There is nothing inevitable about dysfunction destroying itself. The sweep of history and socio-economic evolution cares little whether China style capitalism or US-Euro capitalism predominates or some mix of the two. Notwithstanding Katrina, the Bush legacy endures and shows an unmatched level of competence, 80% of the tax cuts benefiting mostly rich are now permanent.


  12. On the Economy, It’s Been One Snafu After Another | Omaha Sun Times says:

    […] recently saw thoughtful comments from economists Jared Bernstein and Paul Krugman about the role of “insular wonks” in policymaking, especially when it […]


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