Thursday, September 24, 2009

David Broder and the Washington Delusion

David Broder, the distilled product of seventy years of D.C. conventional wisdom, opines today about the difficulties Obama is having in molding reality to his policy prescriptions. Unfortunately for Broder, the column says more about the writer's capital-centric blind spots than it does about actual policy.

Broder starts out by complimenting this essay in National Affairs, "Obama And The Policy Approach," by William Schambra. Schambra, as quoted by Broder, says,

"In one policy area after another, from transportation to science, urban policy to auto policy, Obama's formulation is virtually identical: Selfishness or ideological rigidity has led us to look at the problem in isolated pieces . . . we must put aside parochialism to take the long systemic view; and when we finally formulate a uniform national policy supported by empirical and objective data rather than shallow, insular opinion, we will arrive at solutions that are not only more effective but less costly as well. This is the mantra of the policy presidency."

Broder himself is plenty experienced enough to correctly note,

Historically, that approach has not worked. The progressives failed to gain more than brief ascendancy, and the Carter and Clinton presidencies were marked by striking policy failures.

... but it's at this point that Broder falls prey to the Washington Delusion and runs off the tracks, blaming that pesky system of checks and balances for the inability of the enlightened ones to bring about their vision of "change." Not unlike his colleague Thomas Friedman, Broder seems to prefer a government where a race of superior (liberal, Harvard-approved) beings can avoid all the messy requirement of democracy and just "get things done":

The reason, Schambra says, is that this highly rational, comprehensive approach fits uncomfortably with the Constitution, which apportions power among so many different players, most of whom are far more concerned with the particulars of policy than its overall coherence.

The energy bill that went into the House was a reasonably coherent set of trade-offs that would reduce carbon emissions and help the atmosphere. When it came out, it was a grab bag of subsidies and payoffs to various industries and groups. Now it is stymied by similar forces in the Senate.

Schambra's essay anticipated exactly what is happening on health care. Obama, budget director Peter Orszag and health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle grasp the intricacies of the health-care system as well as any three humans, and they could write a law to make it far more efficient.

Uh, no, Mr. Broder. I don't care how brilliant or learned The One and his various minions might be, they are not smart enough to "grasp the intricacies of the health-care system." It does not stand to reason that "any three humans" could actually "write a law to make it far more efficient." They simply don't posses anything close to enough data, and they aren't blessed with the Godlike intelligence that would be required to actually comprehend a system that large and complex.

It's much more likely that any law they could write to reorganize such a vast apparatus, one that involves hundreds of millions of individuals, not one of whom will act according to theory in any given particular, would result in unintended consequences far beyond the ken of Barack Obama, Peter Orszag, Nancy-Ann DePearle, or even (gasp) David Broder.

This reliance on "we'll just get the smartest kids from [insert favored Ivy League school of the moment] in the room and figure all this out" Washington-think got us into a great many messes in our recent history, not least including the alleged "Maestro" of the national economy building up an unsustainable real estate bubble, the popping of which led to the current unpleasantness.

The delusion that any small group of "planners" can "manage" much of anything in a vast, continental nation is perhaps the defining characteristic of the Washington class. Having been assured for decades that they are the Best And The Brightest, they simply do not understand--much less accept--their own limitations.

As he has been so many times in the past, Broder is Hubris's herald.

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