Can We Make Government Work Better?

By Mike Koetting June 7, 2021

In my last post, I suggested that government will always have difficulties being efficient because it is trying to serve many ends, not of all of which are easily compatible. I then, rashly, as it turns out, suggested this post would include some suggestions that could mitigate the difficulties of implementation in government.

It’s not that there couldn’t be improvements. The problem is that it is hard to imagine how to implement the things that would improve implementation.

To be clear. I believe that while a certain amount of implementation difficulties come with the territory, I also think the American flavor of government contains features that could be modified to mitigate some of the issues described in my previous post. Among others, these include overly short time horizons, lack of leadership continuity, under-investment in agency infrastructure (including human capital), “gottchya culture,” and, correspondingly, lack of willingness to take risks.

I seemed to have thought it was possible to treat implementation as a largely neutral topic. Since everyone is interested in how well things get implemented and crises get handled, I allowed myself to believe these could be seen as non-partisan. But as I tried to write about that, I realized the notion was delusional. The cancer of hyper-partisanship has invaded all the organs of our government. In today’s political environment, nothing is non-partisan.

Too many Americans have lost faith in the over-riding tenet necessary for democracy—that, despite differences on specifics, there is a shared enterprise that is larger than the specifics. This shared enterprise brokers the tension between individual freedom and collective good. The course is not always smooth, but over time it tacks toward a better outcome.

Today, differences in beliefs about how government should work—and to what ends—are simply too large to allow for the overall belief structure to work much magic. Implementation, in this context, becomes just one more victim. We have descended into a vicious cycle where our distrust makes it harder to do things that might improve our trust level.

For instance, Michael Lewis, in his interview with Ezra Klein, has several suggestions he thinks would improve the functioning of key federal agencies. These include giving agencies more flexibility in hiring and firing, having fewer presidential appointees, and having longer terms for the heads of at least some agencies. I can readily imagine that each of these, used judiciously, could improve the ability of agencies to implement more effectively, to better respond to immediate crises, and to improve agency ability to take a longer of view of its needs and resources. I can’t, however, imagine any of these could be enacted.

On the one hand, Republican are all in favor of increasing the ability of the executive to hire and fire at virtual will because they believe the bureaucracy is a “deep state” staffed by people intent on promoting a liberal agenda, or at least blocking their agenda. Indeed, a pending lawsuit from one a former Trump appointee is aimed precisely at creating what they call “a unified executive”—where presidents can easily get rid of anyone in their way. Understandably, Democrats would be highly unlikely to support such a measure because they are afraid of what Republicans could do if the guardrails against a rogue executive were completely removed.

On the other hand, Republicans would be unlikely to go along with having fewer presidential appointees because they see those appointees as a way to exert control over the “deep state”.

And neither party would be likely to go along with giving longer terms to agency directors because both would fear the other party would subvert the process. The example of the judiciary shows how susceptible a process is to capture when one party decides to ignore the spirit of the law and uses any available lever to maintain control long after they have lost the presidency and Senate and no longer represent majority sentiment.

Even what would seem like the least partisan of Lewis’s suggestions—increased civics education—would most likely get bogged down in the cultural civil war. Whose version of civics would be taught? The furor over voting rights and “critical race theory” makes it clear there is no version of civics or our nation’s history that is shared by the whole country. So while virtually everyone agrees that citizen understanding of how government works is pathetic, any attempt to remedy would likely get lost in the swamp.

Another line of thought on how to improve agency performance goes back at least to Mann and Ornstein’s 2006 book, The Broken Branch. They argued that the breakdown of Congressional institutions led to not only a dysfunctional House and Senate, but also to problems in all the agencies because Congress was so ensnared in its own mishigas that it ceased to pay any coherent attention to how executive agencies operated—either in legislation or in oversight. The argument still has currency, but there is no plausible short term solution I can propose with a straight face.

In Short…

Today’s post ends, apologies to T.S. Elliott, not with a bang but with a whimper. There is little percentage in talking about improving government performance at the federal level when there is no market for such things among the people who should be in charge. Individual leaders will do what they can to improve performance in their bailiwick. In some cases that will make a difference. But measures that rely almost totally on individual abilities are less powerful than systemic fixes.

I do have the impression that implementation is somewhat better at the state and local level. To some extent that is because the general framework is determined at the federal level narrowing the range of necessary response and to some extent it is because there is less escaping it. Rahm Emanuel, when he was mayor of Chicago, pointed out the exhausting thing about being mayor is that you were forced to confront on a daily basis how things were going up close and personal. At the same time, it is still the case that these units of government are under-resourced in some areas and over-bureaucratized in others. The ability to keep current with technology, both systems and personnel, is a particular problem because it is expensive and requires foresight and willingness to commit to projects that run beyond the term of office of most governors, legislators or agency directors. It is also difficult because technology skills do not necessarily correspond with the seniority provisions of many civil service (and unionized) positions.

Moreover, many of the problems that bedevil progress at the national level trickle down to the local level. It is difficult to measure the relative performance on controlling COVID at state levels given the overall level of national chaos. How can you judge the performance of the Michigan Department of Public Health when portions of the citizenry are rioting that the very nature of their work is illegitimate?

I believe the ability of government agencies to implement programs and respond to crises is not something totally fixed by the nature of government. There are better and worse ways to do it. But I don’t see any realistic way for systematic improvement until as a society we have a more shared sense of the role and means of government. Not obvious that is any time soon.

The Ups and Downs of Government Functioning

By Mike Koetting May 24, 2021

At the moment, it seems Michael Lewis is everywhere, pitching his new book, Premonition. His general theme is that, in addition to whatever specific depredations the Trump administration committed, there were deep government failures that made the pandemic response worse. The specific culprit in his book was the CDC, which made multiple errors and missed critical signals. Lewis sees this more as an example of how American government is subject to functional failures at critical points than a singular failing.

This touches a nerve. I believe in government, especially as compared to the limits of private enterprise. Government does a lot of things very well—and fairly. Medicare hums, airplanes zip around the country without smashing into each other, and we take clean water for granted.

But for a while now I have been troubled by a growing sense of governmental sclerosis around the edges, particularly when quick response is necessary. I don’t think this means we need less government. I do, however, believe we need to put real effort into making government work better.

Today’s post will offer a high-level context for the problems. A subsequent post will consider solutions, although—spoiler alert—it’s not like there is an easy or obvious way to eliminate these concerns. That is because the underlying issue is that the exercise of democratic values does not always point the way to effective action.

It is worth reiterating, however, that the exercise of democratic values is exactly why I think government solutions are so important. I am always concerned when people propose private enterprise as a fix-all approach. Private enterprise can be more efficient, but it typically creates efficiency by narrowing objectives. That is not an option available to democratic governments. When I hear someone talk about making government work like business, I know they don’t know how government works, what it is for, or both.

Democratic governing assumes that the bureaucracy can implement effectively in a value-neutral way whatever policy the political process produces. (In America, we complicate the process since we don’t really trust either politicians or bureaucrats. So we limit the politicians’ ability to control bureaucrats but also limit the bureaucracy’s ability to operate on its own, typically by making many positions political appointees, at the federal level, or electing many functional positions, at the state and local level.)

In any event, the emphasis in all democracies is on shaping policy. It is not surprising that people focus on the apparently higher order problem of creating policy since policies reflect the ideology that drives people into the governing process to begin with. People run for office so they can pass laws and determine policy. And, presumably, people get elected because of democratic support for their policies. I can’t ever remember someone running on a platform of not changing any policy, just implementing the existing policies better.

Accordingly, adopting new policies is a reflection of the democratic impulse. Moreover, a democratic government in a changing world will want to change policies in responses to shifts in circumstances.

But implementation is what determines how policy actually impacts people. Over many years I have challenged various journalists to pick at random a handful laws that were passed in the previous legislative session and follow up on how they have been implemented. I’ve never had a taker. Inevitably, the media considers implementation only when there has been a particular problem or it has simply taken longer than anticipated. This contributes to an exaggerated sense of how much problem government does have implementing policies and insufficient attention to what are the underlying challenges, and successes, of implementation.

But so much emphasis on making policy sometimes misses the point that carrying out policy is by no means simple, let alone automatic. There is also a problem that policies accrete and the cumulative impact is greater than individual policies would suggest.

Executing Policy Is Not Automatic

Simply being able to articulate a policy is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition to implement a policy. Even the simplest policies raise all kinds questions. Complicated policies more so. If the policy is politically contentious, implementation is even more difficult–and given the diversity of possible interest groups and the degree of political polarization, it seems almost anything can be contentious.

Civil servants are supposed to be able to deal with the issues of implementation. And, for the most part, they do, often performing admirably. But they face a host of obstacle including failure to invest in institutional infrastructure or in personnel; failure to allocate ample time or resources for implementation; failure to build review and revision into the basic structure; and changing directions before an implementation can mature.

The point here is not simply that implementing policy is difficult. It is that a democratic political system by its nature is so focused on setting policy that it often fails to give sufficient attention to the circumstances that contribute to successful implementation. These typically require longer-term consistency of purpose, leadership continuity, sufficient organizational slack to absorb surprises, and latitude for some degree of risk taking.

Compare these needed attributes to the reality of governmental agencies where directors are installed—often with mandates to create radical changes—anticipating short tenure, having to run a gauntlet to fill out their team, inheriting systems which might be old and designed for other policies, being subject to some degree of legislative oversight (and budget) that might not be consistent with their highest priorities, and subject to infinite recriminations for virtually any misstep.

You can see why this might be challenging.

Policy Accretion

When new policies are put in motion, they sometimes explicitly modify previous policy, a modification that may be more or less seamless. More often, the new policy is simply expected to coexist with existing policies. In either case, it’s not typically that the remaining policies flatly contradict one another. But it is often the case that navigating among the various policies simply makes things difficult. When I worked for the State of Illinois, 157 discrete steps were required to let a contract. Most of these stemmed from some plausible objective or to safeguard against some possible pitfall. But each had to be met and all, in turn, required oversight and reporting to oversight agencies, each protective of its particular policy purview. And, lurking in the background, were people ready to pounce on any transgression.

Another accretion versus implementation problem stems from the desire, itself sensible enough, to focus policies relatively narrowly. So agencies wind up with a patchwork quilt of nominally related policies that they have to make coherent. A small non-profit that my wife works with is dependent on government funding. But it must piece together multiple grant programs with different goals, different requirements around the services provided, shifting requirements from year to year, different very specific rules for handing individual expenses, different fiscal years, very limited ability to carry funds forward, and none of the funders willing to cover certain over-arching administrative expenses that are necessary for long run stability. The existence of so many specific requirements and the absences of policy that creates space for broader decision-making can make dealing with government exceptionally painful.

Each of these policies viewed in isolation makes sense. Indeed, many of them are in some degree necessary to achieve objectives that are positive goods. Affirmative action, privacy concerns, transparency requirements, fair work rules or environmental cautions are all things we rightfully expect government to look out for. But when they are amalgamated, effective action requires herculean efforts.

Recapitulation

The above is by no means an all-purpose excuse for sluggish performance by government. Government, at all levels, is obligated to work at improving implementation. My next post will consider some potential steps that could improve government performance. However, the above suggests it will not be easy, nor should one be unrealistic about the likely outcome. If I am right, a big part of the problem is built into the fundamentals of our democratic government. In general, I think that’s a worthwhile trade-off. But that is no reason to give up mitigating what can be mitigated.

Steel Tariffs

By Mike Koetting May 9, 2021

Okay. This doesn’t sound like the usual stuff I write about. But it got my attention because it Is such a technicolor illustration of how much more difficult real policy is than policy theatre, in large part because things in the real world turn out to be very interconnected. The topic also begins to raise some necessary questions about what kind of global institutions we might need for the future of the species.

Background

At the end of World War II, the U.S. was the only reliable source of steel in the world. Even while serving as the world’s steel mill, this was never as large an element of the actual work force as it was the American labor psyche. Steel’s direct share of the labor force topped out in the 1950’s at just over 1% of the civilian workforce. American steel continued to dominate in the world market in the following decades, but as technology changed, employment started to slip—both because new approaches required fewer workers and other countries were getting into steel production, thereby lowering demand. (Ironically, other countries found it easier to adopt new technologies because they were essentially starting over from scratch. Japan became a larger source of steel used in America than domestic production.) A CNN/Money report notes the decline in the importance of steel as an American product corresponded with other changes in the economy.

…U.S. Steel was dropped from the Dow Jones industrial index in 1991 after 90 years. Disney joined the index at the time, as did JPMorgan, which is ironically a Wall Street firm named for the founder of U.S. Steel. Bethlehem Steel was the last steel company to fall out of the Dow in 1997, when Walmart, Hewlett-Packard and Travelers insurance were added in.

At the beginning of this century, China began a build up in steel production that has dwarfed American steel. This build up, achieved with material state subsidies, enabled China to flood the market with less expensive steel, further stressing American steel production.

Source: World Steel Association

In 2018, then President Trump invoked the “national security” clause of the 55 year old Trade Expansion act to levy a 25% tariff on steel and a 10% tariff on aluminum. His basic argument was that this would strengthen the American steel industry and thus grow American employment while reducing reliance on foreign steel, particularly from China.

While the assessment of these tariffs is complicated by the disruption of the pandemic, there is general agreement that, despite some small successes around the edges, the tariffs have not substantially achieved these objectives.

  • Investment in American steel has not increased in any material way and American steel plants are still running below full capacity—let alone adding new capacity. While there have been substantial increases in the profitability of the remaining American steel companies recently, it has been as a result of consolidating around fewer big players and increasing prices.
  • At best, pre-covid employment increased by two or three thousand (out of workforce of 160M). These are certainly better paying jobs than many others, but that is less because they are in steel and more because the steelworkers have a strong union.
  • Given the above, the extent to which the tariffs have improved American’s security situation with regard to steel seems minimal.

Conversely, there is general agreement that the tariffs have contributed to snarls in American supply chains and have increased costs throughout the economy. They have also adversely impacted employment in sectors that rely on steel products—by making American products that use steel more expensive. One paper from the Federal Reserve Board  estimates 75,000 fewer jobs in related manufacturing than would have been the case without the tariffs. There is particular concern that if the Biden infrastructure plan is adopted, difficulties obtaining steel could lead to major delays.

The above notwithstanding, early signs are that the Biden administration is in no hurry to end the tariffs.

How should we process this?

Reasons

While I am not privy to the inner workings of the Biden administration, I believe the primary reason for continuing the tariff is broadly political. A Republican caricature of Democratic politics is that they are all about the cosmopolitan elite and minorities but willing to abandon American workers to global markets. The steel tariff is a bit of an antidote. There is also the realpolitik that while it may be only 140,000 steel workers, it becomes a big deal when you count families, friends and communities concentrated in a few states where 25,000 votes can mean 20 electoral votes.

This tariff needs also be considered in a broader global context.

One obvious set of concerns are the implications for national security. At some level of abstraction, it would seem problematic to be dependent on foreign suppliers for a resource as vital as steel, particularly if one of those suppliers is a potential adversary. I suspect, however, this abstract concern is rendered incomprehensible by the actual details. Steel is not simply steel. There are now an infinity of blends, alloys and techniques producing specialized products that are necessary for many applications. I doubt simply producing the same tonnage of steel as aggregate national demand—which we more or less do—meets our security needs. One would have to know much more about the details of steel production to know how much and what kind of steel we would have to produce to actually meet these needs. But I suspect to do so would require a much greater investment in steel than is likely given the rest of the world is willing to offer a wide variety of steel at lower prices.

The specific behavior of China raises a second set of concerns, questions that go to the core of how to organize world trade. The World Trade Organization is an attempt to order world trade markets on a loosely free market basis. China, although a member, doesn’t play by the WTO rules, and nowhere more egregiously than in steel. When Trump imposed the tariffs, he had particularly targeted them at China. The Biden administration has lower ambitions, but appears to see the tariffs as something that might get China to be more cooperative in trade talks on steel that have been going on for 5 years without much progress,

A third area of concern, although touching on an entirely different dynamic, is the role of these, and potentially future, tariffs as part of an environmental tool kit. At least one Congressman has proposed that rather than end these tariffs, we should reconfigure them to discourage imports with a high carbon footprint. Whether this is a real option or not, there is an obvious appeal to trying to create incentives to lessen the carbon impact while not overtly discouraging global trade.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Pretty much nowhere. There is virtually no one who thinks the actual results of these tariffs is a good deal for Americans generally. But neither is there much enthusiasm, outside of some free trade zealots, for ending them. No one wants to be accused of letting American jobs go overseas, of endangering America’s security, or of caving to the Chinese.

One can imagine a more helpful set of policies—careful support for aspects of steel actually critical for national defense, tariffs based on carbon-footprints and a real program of support for workers to reduce the sting of jobs leaving for elsewhere. But I suspect it will be much easier to simply leave the tariffs in place.

In the meantime, I wonder what happens to the broader questions of how to create a better world. For openers, it seems axiomatic that we need global solutions to solve the problems of the environment. But there is no way of decoupling environmental issues from economic issues. If we want to save the planet, we need instruments of global economic cooperation. It is not likely the old imperatives of the WTO are that helpful since they are designed as ground rules for competition not cooperation and so heavily favor corporate influences.

 Of course, the more fundamental problem is that there isn’t much political infrastructure that would allow countries to think about how to best rationalize the manufacture and distribution of products in global terms rather than in national terms. Or in sustainable terms rather than maximizing terms. Moreover, since some countries already have so much higher standards of living, they fear “cooperation” will end up threating their way of life, a concern that Trump played in the U.S. like a virtuoso.

I think we need to be putting more thought into developing radically different models of economic cooperation than tinkering with tariffs that, in today’s world—global whether we like it or not—are as likely to do harm as good.

The World Needs More People? Really?

By Mike Koetting April 18, 2021

Several weeks ago, a headline in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention: “What the world needs now is more humans.” My antennae went up. It was so counter my basic belief, I was compelled to read it.

I was not even a little convinced. But it raised enough questions about the future to be interesting.

Facts

Let’s start with a few basic facts. You probably know world population has been on an exponential growth curve for some time. But have you really stopped to examine that curve? World population has increased since 1900 almost five-fold, from 1.65B to 7.7B. Even with few other facts, this should cause at least an eye-brow raise. It’s hard to imagine systems that can have five-fold flexibility without getting into trouble.

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It’s Too Late to Start Yesterday

By Mike Koetting April 4, 2021

The media is awash with stories about the border crisis, specifically the surge of migrants seeking to enter the United States at its southern border. For the most part they have been fairly good in reporting the humanitarian toll of the crisis and also putting it in the context of larger immigrations trends, in this case the acceleration of a surge that actually started a year ago, while Trump was still president.

However, the media has been slower to point out that most of the political responses, on all sides, are a form of Kabuki theatre. In truth, there really aren’t any good solutions in the short term. Things that might have been “solutions” are 25 years in the rear-view mirror. Which is the point of this post: big problems require solutions that are big—not simply in terms of dollars but in terms of time. Some things simply require elapsed time to get accomplished. You can’t change the amount of time required for a pregnancy by adding more resources.

The current border situation is a technicolor reminder that things can get very ugly if society tries to ignore its way out of problems, particularly those that take time to solve.

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Time for Worrying Is Over–Get Rid of the Filibuster

By Mike Koetting March 21, 2021

The American Rescue Plan is law. Very good. But what now? It passed with zero Republican votes and we have shot our Budget Reconciliation bullet for the time being. Given lack of Republican interest in engaging, do Democrats just spend the rest of the year making speeches about policies that aren’t going to happen. Faced with Republican opposition to whatever is proposed, do we just roll over?

I was initially wary of attacking the filibuster on the grounds it would even further deepen the divide. But the reality is that even if a substantial majority of the population supports them, action on voting rights, immigration or climate will be impossible under current Senate rules. Our choice is to eliminate the filibuster or give up on moving political conversations from culture wars back to policies. Capitulate or get rid of the filibuster. The latter, on reflection, I have come to see as not only necessary politics, but good policy as well.

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Strategy for the Democrats

By Mike Koetting March 7, 2021

Despite winning the presidential election and controlling both houses of Congress, the short term for Democrats is worrisome. The margin in both houses of Congress is thin, incumbent parties don’t usually do well in mid-terms, and Republicans have many structural advantages.

I believe Democrats need a three-prong strategy.

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Enough Short-Sightedness to Go Around

By Mike Koetting February 21, 2021

From a blog-standpoint, the weather-related debacle in Texas offers as much low hanging fruit as a frozen grapefruit orchard.

But I want to address what I see as the ultimately underlying problem—democracy. Okay, That’s a solution as well as a problem but we better start off with an honest assessment of the problem. People like low energy bills. They really like them in Texas where temperatures and humidity make for extremely uncomfortable summers. (Baseball great Stan Musial described his time in the Texas minor league as playing in three seasons–summer, July and August.)

Texas politicians recognize that. So they give the voters low energy bills. While comparing energy costs across different circumstances has pitfalls, one estimate is that Texas per unit energy costs to consumers are about 50% lower than the rest of the country. Which is a very good thing if you are going to use a lot of energy.

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Rules Work….Mostly

By Mike Koetting February 7, 2021

The pandemic has a way of putting a spotlight on things that otherwise are sufficiently in the background that we don’t have occasion to think about them.

Given the recent accounts of various entities trying to create operational rules for distributing vaccines, I started thinking about the nature of rules themselves. Not exactly the question of how to distribute vaccines—although that is of course interesting—but more the underlying nature of rules. I was struck by the fact that whatever the choice, it would be imperfect. Not just because there are arguments for alternative choices. There is also the reality that the very nature of making rules for vaccine distribution will no doubt create some individual situations that, from other perspectives, seem patently nuts.

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The Impeachment Trial

By Mike Koetting January 24, 2021

This has been a hard blog to actually get posted. It is the fourth one I have started in the new year. Reality has simply moved too fast. It is also the case that some things on my mind were well stated by others. Two articles of particular merit are Timothy Synder’s piece in the New York Times and Dahleen Glanton’s column in the Chicago Tribune, which was like she had bugged my brain. While these are both behind paywalls, I suspect those of you who want to chase them down will find a way.

But today I want to reflect on one particular fallout from the craziness at the Capitol—the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. I am not sure this is a good idea.

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