Think tank scholars and policy wonks strive to be both practical and clever. Being practical means proposing policies that have a good chance of getting taken up by government in the short term. And being clever means policies that generate big benefits at little or no cost. But according to American political scientist Steven Teles, the short term benefits of practicality and cleverness have long term costs.
Americans argue endlessly about the size of government. But a more pressing problem is the complexity and incoherence of government programs. According to Teles, American government has succumbed to kludgeocracy:
A "kludge" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem." The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes. Any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept.
And so too will any close observer of US public administration. Speaking to the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, Teles said: "A program or policy qualifies as a kludge if the fundamental policy mechanism is substantially more complicated than the problem it is trying to solve dictates. In general, it is a "kludge" because it builds upon, rather than supersedes, the policies that came before it.”
For think tank scholars and policy wonks, ‘practicality’ often means proposing measures that sit on top of existing programs rather than arguing for systemic reform. While this gets results in the short term, in the long term it leads to a build up of kludge.
According to Teles, policy wonks and think tank scholars have "a preference for clever or innovative policy mechanisms; relatively simple, direct uses of governmental brute force are just not as interesting." One result is privatised programs that rely on a complicated web of tax breaks, subsidies and regulation.
In political debates conservatives and liberals argue about whether services should be performed through the market or through the government. But too often, governments don’t choose one or the other. "We’ve tried to have both," says Teles," and in having both, we lose a number of the advantages of either. In most cases, ‘privatization’ does not really mean that a function has been given back to the market. It means that we have a highly subsidized, regulated, sometimes monopolized activity in which there is private ownership but a high degree of public control."
A first step towards clearing away kludge is to help ordinary citizens see how the problem affects them. Once people understand the problem, they’ll see how seemingly unconnected complaints have a common cause. According to Teles, raising awareness is:
… the work of public intellectuals, bloggers, researchers, and entrepreneurial politicians. Only the shapers of public debate can help the public recognize that the source of the insider dealing and special interest politics they detest is the policy complexity that their own ideological incoherence helps to create.
Find out more:
Steven M. Teles. ‘Kludgeocracy: The American Way of Policy‘, December 10, 2012, New America Foundation
Matt Steinglass. ‘Health-care reform: America’s kludgiest kludgeocracy‘, September 27 2013, The Economist
Reihan Salam. ‘Steven Teles’s Really Important Essay on Kludgeocracy‘, December 10 2012, National Review
Kevin Drum. ‘The High Cost of Rube Goldberg Policymaking‘, December 11 2012, Mother Jones