Saturday, June 2, 2012

Understanding why technocrats fail

In a previous bit, I talked about the technocracy movement, in reference to what I have termed "the Great Conceit," on the part of many people in power or aspiring to be in power (particularly those of a progressive or liberal persuasion):
...they actually believe that the economy springs from and follows the government...To be fair, it's not a nefarious conceit, at all. They truly believe that they have it right, that they can predict and control the economy via government mandate.
Prediction and control are accomplished via policy. Not just general policy, but policy that is specifically designed to make something happen, to create a desired outcome. Some political leaders believe this is realistic because there are experts available to help craft such policy. And a dependence on such expertise is the defining element of the technocrat:
Under this deeply flawed rubric, decisions of policy are made by, in conjuction with, or based on the advice of ...experts. As an ideology, this view has been called the technocracy movement in the past. The driving idea behind it is that things are too complicated, too diversified when it comes to government policies and laws for typical people to understand, thus decisions should be left in the hands of the experts in a given field. As a "for instance," consider climate change and the question of what--if anything--should be done about it. For the technocrat, the answer is simple: climate scientists should decide, end of discussion.

Part of the allure of this view is that those making decisions of policy would be doing so from the outside, as impartial observers. In theory, at least. Who can forget the story of the Harvard economist employed to help Russia, who used his position to make some quick cash? Of course, that could be held up as an anomaly.

Regardless, when it comes to the economy, the experts in the field would be the top tier of economists, the men and women at the top of their game, the ones that know how the economy works and how to make the correct policy choices to improve it.
It was this ideology--that of the technocrats--that informed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Stimulus Bill. And it was this ideology that informed Obamacare, that informed specific policy initiatives like the continued extension of unemployment insurance benefits, the payroll tax holiday, and the various monies spent--and wasted--on green energy initiatives.

The technocrat knows how complicated reality is, knows that the economy is complex, yet still believes distinct, targeted measures can have entirely predictable consequences, can in total be used to even "fix" the economy or remake society in the "proper" way. Or both.

Technocracy is ultimately rooted in Plato; it is a reaction--a rebuttal, of sorts--to Plato's idea of philosopher kings. But both lead to the same place: a society ruled and ordered by those who know better, be they experts in morality and justice, or experts in bridge-building and economics.

And President Obama is the new king of the technocrats.

Consider his Weekly Address today. He begins with a disingenuous analysis of past and current conditions (note how the last guy is still to blame for everything):
Right now, this country is still fighting our way back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The economy is growing again, but it’s not growing fast enough. Our businesses have created almost 4.3 million new jobs over the last twenty-seven months, but as we learned in this week’s jobs report, we’re not creating them fast enough.
Gutsy, touting job numbers, given that unemployment is on the rise and the rate of job creation is insufficient to keep up with population growth (and that the Dow basically gave back the gains of the entire year this week). But I digress. Let's look at Obama's latest batch of trumpeted policy solutions:
That’s why I’ve directed the government to hire over 200,000 veterans so far – because our economy needs their tremendous talent, and because millions of Americans are still looking for a job...

Right now, Congress should pass a bill to help states prevent more layoffs, so we can put thousands of teachers and firefighters and police officers back on the job. Congress should have passed a bill a long time ago to put thousands of construction workers back on the job rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our runways. Instead of just talking a good game about job creators, Congress should give small business owners a tax break for hiring more workers and paying them higher wages.
Right now, Congress should give every responsible homeowner the opportunity to save an average of $3,000 a year by refinancing their mortgage. Next week, there’s a vote in Congress on a bill that would give working women the tools they need to demand equal pay for equal work. Ensuring paycheck fairness for women should be a no brainer. And they need to pass that bill.

Right now, Congress also needs to extend the tax credits for clean energy manufacturers that are set to expire at the end of the year – so that we don’t walk away from 40,000 good jobs.
See a pattern? The proposals all target limited groups or issues. Each is based on the assumption that enacting it would have a desirable and predictable result, with the bonus of appealing to these distinct groups--like civil servants, women, and homeowners--with an election on the horizon. But politics aside, the point is that the President and his advisers take it as a given that government policy can always produce a desired effect. There is no consideration for unintended consequences or actual incentives (let alone cost), just the policy and the goal that is assumed will be achieved.

But the economy--again, as the technocrats actually know--is complicated, as is society as a whole. Resources are limited and supposing that they can be reallocated (labor, after all, is a resource) by government fiat with no consequences elsewhere is supremely foolish, to put it mildly.

And note the other aspect of technocrat-think: solutions must involve more policy; it is simply not possible--in the technocrat's mind--that less policy could be beneficial. Really it's a carrot and stick mentality: reward good behavior, punish bad behavior. One or the other must be employed; there is no "getting out of the way." And while that may work on an individual, it can't work on the economy at large because--again--it's too complicated.

Technocrats base their ideas on the need of experts to understand what is not easily understood, but then suppose simplistic and limited solutions will still work.

A consensus, however, is starting to build with regard to the President and his economic acumen. Yesterday, I quoted an article from the economist which essentially argued that Obama was clueless on the economy. Such articles are beginning to proliferate, like Peter Wehner's at Commentary Magazine, who says:
Whatever fault one wants to ascribe to Obama’s predecessor, and whatever excuses the president can dream up, what is now beyond any reasonable dispute is that Obama has no clue how to fix things. That is not a political judgment; it’s an empirical one.
 And I would argue that this is an indictment of the technocrat, more than anything else.

Cheers, all.

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