Teles on kludgeocracy

Steve Teles on kludgeocracy is as mind-blowing an essay as Harry Frankfurt on bullsh*t.

Every once in a while, you run into an essay that changes the way you look at the world by putting a name and an analytic framework on a familiar and important, but neglected, phenomenon. Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullsh*t” was such an essay. Steve Teles’s “Kludgeocracy” is another.

The argument is simple in outline: American politics has too many veto points, and the result tends to be jury-rigged policies that are opaque, inefficient, maladministered, and even corrupt. (One example Teles doesn’t give is immigration, where opponents of immigration get to write the laws and supporters of immigration get to make sure they’re badly enforced.)

The implications are far-reaching. I think Teles is right to say that naming the problem could be a first step toward dealing with it.

If you read the essay and conclude that I wasted your time, send me an email and I’ll donate $10 to your favorite charity.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

30 thoughts on “Teles on kludgeocracy”

  1. Great essay. Most everyone should be embarrassed by kludges, but I’m kindof ok with getting anything progressive done in an age where most of the opposition is concerned with regulating my vagina, not governing broader issues.

    I do wonder though, at becoming too efficient, as shown in this anon vid re Europe’s indect concept.

    I don’t like the waste, aging boomer health costs will bankrupt us all, and those with enough power or entrenched interests have and can corrupt the system so ordinary folks can’t rise out of their class. It would be nice to just start over.

  2. Good catch. “Complexity vs. Simplicity.” Enjoyed reading it. I hope the author continues to pursue it.

    Teles’ idea of Kludgeocracy is obvious enough and his examples paint word pictures that ensure that you can’t miss the point. We’ve been nibbling around the edges of this one since Shakespeare’s time when lawyers were paid by the word.

    On the positive side, I think the work of Elizabeth Warren has sharpened the public’s recognition that consumers must be informed of their rights and responsibilities in a manner that is clear and unambiguous; low kludgey.

    On the negative side we see today the continuation of the Senate filibuster in a marginally modified but still virulent form; high kludgey.

    Teles’ discussion also reminds me of the impotence I felt years ago when required to confront the obstructions I had to overcome if I were to deal successfully with paying taxes on foreign assets when the IRS computer housed in Philadelphia stopped at the Mississippi and didn’t access the west coast. I was eventually successful even if the IRS agent with whom I had started working was transferred mid-stream to Guam. At those times I often wonder “What do the poor people do?”

    I agree that increased transparency should eventually improve our lot. An essential ingredient, however, in any public information campaign designed to modify a problem must be ubiquity. In this regard, I’m reminded of the post WWII campaign against “littering.” Not perfect but successful. Many of us stopped throwing things out of our car windows.

      1. Why does it matter? We have a vastly worse form of this today where lawyers are paid by the hour.
        And so all data dumps from one side to the other are deliberately given as scans and printouts of originally electronic documents, just so the other side can’t easily perform electronic searches. Side one wastes time printing and scanning, side two wastes time running OCR, and both sides ramp up the billable hours.

        Or a similar idiocy — changing laws by promulgating new laws that state “in section 18.3(a) all instances of person shall be altered to citizen” rather than just changing the words. Software developers have a large amount of experience with source control systems — ways to maintain a huge corpus of text in such a way that
        – it’s easy to extract the body of text for today or yesterday, or on any date of interest
        – EVERY change is associated with the person who made the change
        – comparisons between the text at two dates are easily performed.
        But our legal system appears to have zero interest in applying this sort of technology to their identical situation.

        1. re source: I agree with MH above but for my own peace of mind wandered around Google for a couple of hours and found no supporting data. This makes me wonder whether the concept might be one of those ideas that even if it has no basis in historical fact is so obviously reasonable and sensible that it continues to hang around.

          1. That’s why I asked. The claim that lawyers were, at some point in the past, paid by the hour, appears to be one of those internet fables with no basis in fact. Always nice to kill off a false “truth.”

        2. In re: your observation about configuration management in source text: That would really have helped in figuring out who owned the Dodgers!

    1. alnval: At those times I often wonder “What do the poor people do?”

      There’s VITA: Also, most poor people will generally be able to get away with just doing a 1040-EZ without any schedules.

      1. You make my point. VITA? Who knew and how would they find out? IMO there’s a giant communication chasm between socio-economic groups that involves a lot more than finding out how one copes with the IR.

  3. Teles is pointing to a symptom, not the underlying diseases, of which there are two.

    The primary diagnosis is the pervasive violation of Coase’s Ceiling, which describes the result of the superlinear increase of friction within any collective. In simple terms, four people cannot do twice the work of two people, because the mere fact that there are four people involved creates more than twice as much internal friction, so that productivity per person declines when you add more participants. Coase’s Ceiling is the point beyond which adding more people reduces the overall productivity of the collective, because most of the energy is going into trying to overcome the internal friction instead of going toward the nominal goal.

    The secondary diagnosis is faction, which exacerbates the effect described above and lowers Coase’s Ceiling to a point where many kinds of goals become intrinsically unattainable, because they would require a level of effort that simply cannot be brought to bear. In other words, if Coase’s Ceiling is 100 people, then anything that theoretically would require 200 people’s work is infeasible by definition.

    Pretty much everything we see going on around us every day takes place above Coase’s Ceiling: all the energy goes into trying to prevent momentum from dropping to zero; nothing is left over to go towards the original nominal goals — if anyone even remembers what they were.

  4. Let me name the problem: We have abandoned the rule of law.

    Instead of changing rules we find inconvenient, we invent “work-arounds”, frequently of the most dishonest sort.

    For instance, the Constitution requires that revenue bills originate in the House. Both chambers find this a bit inconvenient. So the Senate takes the House number from dead bills, and tacks them onto Senate originated bills, and everybody pretends the result originated in the House, but everybody knows nothing of the sort is true.

    Or, the federal government finds it’s lack of authority over local matters inconvenient, and so legislates over local matters on the pretense that it is regulating interstate commerce.

    Just recently, the courts took exception to the latest “work around”, where the President claimed the power to decide when the Senate was in recess, so that he could make appointments without bothering to get Senate approval.

    I could list more examples, but they all qualify as “kluges”, and most of them violate the rule of law, in the name of getting things done.

    The rule of law IS inconvenient, at times. Amending the Constitution is difficult, especially if the amendments are of a sort the public hasn’t been persuaded are a good idea.

    But the alternative is a system of official double think, where we nominally observe a Constitution, and obey the law, but are actually working around it, and using tendentious “interpretations” to avoid admitting to outright violations.

    And a system like that has to be run by dishonest people!

    That’s our problem today. Not that “kluges” are clumsy and inefficient, but that they are dishonest, and require a government run by dishonest people in order to implement them.

    Let’s restore the rule of law, ok? And try to amend the Constitution to be more to our liking, and accept that the amendments that don’t pass aren’t the law. And then staff the government with honest people.

    1. There are some people who believe that the sacred words of the Bible have a single unambiguous unerrant meaning. There are some people who think that the same is true of the Constitution. The two sets have a heavy overlap. Both groups deny the possibility of ambiguity, or good-faith disagreement. Both groups also tend to suppress fairly clear words that they don’t like. For the Bible types, it tends to be “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” For Constitutional types, it tends to be the words “provide for the general welfare.”

    2. >So the Senate takes the House number from dead bills,

      Is there a constitutional standard for determining when a bill is dead when it actually hasn’t been voted down, merely ignored, or does the President get the power to decide that, and how is that different than deciding that the Senate is in recess?

    3. Oh don’t be silly, Brett.
      So your answer to running a 21st century state is to retreat to the 18th century? Spain did that under Franco. How well did it turn out for them?

      Saying “the answer is to listen to the constitution” is stupid. The WHOLE POINT of the constitution, the reason it is so short is that
      (a) the authors could not decide on many issue and decided to leave them to work themselves out over time AND
      (b) they were well aware that times change, and the political system needs flexibility to change as well.

      1. The US Constitution is quite flexible; so long as there is actual agreement, it’s easily amended (how many years of effort did the 21st Amendment take).

        The issue is that the changes since the 1930’s have not gotten agreement; they’ve been imposed extra-legally since if they went through the prescribed process wouldn’t be agreed to.

        1. But the original US Constitution was also implemented at a time when the technological innovations we associate with modern democracy hadn’t been invented yet, right? Popular election, proportional representation – there was a revolution in electoral tech in the 19th and 20th centuries that got ignored in the Constitution – pretty much – because it hadn’t been thought of in the 1790s.
          Someone else can push back on your “well, amend it” argument better than I can, I’m sure. But repealing an amendment that should never have been enacted is not exactly a point in favor of our current system, if you ask me.

        2. I don’t think the Constitution is easy to amend at all. I think it’s unreasonably difficult to amend. We have twenty-seven amendments. Ten were there at the beginning. Three took – ein kleinigkeit – a civil war. Of the remaining fourteen two are mutually cancelling and several are purely procedural cleanup. Further, one, IMO, destructive provision – the two senators per state rule – cannot be amended away at all.

      2. And for support, I’ll quote this:

        When Wilson proposed the Federal Reserve system, FDR proposed the New Deal and the agencies that embodied it, LBJ proposed Medicare and the use of national power to bring nineteenth-century economic and political rights to Southern blacks, and operational liberal Richard Nixon proposed the EPA, they were smart enough to pretend that they weren’t effectively amending the constitution. But while the new powers and agencies were nominally part of the hoary “Executive Branch,” we’re kidding ourselves to claim that they resemble in any way what the Founders intended by that. They are—rightly, and fortunately!—new institutions that borrowed prescriptive legitimacy by masquing themselves in old forms. (In my forthcoming book I write, in a different context, of keeping a building’s facade while gutting the interior.)

        From here.

        1. Sam,
          You are confusing two sense of the word “Constitution.” In the British sense, these are clearly constitutional amendments: fundamental changes to the way things are done. But “Constitution” means something very different on this side of the lake. In the British sense, the recent Second Amendment jurisprudence is a significant constitutional change. Not so here.

    4. The original constitution was full of kludges. It’s nothing new, it’s just that it takes effort to fix, and good faith.

      1. Strangely, I agree with that. I’m still waiting for the good faith, it involves drafting the fixes as formal amendments, and sending them to the states to be ratified or rejected. Instead of just suborning the courts into attributing a meaning to the document which the actual words don’t communicate.

        We have this huge, rickety, and massively dishonest system set up, to allow the people who govern us to have one sort of government, while the constitution they swear to uphold provides for another sort. I suggest we have a constitutional convention, and get rid of that mechanism in favor of a constitution we can honestly follow. Probably not one I’d like as much as the present Constitution, but what’s the point in liking a document which is never again going to be enforced?

        1. where you see a lot of rickety and dishonest part, I see an amalgam of patches, fixes, that add stability via flexibility.

          But I don’t share your conviction that the current setup so massively contradicts the current Constitution. Living in California, where constitutional amendments are shoehorned into the text on a regular basis, I find my self preferring the more minimal Constitution with principles more than precise proscriptions.

        2. From my perspective the problem is that the mostly likely result would be replacing the Constitution of 1787 with the constitution of Sparta. I realize that the hard Radical Right would consider that a positive outcome; me not so much.


          1. If that’s the most likely outcome, given the need for supermajority ratification, you’re already living in Sparta. Strange, it doesn’t really look like that to me.

          2. i don’t think we’re living in sparta but there are definitely times i feel that most of my fellow texans are occupying a different planet than i am.

        3. Nowhere is it written in the Constitution that the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter among the branches of what the Constitution says and means – and it took a foundational case in constitutional jurisprudence for the Court itself to claim such authority in Marbury v. Madison. Where is the bad faith in letting the Constitution evolve without formal amendment — with the Supreme Court being relatively parsimonious in exercising its own self-declared power to check the power of the majority to act through its elected representatives in the legislature?

  5. From the essay: “While liberals are harmed by the opacity of kludgeocracy’s successes, conservatives are hurt by the lack of traceability of its failures. The fact that so much of our welfare state is jointly administered — either inter-governmentally or through contracting with private agents — makes it hard for Americans to attribute responsibility when things go wrong, thus leading blame to be spread over government in general, rather than affixed precisely, where such blame could do some good. The consequence of complexity, then, is diffuse cynicism, which is the opposite of the habit needed for good democratic citizenship.”

    To continue the trend of using comp-sci-derivations, this is a feature, not a bug for conservatives. They’ve spent 30 years demonizing government as the problem, and so anything that contributes to that perception is desirable. The very opacity and complexity allows them to continue to run their kleptoctratic racket, efficiently transferring taxpayer dollars into private pockets.

    Teles is working under the misapprehension that the modern conservative movement actually has ‘governing’ as any sort of priority, or that they effectively believe in good democratic citizenship at all.

    Certainly the Republican Party’s conbtinued reliance on an ever-decreasing base of elderly white voters, dependence on ultra-wealthy ultra-conservative backers, their concomittant determination to impose barriers to voting everywhere they can, and their baldly open complaints about the 47% “moocher class” makes it emiently clear that their preferred form is corporatist oligarchy, not democracy.

  6. I agree that it’s a smart essay, and I think Steve Teles is overall right, but I don’t think I buy his analysis in its entirety. There are a few points that I believe are stretching it.

    E.g.: “The American tax code is almost certainly the most complicated in the Western world, both on the individual and the corporate side.”

    Looking at this study (which he himself refers to in his Interview with Ezra Klein, which is how I found it), the complexity of the corporate tax code seems to be just a bit above the average for the Western world.

    That’s not to say that the US tax code couldn’t be greatly simplified, but this appears to be a bit of an overstatement.

    More importantly, he says: “This ambivalence in public opinion creates a durable bias in the actual outputs of American government. The easiest way to satisfy both halves of the American political mind is to create programs that hide the hand of government, whether it is through tax preferences, regulation or litigation, rather than through the more transparent means of direct taxing and spending. ”

    In his interview with Ezra Klein, he expands: “Right. Again, the issue isn’t whether a service is better performed through the market or through the government. It’s that in many cases, we haven’t really made a choice of one or the other. We’ve tried to have both, 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.

    “When you do that, you often lose a lot of what is good about markets, and in fact you create very strange kinds of private actors who are in fact totally dependent on government. And that often incentivizes them to be more oriented to lobbying and influencing government than to serving their customers. And that’s where kludgeocracy is not just a complaint about ‘efficiency’ but a complaint about the kind of governance that is generated by complexity.”

    The problem with this claim is that it should, mutatis mutandis apply to Germany, but it doesn’t. Germany’s federal government does this even more extensively than the United States: For example, German healthcare is essentially being run by non-profit sickness funds and the private sector, with minimal government involvement. Overall, US federal spending is almost twice as high as German federal spending (on a per capita basis). And while there are obvious inefficiencies in the German system, it does not suffer nearly as much from being a “kludgeocracy”: The German healthcare system, for all its historically grown warts, is a model of simplicity compared to the US one (admittedly, that is a low bar).

    This is why I’d go back to Steve Teles original explanation of veto points as the primary cause of this phenomenon (and also, to a degree, the lack of a clear separation between the powers of the federal and the state governments): There are few veto points in the German system, because it is a parliamentary democracy. Generally, if Angela Merkel wants to pass a law and her party agrees, she can do that, because the government has a majority in the Bundestag and MPs violate party discipline at their own peril. As a consequence, there is much more limited need for compromise due to political expediency (for better or worse). Similarly, because the public knows that she has that power, she is also ultimately held responsible for policy decisions, even if they are implemented indirectly by non-state actors. If there were a problem with the healthcare system, the government parties would not get a pass on that at the ballot box.

    This explanation would also better match the EU exhibiting similar symptoms of a “kludgeocracy”: While it is technically also a parliamentary system, it has a lot more veto actors, and these actors do not generally have interests that are politically aligned (i.e., political alignment in terms of party lines is frequently trumped by the divergent interests of the governments of member states).

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