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Waldman on the technocrats

By Mike Konczal

These two posts by Steve Randy Waldman, "Tragedy of the technocrats" and "Moral heuristics, public policy, and self-defeating tribalism," are well worth your time. In them, Steve describes how those on the liberal side of the economic wonk space concede the moral language, preferring to stay within models and numbers. This creates a blind spot to our thoughts that ultimately leaves the other side to win those debates by default ("[E]ven in a challenging landscape it is better to fight than to preemptively surrender. There are ways to address, in explicitly moralistic terms").

I can't summarize these arguments well, so I'd advise you to read them.

I was slightly disappointed Brad Delong didn't engage Waldman's argument further. Markets are one means of governing populations. But what form does that governance take? Delong, more than most, understands that there's an ideology of dark satanic millian liberalism that drives much of what constitutes libertarian and conservative economics, and their vision of how markets should be set up, in this country. That dark argument is that markets aren't about providing the means for individuals to pursue their life goals and fully utilize their capabilities, but that markets are the best means we have for punishing the wicked and rewarding the strong. This is the battle that economic discussions play out against, and appeals to technocratic rationality won't get around that fact.

This goes back to a core split in the way that ideological work is done between liberals and conservatives. Compare the mission statement for Brookings (“The Brookings Institution ... is an independent, nonpartisan organization devoted to research, analysis, and public education with an emphasis on economics, foreign policy, governance, and metropolitan policy.") with Heritage (“The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institute – a think tank – whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense."). They both view themselves as think tanks, but while Brookings emphasizes its independence, its nonpartisanship and its commitment to the ideals of scientific inquiry, Heritage's mission and conclusions are written right on the door in an ideologically aggressive manner. Liberals want to be scientists, conservatives want to explain their ideology.

(Also: "Brookings Institution: In a 1997 survey of congressional staff and journalists about 27 think tanks, Brookings ranked as the second-most-influential and as No. 1 in credibility. In the same survey, Heritage ranked No. 1 in influence and ninth in credibility.")

This narrative is from Andy Rich's "War of Ideas" (Rich is the CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, where I work). And this also goes to a split inside the liberal ideological space, on how those who position liberal arguments are split between those who value a scientific form of objective knowledge to solve the problems of society and those who think that the solutions to society should arise from the mass participation of the population. Expertise does different things in each case, and more importantly it draws on different sources: In the first, it's credentials and methods, and in the second it's the broad experience of organized and engaged people. One craves statistics and credibility, the other mass participation.

In each case the basis for participation and voice is going to be at odds. It doesn't have to be that way. There are examples of leaders who blend the best of social science with concerns for ethical and democratic convictions (John Dewey, for instance). How to try and blend this is something I worry about and try to focus on myself politically.

I can imagine Brad Delong bashing his head at the idea that he needs to be framing arguments around mental heuristics and crass right-wing ideological aggression. But right now is exactly the wrong time to double-down on neoliberal technocratic competence, with the last decade being a failure of elites across the board (and not just economics). Because the way it gets done now leaves a lot up for grabs, especially for a new generation coming of ideological age in a time of failing market neoliberalism. And if we are failing to communicate some sort of moral message about how our version of how to set the rules of the market economy is better than their version, it shouldn't surprise us that people will ignore us in order to take comfort that they aren't quite the loser that someone else is.

Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He blogs about finance, economics and other topics at Rortybomb and New Deal 2.0, and you can follow him on Twitter.

By Mike Konczal  | November 11, 2010; 6:07 PM ET
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To me, the problem with this blog post is in painting something that should have an "AND" as if it were an "either-or".

We should NEVER discount the value of technical competence. Never never. The second we do that is the time we start going down the path towards something like today's nonsensical Republican party that lacks ideas or any hope of improving the lives of their constituents. If you consciously excuse yourself for trading correctness for expedience, it is a very slippery slope.

The thing is though, it doesn't have to be a choice between competence and ideological appeal. Sometimes the two things aren't complementary, but neither are they mutually exclusive. It's true that the technically competent Democrats right now are lacking in marketing skill, or the ability to frame the debate along appealing ideological lines, but the solution is not to abandon competence. A better choice would be to try some new marketing strategies for good policy. It's tough seeing how successful the R's have been with their empty red-baiting and faux-constitutionalism, but take heart and remember that such empty rhetoric has a way of being self-limiting.

Posted by: sanjait | November 11, 2010 7:04 PM | Report abuse

Thanks so much for pointing to the Waldman piece. As I commented to him: I believe both technocratic argument and moral framing are necessary and insufficient, and both work best after the political ground has been prepared. (E.g., Reagan didn’t win in 1980 because America agreed with Friedman and Buckley; it’s much more the other way around.)

Posted by: pjro | November 11, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't call Brookings liberal. It is centrist. e.g. Howard Gleckman says deficit co-chairs proposal is "tough, creative, and credible" while Jeff Madrick of a truly liberal outfit, Roosevelt, says in HuffPo that it "is an outrageous, misleading document, unsupported by evidence"

Posted by: bdell555 | November 12, 2010 2:58 AM | Report abuse

Mission statements are always interesting, as are moral statements. Consider an example.

Although it began as a charity "devoted to informing new generations of the ideals and achievements of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt," the Roosevelt Institute in 2008 morphed into a "home for a college campus network of progressive think tank student organizations." Its largest source of income in that year was a "Reid/Pelosi Event" which drew $204,783 in donations. The Institute then spent $303,733 [yes, an amount more than received] in direct lobby efforts supporting Pelosi's position.

The mutation exhibited by the Roosevelt Institute is typical.

Posted by: rmgregory | November 12, 2010 2:59 AM | Report abuse

Brad should be encouraged to bring back the shrill!

Posted by: grooft | November 12, 2010 7:11 AM | Report abuse

All (human culture) markets are contrived. When compared to natural systems, human markets are shaped by our cleverness. Claims that markets be allowed to work unfettered are an oxymoron promoted by those in control. What they demand is freedom to manipulate without critical input. Fortunately, by cosmic design, everything is a negotiation.

Posted by: BertEisenstein | November 12, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad you pointed out the difference between Brookings and the Heritage Foundation. Any outfit that begins with its conclusion and then searches for facts to back it up is not a true "think tank." It's a vehicle for propaganda.

Posted by: mthand111 | November 12, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

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