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Posted at 7:30 AM ET, 02/15/2011

The White House's 'two big theories of action'

By Ezra Klein

Most of the commentary on the 2012 budget is focusing on the headline numbers: How much it cuts, how much it spends, and where it leaves deficits. There's been less attention to the new ways the administration is proposing for how a lot of that money gets spent.

Think of social policy as having one of two goals: Either it's funding a particular program to do something specific, like lower teen pregnancy, or it's funding a broader effort to reform something diffuse, like the education system. The administration views these problems separately. "We have two big theories of action here," says Robert Gordon, executive associate director at the Office of Management and Budget. "In a program intervention, the big obstacle is getting people to use the right approach, based off the best evidence. If you think about systems, the big obstacle is often political -- you're dealing with a complicated space with multiple stakeholders where you have a common goal but there's a coordination problem."

For the program interventions, the administration sees the main problem as getting sclerotic bureaucracies to shift to interventions based on the best and newest evidence. So they're tying funding to evidence -- a practice that's been rarer than you might think. For the systemwide reforms, they see the main problem as getting past political obstruction and broad inertia, and so they're expanding the Race to the Top program -- which handed out money based on the pro-reform laws that states passed through their legislatures -- to new areas.

Saying that new programs -- and a lot of the money feeding old programs -- will be weaned off of so-called "formula" funding, where money is given out according to preset rules, and moved to various forms of competitive funding, where the money is given out based on how much high-quality evidence you can provide that your intervention works, seems like damning with faint praise. Isn't most policymaking based on evidence?

Well, no, says Ron Haskins, former senior adviser for welfare policy in the George W. Bush administration. "Research generally plays a very modest role," he sighs. But he brightens up when he talks about "the spectacular job" the Obama administration is doing changing this.

The Obama administration's favored funding structure involves a three-tiered test. The top tier is for programs that have tested themselves using a randomized control trial in multiple sites, or something close to it. That's the gold standard in evidence, and those programs get the most money. The second tier is for programs with preliminary evidence, and they can get some money. And then there are programs that can make a case for why they're worth trying, and they can get a bit of money -- enough, essentially, so they can develop evidence and come back to qualify for a higher tier. Program funding is being moved to this model across the government, in education and energy and transportation and more. "This is one of the few times I've regretted being a Republican," Haskins says happily. "I just think this is the exact right thing to do, and they’re being so thorough about it."

Then there's the systemic level. The model here is the Race to the Top program, which has been at the core of the administration's efforts in the education space. That initiative ran a competitive grant program in which states needed to submit a reform plan, then pass it through their state legislatures, before they could qualify for cash. The money, essentially, was used to buy votes for a broader reform vision.

When administration officials talk about Race to the Top, they get a little starry-eyed. "Widely viewed as leveraging more change than any other competitive grant program in history" is how it gets introduced in the budget. The great thing about the Race to the Top money, administration officials will tell you, is that it proved so highly "leveraged." Only 12 states actually got grants. But more than 40 states adopted a common set of K-12 standards. Dozens more lifted the caps on charter schools and agreed to more rigorous teacher evaluation programs. The money and the competition proved effective at breaking the political logjams that had frustrated reformers, giving them the momentum to pass their packages through state legislatures. And even if a state didn't end up getting the money, it still kept the reforms it had passed while trying to get the money.

It's no surprise that Race to the Top began in the education space, where political intransigence and interest groups are often considered the first-order obstacles to change. But now it's moving beyond education. There's a $200 million Race to the Top program "for communities to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure and remove regulatory barriers." There's a $32 billion Race to the Top program in the transportation space to "create incentives for States and localities to adopt critical reforms in a variety of areas, including safety, livability, and demand management." There a $120 million Race to the Top grant "that rewards States for tangible improvements in juvenile justice systems. There are new Race to the Tops for early-learning, higher education and job training. There are Race to the Tops everywhere.

I think there's a question as to how well the model will work in new spaces. The administration -- and the education-reform community more broadly -- was very clear on the political reforms it thought necessary to improve the schools. It's less clear what they want to see happen in "safety, livability, and demand management." But it's worth a try: The White House may not be able to overcome gridlock in Washington. But perhaps, with the help of a few billion dollars, they can do it in the states.

By Ezra Klein  | February 15, 2011; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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--*Think of social policy as having one of two goals: Either it's funding a particular program to do something specific, like lower teen pregnancy, or it's funding a broader effort to reform something diffuse, like the education system.*--

Funny, but in either case they are illegitimate, and, practically speaking, misguided, ineptly conceived, politicized, ineptly executed, and don't work. Pick your dumb policies; they're all the same.

Posted by: msoja | February 15, 2011 8:48 AM | Report abuse

What happened to the $700 billion T.Sec Paulson gave to the financial industry with no questions asked?

Posted by: epespinoza43 | February 15, 2011 8:52 AM | Report abuse

An objective analysis of the prospects for the President's education programs might start with a comparison of the amount that is spent per student in the Washington DC public schools and that spent elsewhere. Once the difference in spending has been understood, one could ask whether spending more in Washington has produced any real results. The common theory of action both in government and in business is that merit based evaluation systems usually turn out to be more about politics than about substance.

Posted by: dnjake | February 15, 2011 8:58 AM | Report abuse

"Isn't most policy-making based on evidence?"

Concrete evidence is often difficult or impossible to proffer, leading to the use of softer evidence subject to interpretation.

Consider three examples: eugenics, anthropogenic climate change, and the various food-stamp-like indigent subsidy programs. Regarding eugenics, a body of purportedly concrete evidence was presented to legislators, who readily embraced the purported scientific fact for almost a century (1920 to 2000) to the detriment of millions. Regarding anthropogenic climate change, a body of purportedly concrete evidence was presented to legislators and was met with skepticism and inaction now justified (last week, in fact) by findings released by hundreds of scholars worldwide: the disregard of pseudo-evidence saved the money and quality of life of millions.

Now consider food-stamp-like indigent subsidy programs first by reviewing fact about the PPACA. Recently, CBO, confirmed by WaPo and many others, found fact that the PPACA incentivises non-work -- that some may prefer life on the PPACA dole over a life of labor. Other federal indigent subsidies similarly incentivise non-work -- some might more bluntly say that many programs promote laziness. If we find as fact -- if we have evidence -- that food-stamp-like indigent subsidy programs promote laziness or, in LibSpeak, incentivise non-work, should we abandon such programs in favor of others? Would Progressive lobby groups really embrace change we could believe in? Should they?

One potential solution applicable to all three of the examples above is to wait for actual incontrovertible evidence before rushing headlong into any policy-making. If we had waited for evidence before implementing Johnson's Great Society, for example, would we be "better off" today? If we had waited for evidence before implementing Galton's eugenics notions, what would have been the result?

Posted by: rmgregory | February 15, 2011 9:08 AM | Report abuse

Who cares about the new ways it is being spent? We still cannot afford it. This is like saying yeah, he got the death penalty, but at least it was by hanging and not firing squad.

Posted by: Baltesq | February 15, 2011 9:35 AM | Report abuse

There would be no reason to make such drastic cuts to the budget if: (1) Rich people and corporations would pay their fair share in taxes (they should donate their billion dollar bonuses to the people at this time of crisis; (2) Take a hatchet to defense spending and do away with all the military spending which we are not using, have not used, and will not use. Trillions go to that budget. Surely they can cut it in half. These things alone, would give the U.S. plenty money to begin to build a 21st century economy. It is well known by the "powers that be" that Saudi Arabia is running out of oil, that there will be tremendous food shortages due to freaky weather patterns. We should be building alternative energy sources and addressing real climate changes. A high-speed rail system that could transport people faster than a car, would do much to address cutting back on oil consumption. We need smart men running our country; men and women who are forward thinking, ahead of the curve. Not people who offer a No and Cut solution to every single proposal offered to make this country better, faster, sounder.

Military might does not make right, but as Egypt and Tunisia has shown the world the might of a peaceful power can make right! Where is the Wisdom Teachers and Leaders? Where is there light, their bravery and courage to speak up in the face of the fearmongers and do what is right for America. What the people really want anyway. Who do they fear? The Mighty Bank Merchants. Their days are numbered anyway! Why do we always have to save ourselves on the backs of the poor and working class, while the rich and powerful stay safe in their Ivory Towers.

Oh America, you will surely reap what you sow and the High will be made low and the Low will be made High!

For a feel-good story: The Facebook Freedom Fighter

Wael Ghonim’s day job was at Google. But at night he was organizing a revolution.

After spending almost two weeks in detention, Ghonim found himself anointed a leader by the leaderless movement he'd helped to create. The telephone call from Cairo came late on Thursday, Jan. 27. “I think they’re following me,” the caller told the friend on the other end. “I’m going to destroy this phone.”

Posted by: wdsoulplane | February 15, 2011 9:45 AM | Report abuse

The two big theories are
1) Let us more completely abandon what used to be our base because they hate us.
2) Let us more completely submit to what used to be our opponency because they might like us later.

Posted by: JF11 | February 15, 2011 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Baltesq wrote: "Who cares about the new ways it is being spent? We still cannot afford it."

You missed the point of the article. It's not just about "how" the money is spent. The goal of this approach is to prevent spending on inneffective programs and to weed out non-performing programs. Those are two critical steps to cutting spending.

The federal government will still be spending trillions of dollars under any budget scenario. Whatever money they spend needs to be spent effectively.

This article is important because it points out this administration's increasingly sophisticated management approach, which is the core of the exeuctive branch's role in our government.

Posted by: RufusPlimpton | February 15, 2011 10:26 AM | Report abuse

The point missed by both parties and the media as well is-

The 800lb gorilla- i.e. the US politicians in collusion with the military industrialists and oil crooks - wasting of approx. $1.4 TRILLION a year on these senseless wars and destruction and maiming and killing....end these unethical wars based on lies and military industrialists buying politicians and close down nearly ALL foreign bases and bring our troops home then cut half the dod, homeland security, veterans admin. and 145 other fed security forces in half....that would solve nearly half the deficit!

Then tackle ineffective policy such as drugs, taxes, education, oil subsidies, commerce, justice and others…..change ineffective policy and close down respective agencies who have not even come close to meeting their goals such as dea, doe, doa, irs,

Time to change ineffective policy and reform government at every level ....and get back to making internationally competitive goods.....and I don't mean weapons!

Posted by: ticked | February 15, 2011 10:29 AM | Report abuse

In trying to set us all 'straight', Erza wrote: Most of the commentary on the 2012 budget is focusing on the headline numbers: How much it cuts, how much it spends, and where it leaves deficits.

It is shame he was not honest enough to add, 'how much it RAISES TAXES.' After all that is much larger than how much it cuts.

The journolist never changes.


Disgusting prigs.

Posted by: TECWRITE | February 15, 2011 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Ezra Klein has identified the most fascinating part of Obama's "change" agenda--asking communities to work together to make improvements. Such a shift in how funding is allocated is consistent with the philosophy of communitarianism that I identify as Obama's political philosophy in my recent book "Barack Obama, The Aloha Zen President: How a Son of the 50th State May Revitalize America Based on 12 Multicultural Principles" (Praeger 2011).

Posted by: mikehaas | February 15, 2011 10:34 AM | Report abuse

What happened to the $700 billion T.Sec Paulson gave to the financial industry with no questions asked?
Posted by: epespinoza43 | February 15, 2011 8:52 AM


What happened is a heck of a lot of it got paid back. Like it or not (I didn't like it at all) the bailouts ended up being chump change compared to the loss of tax revenue and all the red ink that came with it when the banks failed.

Posted by: Candressuhmoose | February 15, 2011 10:43 AM | Report abuse

"40 states... dozens more"?

Posted by: Diacritic | February 15, 2011 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Let us get real here.
The total of corporate income taxes in the US for 2012 is projected to be only 329 billion.

For context, Wall Street compensation in 2010 was 135 billion for only 25 publicly trade finance companies. Exxon alone had profits of 30 billion on revenues of 383 billion. They paid no corporate income taxes in 2009

And we need to cut corporate income taxes?

Posted by: FoundingMother | February 15, 2011 11:34 AM | Report abuse

What happened to the $700 billion T.Sec Paulson gave to the financial industry with no questions asked?

Posted by: epespinoza43 | February 15, 2011 8:52 AM | Report abuse

The preponderance of that money has already been repaid, with interest. Current estimates of the net cost of those loans is down in the neighborhood of $25 billion. Fannie and Freddie are still having major issues, but most of the TARP money has already been returned to the Treasury.

Posted by: lonquest | February 15, 2011 11:41 AM | Report abuse

If money spent on education is allegedly tied to "evidence," then I want a refund of every dime spent since the Department of Education was founded.

We have gone backwards.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | February 15, 2011 12:05 PM | Report abuse

If I remember correctly; The federal government was established by our founding fathers to provide for the citizens of this nation to ensure a standing army for the protection from external forces and build a strong union. Lately quite the opposite is dominating our political process. Our government thinks its our business to police and dominate the world. At the expense of the citizens. Taxpayers are forced to stand quietly by while the congress and presidents persue their own interests. Fighting two unfunded and unnecessary wars for ten years does not protect and preserve our stronger union, it tears it down.Angering soverign foreign nations is not an effective goal it only creates more hostilities that we must one day deal with., its counter productive, Funding all sorts of overseas programs, establishing military bases all over the world and spending Trillions of taxpayer dollars does not help the citizens it tear them down. Our current path of spend-spend is wrong and is severly damaging the rights and livehood of the American taxpayerand driving us ever deeper into debt..Other countries have realised this fact and no longer support foreign intervention because they can not afford to do so.Imperialism is very expensive.
A politican once said that the easiest way to stimulate a sagging economy is to start a War. Then war materials troops(jobs)and wealth (for some) are created and military industrial complexes flurish.This has been the approach our politicians have taken sinse WW2 (some will say we entered that war because of business profits) This country has used the war approach for over over 68 years. Now it is almost impossible to determine if our commerce and market system even works anymore its to long been diluted and proped up by a false economy that we are now unable to shed. This misguided logic dominates our political process and spending. Over the cenutries many other countries have tried and failed miserably,persuing the path we are on and their once strong nations and citizens fell. We won WW2 and the cold war because we simply out spent and out produced everyone else. Now that realization is destroying our economy.We are now faced with only two realities. 1) Contunue to borrow or 2) cut spending. The latter has seldom been tried with any success because our elected officials lack the backbone. To be sucessful we must; Abandon the notion that we should dominate the world. that our right is the only right, That our economic choices regarding foreign countries are extreemly limited(we can not afford it)and we must scale back significantly on our military, it must be for the use our founding fathers intended.That our borders and security does not rest thousands of miles from our shores and is not protected by hundreds of bases and thousands of troops.We must step back from the war mentality and reclaim our economic stability.
It is possible to have peace and a strong economy for this country, but not on our present course

Posted by: cliffc1 | February 15, 2011 12:27 PM | Report abuse

If the Democrats had held the House, this innovative use of the experimental Race to the Top model in other contexts would really have been intriguing, and it would be worth debating where it might apply well and where it's applying the wrong tool to the job.

With the Republicans in the majority, I assume this innovation, however much in the public interest as described by the Bush-era reformer above, is simply dead on arrival.

They don't even have their own act together and are unlikely, to say the least, to welcome productive, good ideas from the administration. Why should they? (Except for the good of the country, of course...) This creative, cost-effective management solution will be met with the classic "not invented here" response by the House, I'm afraid.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter1 | February 15, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Klein is about as big a bullsheitter as Odumbo is.
Disgusting, disingenuous liberals.

Posted by: LarryG62 | February 15, 2011 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Before expanding the Race to the Top model beyond education, shouldn't there be some evidence children actually received a better education rather than simply assuming that the changes implemented will improve their education? And shouldn't you consider that the losers in the race will not compete in other races since there was no payoff worth the political hit?

Posted by: Ashland | February 15, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing that the plural of 'race to the top' is 'races to the top' not 'race to the tops'

Posted by: djstaple | February 15, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

And so,speaking of big ticket items that only reported on this new latest loser,is the $68Billion Dollars to
build Obamarail a high speed passenger train rail system. So,how come WAPO & the
rest of our so-called MSN folks failed to
tell us all about this one?..If,you liked
Obamacare then you will love Obamarail!
Shame on you WAPO for your failing to do so! But you can go check it all out at and I hope do so,as Obama is
already getting more flak then he did with
Obamacare! Your doing a heck of a job
here WAPO! NOT!

Posted by: carleen09 | February 15, 2011 11:17 PM | Report abuse

Having written law enforcement grants for almost 30 years, I've seen such changes come and go.

The real "change" will be to direct funds where the administration wants and pull funding from a broader area, shared through "formula" funding. When the evidentiary process is developed friends will have the initial requirements provided and they'll simply plug in the numbers...just a new hoop to jump through.

However, states and localities will see funding dry up as cities with more massive computer systems and staff will get directed funds. We already have crony capitalism, and my bet is this will usher in grant cronyism.

Of course, in this job, our mantra is:
"Tell me the rules, and I'll play the game."

So, while this sounds good (like so many Liberal "changes") it won't bring more
efficiency to grant administration. It will give more control to a new set of "good ol' boys", and more numbers to spin as they will.

Don't shuffle the deck chairs guys, cut directed funds (which have tilted already to Indian tribes, GLBT issues and academians) and leave unfunded state mandates (Medicaid, Obamacare) out of the grand schemes that sound so new.

Posted by: BluePelican | February 16, 2011 8:25 AM | Report abuse

It is interesting that the administration is acting in contradiction to its tier-based theory of action when it comes to Race to the Top. States have yet to implement any of the plans or new legislation, yet the administration is expanding it with the evidence base being a "promise" rather than clear results. It's one thing to bring stakeholders together to submit a set of planned intentions to win sorely needed resources, entirely different strategy to make it work. Evidence? The numerous school districts now opting out of Race to the Top plans in like NC, a "winner" of RTTT.

Posted by: Marydean | February 17, 2011 8:41 AM | Report abuse

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