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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 03/ 4/2011

Washington is bad at scheming

By Ezra Klein

As far as I can tell, "The Adjustment Bureau" is about a group of superplanners who've mapped out every right turn, McDonald's combo meal and life decision we'll face. I say "as far as I can tell" because I won't see it. I can't bear it. I can suspend my disbelief for men who unsheathe adamantium claws through their knuckles and aliens who spit acid and Tina Fey as a frumpy mess with no sex appeal (well, I have trouble with that last one). But I can't believe in guys in suits with the ability to plan things.

That's the main thing I've learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly carrying out complicated plans. Partisans are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities. And there's so much press interest in Svengali political consultants like Karl Rove or David Plouffe, all of whom get built up in the press as infallible tacticians, that the place just looks a lot more sophisticated than it really is.

But I tend to be shocked at how sophisticated it isn't. Communication between various political actors -- a crucial ingredient in any serious plan -- is surprisingly informal and inadequate. Members of Congress and their staffs don't really have access to secret, efficient networks of information. Instead, they read Roll Call and the Hill and The Washington Post and keep their televisions tuned to cable news, turning up the volume when a colleague involved in a bill they're interested in appears on the screen. Then everyone sits around and speculates about what they just heard. Most every political reporter can back me up when I say that it's extremely common for key players on both sides of the aisle to ask you what you're hearing or how you'd rate the chances of their bill -- and this typically happens when you're sitting down to ask them the very same questions. It's terribly disappointing and, I'm convinced, 100 percent genuine.

There's also a lot less long-term planning than you might think. In general, politicians are overworked and understaffed. They're traveling constantly, buried under too many meetings and constituent requests, and working desperately to stay one step ahead of whatever they're getting yelled at about that week. That isn't to say they don't take on long-term projects, but in general, the way they take them on is one day at a time. The most common lamentation you'll hear from congressional staffers when a legislative fight starts going badly is "didn't anyone think of this beforehand?" In general, the answer is yes, someone saw the fight over the excise tax or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts coming. They just didn't have enough time, or couldn't get their boss and the relevant principals and staff members from other offices to put aside the time, to plan for it.

There is, of course, a real upside to presenting yourself as a fearsome tactician who should never be crossed, and plenty of political actors go to great lengths to do exactly that. But however well or poorly the health-care reform effort turned out, the one thing that people on both sides agree about is that it didn't go according to anyone's plan. Almost nothing does, and that's because there usually isn't much of a plan, or because the plan that did exist was quickly overtaken by events and no one had the time to really update it.

When a campaign -- either electoral or legislative -- fails, we hear all about this: Staffers anonymously complain that there was no plan, that the internal communication had broken down, that Rahm Emanuel yells too much (or, in more recent tellings, too little). Usually, a lot of that stuff is true. More misleading are the contrasting stories about the campaigns that succeed. Those stories tend to feature the brilliant plans, effective communication strategies and towering cunning of the people involved. It's not that there's no truth to any of it, but it's usually a lot truer in retrospect than it was at the time. Events tend to be too fluid and fast to support very detailed planning. Whenever I read those stories, I think of George Foreman's contention that the rope-a-dope was never a strategy at all, that Muhammad Ali had fired an arrow into a barn and then walked over afterward and painted a bull's-eye around it. More often than not, that's a pretty good description of how politics works: People try to aim in the right direction, shoot straight and hit the barn. That's about the best they can do under the circumstances, but it's not the best they can do if they succeed and then get to tell the tale of their triumph.

By Ezra Klein  | March 4, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
 
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Comments

Ezra, You have found out one of the last great secrets of life in the government-the inability to plan. It is one reason why all conspiracy theories are hogwash-they all require an underlying plan. Never going to happen.

Posted by: jak201 | March 4, 2011 10:22 AM | Report abuse

People aren't sophisticated, and the scale of what is being managed is ridiculously complex. It calls for nuance no one seems to have an interest in fostering. It results in gridlock, which is fine when no one is getting hurt, and occasionally results in something good happening.

Oh, for a modern Pericles to be found somewhere, anywhere.

Posted by: arm3 | March 4, 2011 10:38 AM | Report abuse

i for one can't wait to see the movie. imagine a government that is thorough, smart and agile enough to do all that it seems they do.

that being said how can you look towards single payer government run healthcare as a serious option if by your own admission they can't get out of their own way to do much of anything right.

My bad, I paraphrased what you said. Here it is:

That's the main thing I've learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling.


Isn't single payer government run healthcare on a nationwide scale a "complicated plan".

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 4, 2011 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Everything is a sausage factory.

Posted by: RZ100 | March 4, 2011 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Wow. Does that mean the Koch-led, vast right-wing conspiracy isn't real? Or is it just government-based planning that doesn't work?

Posted by: HenryBemis | March 4, 2011 10:48 AM | Report abuse

You are way of base here. Of course not many things can go exactly as planned, but some people do do more planning than others. The reason why this country is on the way to the direction conservatives want is exactly the result of the efforts of more planning by the conservatives.

After years of prosperity, the common people just take it for granted that things will work out just fine regardless of who is in power. That's why progressives whose ideals are more in line with common people didn't get much support in an organized ways. People like you mostly think about how each policy would work on the merit of itself without much partisan association. But conservatives have "principals" that tend to be in line with what the rich wants. they do plan and organize with the financial support from the rich, while the progressive don't have. Of course things didn't go exactly as they planned but things generally go in the direction they planned. At the same time, the progressives have no plan and no leader and no support from common people. Influential Media person like you still thinks the other side is not trying to destroy you, instead they are people with good intentions but just with different ideas. if you don't realize it as typical class struggle, you will never get it.

When you look at an issue, don't look at from the point of view how many people are supporting it because people don't really know. You should think who is going to benefit from it. Take health care for example, I am pretty sure 80% of all people will benefit from a single payer system. But who is representing those people? Not that the politicians don't know better. It is just the people are being brainwashed by the conservative media for too long, they don't support things that would benefit them. That's some planning!

I myself came from China about 20 years ago. People there know the news are mostly propaganda. they tend to not believe it. But here people think the media is free and objective, they don't even know they are being brainwashed. it is a pity that the people who are being brainwashed so much believe firmly they are very free.

Posted by: amicus_mass | March 4, 2011 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Damn, he knows. Quick, have him adjusted!

Posted by: WmOckham | March 4, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Great post - I am an Ali historian and a student of public policy, so this might be one of my favorite blog posts of all time!

I expanded on this cheerleading at my own blog if anyone is interested:

http://vanishingdollar.blogspot.com/2011/03/straight-talk-on-rumble-in-jungle.html

Posted by: raulgroom | March 4, 2011 11:33 AM | Report abuse

This is 100% true. Great post Ezra, it made my day!

Posted by: aml_lewis | March 4, 2011 11:44 AM | Report abuse


Ezra has discovered that "Stuff Happens".

As far as "The Adjustment Bureau", the trailers make it look like a more malevolent "Truman".

Posted by: edbyronadams | March 4, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

this is 100% true. it also makes me think that we should entrust less and less control of our lives to these people in DC.

Posted by: jfcarro | March 4, 2011 11:49 AM | Report abuse

All conspiracy theories fail Occam's Razor. Never attribute to malevolence what can be explained by incompetence.

Posted by: yellojkt | March 4, 2011 11:52 AM | Report abuse

That's why simpler is better. Social Security is dirt simple and it works brilliantly at keeping millions out of poverty. Single payer is the way out of our health care mess.

Posted by: steveandshelley | March 4, 2011 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I took the post to be an argument not that government can't do complicated things, but that there are rarely perfectly executed and controlled long-term plans. Single-payer is certainly a complicated project, but what this post tells us is that we can't predict where the system will be at 10 years down the road, and we need to be agile enough, and with a government that's responsive enough, to adjust when things change. There is no program or plan, whether in government or the private sector, that doesn't need frequent adjustment.

Posted by: MosBen | March 4, 2011 12:03 PM | Report abuse

@MosBen,

well said but who ends up being more agile when honestly compared, government or the private sector?

Who's more agile the federal government or the states?

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 4, 2011 12:13 PM | Report abuse

"That's why simpler is better. Social Security is dirt simple and it works brilliantly at keeping millions out of poverty."

Roughly 1 in 5 elderly individuals are in poverty, despite the government spending $1,288 billion on them annually. That's $35,217 per person (using 36.559 million elderly given 6.8 million elderly in poverty and a poverty rate of 18.6%).

http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/twice-as-many-elderly-in-poverty-new-formula-new-policy-hope/19152740/

For this calculation I used old age pensions ($793.2Bn) and health care spending on seniors ($494.3Bn). Technically, seniors are receiving part of Medicaid spending too, and some elderly Veterans are also receiving income security assistance and healthcare, but we'll ignore those values.

http://usgovernmentspending.com/numbers#usgs30210

So the government could, on a revenue neutral basis, give singles something like $40,000/yr and couples $65,000/yr, with Medicaid health benefits and veteran benefits remaining, while abolishing all other elderly support programs.

Only government can spend enough money to put pretty much everyone above 350% of the poverty line - with a Medicaid safety net and additional funds for Veterans - and still leave 1/5th of the target demographic in poverty.

On top of this inefficiency, FICA contributions create deadweight loss by reducing savings and by increasing the marginal tax rate.

Posted by: justin84 | March 4, 2011 12:22 PM | Report abuse

States are more agile; the federal government is more versatile.

I would also argue that a single payer system would be simpler to oversee and implement than our current Rube Goldbergian cluster.

Posted by: arm3 | March 4, 2011 12:24 PM | Report abuse

"There's also a lot less long-term planning than you might think. In general, politicians are overworked and understaffed. They're traveling constantly,... stay one step ahead of whatever they're getting yelled at about that week."

He left out the inordinate amount of time they spend raising money for their next election. When you have to spend half your waking hours dialing for dollars it's a huge part of the problem.

A great example of what Ira is talking about is the fact that John McCain in 2008 and Silvestre Reyes the incoming head of the House Intelligence Committee in 2007 didn't know who was Sunni and who was Shia in the middle east or apparently why it mattered.

Posted by: markg8 | March 4, 2011 12:49 PM | Report abuse

As a total political outsider, this introspective post from someone who has recently gotten to know "insider" Washington culture was really really interesting. Thanks for it!

Posted by: madjoy | March 4, 2011 1:00 PM | Report abuse

While I think there's a common sense argument to the idea that states are more agile than the federal government, the morass that is the California State government begs to differ.

But as arm3 pointed out, agility is only part of the equation. States may be agile, but they're not well positioned to coordinate national defense. Some problems are better handled at a national level, and some at the local level. Even if we disagree about single payer, there shouldn't be much doubt that the federal government has *some* role to play in healthcare.

There's also the fact that the federal government could be much more nimble that it currently is, starting with the filibuster in the Senate. Our form of government has far too many veto points. This isn't to say that the world should change on a dime after every election, but we could certainly streamline our system a lot, especially if we're talking about having a system like single payer.

Posted by: MosBen | March 4, 2011 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Great post. For those using this as "proof" that federalism is bad or inherently ineffective, Ezra's insights extend to all organizations, including businesses. I work as a program manager at a high-tech firm, and I can tell you that we suffer from exactly the same problems the government does (at least as Ezra describes it). Small incremental efficiencies are what I'm after at work, the nature of which I can't explain even to my wife (whose eyes start to get glassy whenever I really get into the details of my job).

How stuff really works (in gov't and business) doesn't work for mass media. Too wonky. However, it doesn't keep people who consume a lot of mass media (this includes most of the commenters of Ezra's posts) from thinking they know EXACLTY what's wrong, and how to fix it. All of it. Right now.

Posted by: nickthap | March 4, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse

This isn't the first time I've heard about politics in Washington being like this, and I got a small taste of it myself when I worked as a staffer for a local politician in my state. It's just so much less impressive and organized than you think it is.

To be honest, I find that comforting in a way. A world of brilliant planners and insanely good schemers is a much more dangerous world, one that is subject to the whims of particular people to a greater degree.

Posted by: guardsmanbass | March 4, 2011 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Hey Ezra. If it helps any, private business is much the same. I've been in banking for 35 years, and the larger the bank the greater the similarity to the situation you describe. Very small businesses retain some element of coordination and planning, but any group larger than about a 500 people? Forget about it.

Posted by: truthwillout | March 4, 2011 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Whenever I hear that long-term plans and actions are impossible in Washington DC (whether or not such are classified as "conspiracies"), I am immediately moved to ask for a list of Richard Cheney's employees at the self-styled 'Office of the Vice-President'. It is not known for certain, but generally believed that Cheney had approximately 40 people working for him from 2000-2009. Addington and Libby we know about. Care to name the rest? Who were they? What were their job titles? What were their salaries? What did they actually DO in that 'OVP'?

Somehow Cheney managed to build an entire office in the heart of the Executive Branch and keep its members and actions secret for 8 years. He also had a mobile shredding van parked outside his offices for 6 months in 2008 in direct contradiction to multiple Executive Records acts.

Really, conspiracies are "impossible"? Okey dokey.

sPh

Posted by: sphealey | March 4, 2011 5:37 PM | Report abuse

If government is so incompetent, why do liberals want to give it more power? Government grows larger and more complex every year; and the more it grows, the more opportunities it has to screw up our lives, and the more it costs us.

Wouldn't it be better to simplify government, so that everyone can understand it, and hold it properly accountable when it screws up?

Posted by: mike_w_long | March 4, 2011 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Wow. I have been reading Ezra since when I bought him and Jesse a new PlayStation or hard drive or something at Pandagon. And I have enjoyed a lot of wonkery along the way. But this post gives voice to a perspective that seems true and fresh and jaded all at the same time. Thanks for writing it.

Posted by: Petworth_DC | March 4, 2011 11:57 PM | Report abuse

To those who take Ezra's cogent argument as a compelling case against public sector action: I have spent nearly 30 years as a contractor for large corporations. I've worked for companies then being glorified in BusinessWeek, Forbes, Fortune, et al, as being led by extraordinary visionaries, organized to operate at peak efficiency, capable of powerful and repeated innovation. Typically, my ground-level experience of these enterprises was quite the opposite: I found lack of coordination, waste, inefficiency, confusion, and widespread "cover-your-rear" risk aversion.

The first four or five times I encountered this, I wondered: what am I missing that all of these fabulous business journalists are seeing? Since the sixth time, I realized: these, too, are human organizations -- far better at public relations and self-glorification than at execution.

Complexity does us ALL in. For me (maybe not for you) the question is: who is best capable of managing the complexity associated with a specific problem in order to achieve the best society for all of us? For me, sometimes the answer is private entities, and sometimes it's public entities.

I've come to believe that an objective and dispassionate view of the evidence bears me out on this.

Posted by: bcamarda2 | March 6, 2011 9:35 AM | Report abuse

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