Ezra Klein On Vetocracy

What's the government's E/I balance? What should it be?

In my review last week of Ezra Klein's Why We're Polarized, I linked to a related Vox article on vetocracy:

In a viral essay, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen makes a simple exhortation: It’s time to build. Behind the coronavirus crisis, he writes, lies “our widespread inability to build.” America has been unable to create enough coronavirus tests, or even enough cotton swabs to fully utilize the tests we do have. We don’t have enough ventilators, ICU beds, personal protection equipment. The government hasn’t built the capacity to quickly get money to people or businesses who need it.

And it’s not just the coronavirus. The US could be building our way out of the housing crisis and the climate crisis. We could be building a better education system, more advanced infrastructure. We could have more and better factories, supersonic aircraft, delivery drones, flying cars [...]

I think Andreessen is uncharacteristically underestimating the appetite for building. The absence of creation doesn’t reflect an absence of desire — even in that epicenter of supposed stagnation, Washington, DC.

I’ve covered Congress for almost 20 years. The place is littered with proposals to construct universal pre-K and reimagine the health system, to decarbonize the US economy and incentivize drug development through prizes and solve the housing crisis. They just don’t pass. It’s become a running joke in Washington that every week is “infrastructure week.” But we’re not rebuilding American infrastructure.

The question, then, is why don’t we build? What’s stopping us?

Here’s my answer: The institutions through which Americans build have become biased against action rather than toward it. They’ve become, in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s term, “vetocracies,” in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. That’s true in the federal government. It’s true in state and local governments. It’s even true in the private sector.

Klein argues that the US government can no longer do anything, especially not things that look like building, or inventing, or infrastructure, or making good plans, or solving problems. He attributes this to a bias towards inaction, implemented in the form of multiple veto points at which various interested actors can stop or delay things. Recently he followed it up with an editorial in the New York Times arguing that California, for all its supposed liberalism, was structurally conservative - it's good at cosmetic nods to progressive aesthetics, but incapable of progress toward real progressive goals. Its vetocracy is too entrenched to let anyone change anything.

Nobody who’s ever looked into the housing crisis in San Francisco will disagree here, but it raises some complicated questions that need some sorting out.

First, is vetocracy the same as polarization? Klein sometimes treats the two concepts interchangeably; for example, he says he's written a book about "how the US government has becoming a dysfunctional vetocracy" (presumably Why We're Polarized). But elsewhere he doesn't treat them interchangably; for example, he talks about some kinds of shareholder activism in corporations as examples of vetocracy. But these don't seem linked to partisan politics. And a lot NIMBYism is unrelated to the Democrat/Republican divide.

I'm not sure how Klein thinks of this. Maybe he would say that vetocracy is getting worse everywhere, but that partisan polarization turns potential veto points into actual veto points. That is, the filibuster has always been a potential problem. But Congress was able to get by with it for decades, because everyone was polite and cooperative and didn't want to screw things up too badly. Once polarization created irresistable pressure for politicians to use every weapon at their disposal, the filibuster went from a potential problem to an actual problem.

Second, why is this happening? Any explanation that focuses too much on national politics must be wrong; it's happening equally at the local and corporate level. Klein traces the issue back to a well-intentioned reaction against eg Robert Moses, the High Modernists, and their tendency to devise grand projects, refuse to consult anyone affected, and bulldoze over anything that stood in their way (especially underprivileged people). Eventually citizens got tired enough of this that they implemented some veto points. Overall there seems to be a story where people were doing something bad, concerned citizens came up with a solution - add more veto points, so somebody has a chance to stop bad things before they happen! - and this became a one-way ratchet where veto points often increase but never decrease. Environmental impact reports, civil liberties groups suing the government over new laws, labor unions forcing terms on companies - all of these are examples of good people trying to prevent bad things in ways that introduce more veto points.

People have wanted fewer bad things forever, so any explanation of increasing vetocracy should start with an explanation of why this is becoming a problem now. The public choice theory perspective would emphasize the imbalance between doing things and preventing things. If a leader does something, and it's bad, then journalists will be on the scene to interview the victims of their failure, protesters can march against their abuses of power, etc. If a leader doesn't do something, and it would have been good, this is invisible except in rare cases (eg when they don't launch an effective coronavirus response). Everybody heard about the Obama administration's supposedly-bad decision to fund Solyndra. Nobody heard about their bad decision not to fund that one startup which, if it'd just had a little more funding, could have developed cold fusion in 2013. As the media becomes better at covering things, and people become more outraged by abuses, we should expect the number of veto points to go up.

Third, if the government can't do anything, why aren't we a libertarian paradise?

Or, more seriously, how come the number of pages in the federal regulatory code keeps growing, the percent of GDP that goes to government spending is stable or growing, companies complain of feeling stifled and over-regulated, and individuals feel like they're suffering from increasing authoritarianism?

On second thought, some of these aren't very hard questions. If regulations put a lot of roadblocks in your path and make you fight a bunch of battles before you can do anything, then the cost of doing things will go up, and a government that tries to do the same number of things (eg the post office still needs to deliver the same amount of mail, the military still needs to defend against the same foreign threats) will consume more of GDP. And the federal regulatory code contains the regulations that prevent you from doing things, so its growth is consistent with the vetocracy theory as well.

Still, isn't it kind of contradictory to say the government can't do anything, and then blame regulations? Shouldn't this be a self-limiting problem? Don't we eventually reach the point where the government can't implement more regulations on itself, and then disappears in a puff of logic?

Maybe this is the point where we step back and return to our theory of how vetocracy comes about. The government can still do things to hamstring itself (more optimistically: protect the most vulnerable from too-hastily-applied government power), it just can't do other things, the ones that exert government power. Since regulating corporations and private individuals is an attempt to protect the vulnerable from too-hastily-applied power, the government can do that too, which matches how unhappy libertarians are with this supposedly-government-powerless state of affairs.

(I guess this is kind of the opposite of state capacity libertarianism? SCL says “protect human freedom, but this should be compatible with making sure the government can still pull off socially necessary projects.” Vetocracy says “ordinary people are unfree, but don’t worry, the government can’t accomplish anything either.”)

If this is true, is there anything to do about it?

Well, you could decrease the number of veto points. But anyone who tried that would encounter two problems. First, it would be career suicide - when something bad inevitably happened, they would be on the hook for failing to prevent it - and no credit they got for all the cool things they were able to build would be able to save them. Second, it might be actually bad. Removing some the structures society put in place to prevent abuses and atrocities seems like the kind of thing that might cause there to be more abuses and atrocities. There needs to be some tradeoff, but I'm a little skeptical of anybody's ability to make it effectively. And even if they do, I'm very skeptical of the general public's ability to notice it and thank them.

The crypto solution, which has yet to fully mature, is something like “create structures which it’s impossible for anyone, including the creator, to change”. Seems like a pretty drastic solution. But what would a better one look like?