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Peter Orszag’s Bid to Get Politicians Out of Policy

Peter Orszag caused a bit of a stir with his call for an enlightened technocracy, and, literally, “less democracy.” I think what you actually need out of government is “more democracy,” if you equate democracy with majority rule and the ability for an elected government to get the agenda on which they ran into law. Of course, the Founders did throw up a few roadblocks to a perfect majority rule democracy, many of them wise. But gridlock in the system has gone far beyond what they ever envisioned, and moving that back to a majority rule format in the legislature would have at least some positive repercussions.

However, it’s worth looking upon Orszag’s vision for a perfect government of technocrats, as Catherine Rampell does.

This is similar to the rationale behind establishing the Federal Reserve as an independent body: The Fed, at least theoretically, is shielded from short-term political interests. It can instead make decisions based what is good for the long-term interest of the economy, as determined by immutable economic laws and objective academic research. (In reality, of course, there have been many attempts to put political pressure on the Fed over the years, and within the central bank there is still broad disagreement about what’s best for the long-term interest of the economy.) […]

On narrowly defined (and often technical) policy issues, expert panels can be useful. But as I wrote in an article last year about politicians’ poor incentives, delegating policy authority to technocratic panels is more problematic when dealing with larger economic matters that involve social value judgments, like austerity measures and tax reform.

I would go even further, along the lines of what Paul Krugman writes. The very serious technocrats have been wrong about everything in their own right, from the OECD to the ECB to the Fed and on down the line. This is a dodge, an attempt to get elites off the hook for their complete failure to guide the economy by saying that they’re being stymied by “democracy.” Nobody has been harder on Senate dysfunction than I have, but the idea that the solution is to strip elected politicians of their authority is completely nuts.

There’s no problem with the consultation of experts, there is a problem with putting the entire future of the country in their hands. Especially if they are subject ot the same biases and seduction to Big Money as politicians. To cite Exhibit A, how about Peter Orszag, he of Citigroup.

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David Dayen

David Dayen