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Pondering the Dilemma of Complexity



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David Brooks of the New York Times has recently written about complexity and leadership in separate opinion columns. Concerning the first matter, he lauded (December 30, 2013) a Hillman Foundation Sidney prize-winning article by Steven Teles in National Affairs that argued that the intricacy of our national government, or better, the multifaceted forms through and by which it delivers the services it offers, is likely a far more significant concern than endless abstract arguments concerning its relative size, by whatever measure. It is difficult to contest this claim and readers of Soundings know I have offered just that argument in previous commentaries. Brooks addressed the second issue in his January 14, 2014 column. In that effort he contended that our nation needs more seasoned leaders who “know how to get things done” and that, as he put it by way of conclusion, “We live in a nation of good people and ineffective government.” Brooks has not drawn these two concepts, complexity and effectiveness, together and considered them as a piece, nor has he explained what he meant by ineffective government.

If, in that concluding sentence, Brooks meant to say that our Congress is not presently working and that today’s party and campaign politics are frequently cynical and vicious and often prevent the legislature from addressing public problems in a meaningful way, I can understand his point. If, on the other hand, he meant to suggest that our national government delivers few or no services effectively, his contention is nonsense. For example, underfunded or no and bedeviled by contradictory congressional dicta, the U.S. Postal Service is the finest of its sort in the world, the United States military literally stands astride the globe, the National Institutes of Health continue to sponsor path-breaking research and the Social Security Administration delivers checks to tens of millions of citizens with extremely low error rates. Finally, as but one more example of too many to list here, a chronically underfunded and politically besieged Internal Revenue Service staff professionally copes with a congressionally authored tax code of mind-numbing complexity.

But perhaps Brooks did not mean to cast his net so widely and to declare all aspects of our nation’s government ineffective. Perhaps he intended only to observe that the partisan war in our current Congress has rendered that body and many of the members who comprise it, grotesque caricatures. If so, he should have so argued. Nevertheless, and assuming such was indeed his aim, it remains briefly to sketch how policy complexity might affect government effectiveness and accountability, how it might arise from mobilization politics and how a share of our leaders may indeed be exploiting intricacy for political gain as they posture in campaign politics. Brooks, so far as I can discern, has addressed none of these concerns and certainly not in a way that suggests their interdependence in our democratic politics.

The United States governance structure is in fact extraordinarily complex, consisting as it does of the national government, 50 state governments, thousands of localities and authorities and the various governments of the nation’s recognized Native-American tribes. Moreover, federalism alone suggests the country’s heterogeneity. The states are extremely varied in their geography, population make-up, historical evolution and politics. If all politics is local, as Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the long-time legendary Speaker of the House of Representatives once noted, then developing programs to serve the nation’s diversity will be extremely difficult and nearly always will require intricate policy provisions and bargains to secure any statutory outcomes at all. That this is as it should be in a nation as heterogeneous as the United States does not mitigate the complexity that it creates. This fact also implies another little-discussed political and policy reality: offering programs or policies via the national government need not, and often does not, result in more centralized government or, as the eminent political scientist Sam Beer once remarked, “A nationalist need not be a centralizer.” In countless cases, the federal government (Congress in its laws) has elected to implement policies via the states in an effort to reflect their diversity in national statute and ensure that their political and programmatic voices are heard. Just as surely, however, this sensitivity results in great policy implementation and administrative complexity as the legislature seeks to ensure that its diverse political constituencies are well served by U.S. policies. It also results in a much more opaque accountability environment for citizens since, with so many actors and stakeholders engaged in many policy actions, it is often difficult to discern precisely and fairly whom to hold responsible for what decision or outcome.

But this hardly ends the matter as our nation’s leaders, reflecting a population always suspicious of government power and under the sway of neo-liberal thinking, too, in recent decades, have also elected to involve other sectors of our political economy deeply in a broad swathe of the federal government’s service delivery efforts. It is surely difficult enough to implement a program via 50 disparate intermediaries. It is another and yet more complex endeavor to do so via actors that are not even governmental in character. The management challenge of doing so is, to say the least, large for even the supposedly “simplest” of initiatives. This innate difficulty is again compounded by the nature of much national business, which often addresses relatively intractable problems, whether those include ameliorating poverty or homelessness, designing and overseeing the production of naval ships and fighter aircraft that at first exist only in their designer’s imaginations, or developing programs to address drug and alcohol abuse. There are no known “answers” to any of these challenges and many are mediated by the vagaries of human character and circumstance in a nation in which individuals are free to make their own choices.

These examples suffice to show that what our national government attends to and how it does so is not just difficult, but is typically suffused by an almost inestimable degree of complexity. Brooks and Teles are doubtless right. Our country’s greatest present test is not whether its government is too large or too small by some arbitrary standard, but how best to address the challenges it has chosen to tackle given the extraordinary strategies it has adopted (for, ironically, often quite prudent reasons) to do so. What is still more daunting is ensuring that the nation’s citizenry understands the difficulties its own conflicted values and heterogeneity daily pose for governance and to develop reasonable accountability rubrics to judge their processes and results.

And therein lies the rub. Human beings innately desire to make sense of the overwhelming stimuli of their environments. History is replete with narratives that explain the stars, the sun, the tides and all else besides. We seek to simplify our worlds and the events we experience each day so as not to become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what we experience. And that reality represents a temptation for would-be elected leaders who can mobilize voters by telling them that governance and policy-making is all really very simple and the issues are straightforward and there is an answer to complexities otherwise beyond all ken. In fact, just such arguments and tactics now drive a large share of our politics. Citizens are told that the market can solve their governance problems, or that a complex balancing of competing values in a statute seeking to address the diversity of a population of more than 300 million individuals across 50 states, and often all three sectors of the political economy, is only a technical problem that can be “fixed” if this or that bureaucrat or agency were only more competent.

All of this rhetoric bears no relationship to reality, but it is ever alluring. In fact, our nation often embarks on trajectories into the policy unknown and seeks to garner outcomes it cannot ordain or control and via mechanisms over which it does not exercise anything like complete sway. But its leaders fear telling a citizenry desirous of simplified reality narratives that this complex truth characterizes their policy-making and always will do so. What is more, many “leaders” profit by deliberately not doing so and pointing to scapegoats to “explain” governance difficulties. In fact, our politics is currently characterized by too little else. One might label this phenomenon the paradox of democratic mobilization in our regime, a combination of our nation’s structure, the diversity of its people and the propensities of human nature.

This situation suggests that the leadership challenge is not, as Brooks might have it, simply “sensing what the people want” and then ensuring the savvy to “make it so,” but something infinitely more delicate and difficult: helping a population reason deliberatively about its collective challenges in a realistic way that recognizes the design of the regime that secures their freedom. This nation does not need more false prophets, savvy or not. It needs leaders who can bring reality before a population too often desirous of dismissing it and who can do so in ways that galvanize their attention and support. And more, the question is not simply identifying such potential leaders, but ensuring a population willing to listen to them— after decades of misleading rhetoric promising the availability of simple solutions to otherwise complex realities.

Publication Date

January 26, 2014