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Technocrats Rising

Technocrats Rising

In the November/December 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs, Alan Blinder puts forth a forceful argument for making American government more technocratic. In it, he invokes the Federal Reserve System as an example of a technocratic body that is largely insulated from political pressure, especially the pressure that Congress exerts through the appropriations process. The main thrust of his argument is this:

Myopia is a serious practical problem for democratic governments because politics tends to produce short time horizons — often extending only until the next election, if not just the next public opinion poll. Politicians asked to weigh short-run costs against long-run benefits may systematically shortchange the future. Despite this well-known problem, however, few government decisions have been removed from the political thicket. Monetary policy is one of them.

He also gives examples of decisions that would be better made by a Fed-like body, e.g., environmental and tax policy. In this system, the agencies making these policies would be given a Fed-like mandate by Congress, but then be enabled to make decisions to fulfill these mandates free of political pressure.

I agree with this point of view, and believe that this election could be the start of a better, more technocratic, United States government. In this piece, I will lay out why the time is right for this shift, what policy areas would be affected, and why a wonky piece by a relatively obscure economist in a magazine devoted largely to foreign policy provides an excellent way to streamline and improve American government.

The Time is Right

There is a lot of talk about Hillary Clinton’s mandate (or lack thereof) if she wins the presidency, e.g., herehere, and here. Essentially, a president’s margin of victory determines how much political capital they have upon taking power. Big margins, think Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and, to a lesser extent but more recently, Obama in 2008, allow a president to push big, wholesale reforms. These reforms, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and the Affordable Care Act if we stick with the two previous presidents, are incredibly consequential, and provide a lasting legacy that successors will try to live up to and build on or try and tear down. Currently, signs point to Clinton’s margin being slightly smaller than Obama’s in 2008.

What does that mean for her mandate?

Unlike Obama in 2008, there is a slim chance that Clinton will come into power with control of both houses of Congress. She will likely have a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, and a strengthened, although still minority, Democratic caucus in the House. However, Clinton is still looking at a healthy margin of victory. With her poll numbers continuing to rise, it could be even bigger. This refutation of Donald Trump’s Republican party, combined with the historic popularity of Barack Obama, will hopefully provide Clinton with the mandate that she needs to set in motion Democratic policies. If the damage that Donald Trump has done to the party in the eyes of minorities stays, and there is reason to think that it might, Democrats could be poised to make gains in both 2018 and 2020, giving Clinton even more latitude to enact country-changing policies. There is no evidence that Clinton is considering the type of radical change that I will detail in this piece, although she might be the perfect person to do so.

Hillary Clinton is certainly not known as the “change” candidate. She is very clearly a Washington insider, who is more comfortable with briefing books than large groups of people. But that is precisely why she is the right woman for the job. Even though the restructuring that I will propose is quite large, it hardly falls into the exciting category that most think of when tasked with imagining wholesale governmental change. Many of her policies are highly technical, and not the kind that inspire the fervor that, say, building a wall (for free!) does.

Her wonkiness is ideally suited for the kind of discussions that would need to happen to form not only the details of a potential agency, but to the mandate that would need to be created, likely jointly by Congress and the administration.

Everybody Hates Congress

According to Real Clear Politics, Congressional approval rating hasn’t risen above 20% since December 20, 2012. This dismal approval rating, combined with the lack of Congress’ ability to do much else other than name post offices, creates an appetite for change that Congress does not seem to be able to satisfy.

If Congress wants to gain back any shred of credibility, it will accept the mandate that will be given to it by the election of Hillary Clinton. In addition to accepting this mandate, Congress also needs to come to terms with the fact that it can no longer effectively carry out all of the duties that it is tasked with. In order to more effectively carry out its duties, Congress, and the Clinton administration, should work together to incorporate more technocracy into the United States.

Rise of the Technocrats

As Blinder notes in his piece, the Fed was created in the Progressive Era, “when reformers believed in making government more ‘objective’ and less ‘political.’” This ethos should very well be put to work today. The Fed has its problems, but it stays largely above the political fray. Certain members of Congress (I’m looking at you, Rand Paul) offer up annual bills to “audit the fed,” although that is little more than “pandering to populism,” as former Senator Judd Gregg noted in 2009.

Isolated from political pressure and threats, the Fed is able to take action quickly and decisively, something that Congress is not usually known for. The Fed can also take the long view, unlike Congress, with the constant threat of reelection dangling over them like the Sword of Damocles. This ability to act in the long-term best interest of the country would be especially well served in three key areas of policy: tax, environmental, and the welfare state. As tax policy is discussed in Blinder’s piece, I will look at environmental policy and the welfare state.

Environmental Policy and the Future of Energy

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already operates fairly independently under the authority of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, among others. But, unlike the Fed, it faces political pressure by way of the appropriations process, one of the starkest examples being when the Reagan administration cut funding by 22%.

The EPA should be given clear goals, with one of them to mitigate the effects of climate change. It may have to be worded differently, especially if any of the current crop of Republicans remains in office, but it should be there all the same. Free of political pressure, the EPA would be free to push emissions regulations, which even two former Republican administrators agree with, and alternative energy sources, including relatively unknown, but promising, forms like open- and closed-cycle OTEC. This newfound freedom would also allow for the push to develop better nuclear energy sources, free from the gripes of those on the left, although those have softened in recent years.

In a 2014 Brookings Essay, Third Way’s Josh Freed lays out the future of nuclear energy. There is already research being done on a modern version of a molten salt reactor, an update of the one that was first built at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The basic fact is that nuclear energy, with all its problems, is a necessity going forward. The reactors of the future may not look like the light water reactors of today, but they will be a necessary part of any clean energy plan, especially the ambitious one that the Green Party proposes. Two of the most promising technologies are molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors. These technologies both surpass the current light water reactors in safety, although in different ways. Molten salt reactors funnel all liquid into an underground tank when the reactor overheats, rendering the reactor unable to continue fission. Pebble bed reactors use small “pebbles,” containing nuclear material to generate power while using helium gas instead of pressurized water to cool the reactor. When the reactor overheats, as it would in the case of a cooling system failure, the reactor simply shuts down. A video demonstration of this can be seen here:


Climate change is a threat. Quick and decisive action is needed that is not available in our current system.

The Welfare State

My love of social policy and drive to improve the welfare state is well-documented. Unfortunately, doing so will require politically unpalatable choices: raising the retirement age, raising taxes, cutting benefits, etc. With a mandate to decrease deep poverty, make social security solvent again, etc., this agency would be given broad powers to make politically unpopular decisions that would ultimately improve the system. These improvements could take the form of tweaking the current system. It could also take the form of universal basic income.

Whatever decision this agency would make, it would be decided by experts, not politicians. They would have no motivation other than to improve upon a system that is not doing as well as it could or should be doing.

I discuss environmental policy in more detail largely because there is much more of a consensus on what needs to happen in that realm to help mitigate the effects of climate change. And, although I certainly have my own opinions when it comes to the welfare state, there are a wider variety of changes that, if made, could produce equal results. Moreover, uncertainty is key when discussing these hypotheticals. These proposals, and in turn the mandates, cannot be too specific. If they are, then it will be impossible to get enough members of Congress to back them. They need to be specific enough to have teeth, yet vague enough to give the agency a wide range of options, otherwise it would be no different than Congress acting itself. They also need to be vague in order for politicians to sell the idea at home to their constituents. They can read whatever they want into the mandate, as will their constituents, giving it legitimacy, even though the interpretation would ultimately be in the hands of the agency.

I am aware that these proposals are largely undemocratic, and may not be incredibly popular at first glance. Returning to Blinder, he addresses this complaint:

So the question before us is not one of feasibility. Policy making can be made less political, and several contemporary examples illustrate the principle in action. It even seems to work tolerably well. The real issue is desirability. Do we want to take more policy decisions out of the realm of politics and put them in the realm of technocracy?
My strong suspicion is that if faced with such a question, our disgruntled electorate would answer with a resounding yes.

Further, I am also painfully aware that these hypotheticals are just that: hypotheticals. But, if Americans truly are serious about fixing their political system, these ideas should be given a public debate. We are at a time as a country of unprecedented gridlock and partisanship. Giving actual thought to these ideas might actually help to make America functional again.

This piece was originally published on Medium.

The views presented in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.

Photo: "ec_05 - The Marriner S. Eccles building built in 1937." originally taken by Federalreserve for Flickr with a U.S. Government Works license. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.

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