The dictionary tells us that a kludge is “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose . . . a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to be backward compatible with the rest of a system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes. In other words, Windows.
“Clumsy but temporarily effective” also describes much of American public policy. For any particular problem we have arrived at the most gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated response. From the mind-numbing complexity of the health care system (which has only gotten more complicated, if also more just, after the passage of Obamacare), our Byzantine system of funding higher education, and our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from the welfare state to environmental regulation, America has chosen more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than any comparable country.
This essay is getting high-octane attention from David Frum, Reihan Salam, Kevin Drum, and many others.
It certainly deserves the attention. Too much of our policy landscape is marred by ugly software patches barnacled onto existing policies. The result isn’t pretty. It’s also often ineffective. Too often, policy complexity creates unintended harms. Rube Goldberg constructions create too many opportunities for rent-seeking by lobbyists, House committee chairs, and other insiders who are well-positioned to exploit these complexities. Meanwhile, individual citizens are often left bewildered and vulnerable, for example to the tender ministrations of the financial services industry involved with 401(k) and tax-advantaged college retirement savings programs.
Steve makes excellent points. Yet, I finished his essay a bit uncomfortable, as well. At least to some extent, kludgeocracy is inherent to modern government. At least that’s true in some critical domains. Retirement savings, for example, provides a great case study for Steve’s argument. Yet, this example may be misleading, too. A centralized social insurance system can collect taxes and dispense benefits in an administratively efficient, actuarially reasonable fashion to cover the core challenges of financing retirement.
There is more inherent complexity, and often more inherent kludgyness, in other domains. It’s tempting but too easy to say that complexity is the enemy in the formation of public policy. This stance is too easy because it fails to acknowledge the genuinely inherent complexities of policymaking that must balance diverse legitimate objectives affecting hundreds of millions of people in varied circumstances as new information and new challenges emerge over a long period of time.
Consider federal cash assistance to the disabled. Some disabilities are readily observed. Some are not. Some disabilities are permanent. Some are not. Some conditions bring greater variation in impairment than others. New genetic tests emerge that are sometimes clinically helpful, sometimes not.
There’s just a huge amount of inherent complexity. These complexities aren’t going away. They produce correspondingly huge demands on bureaucratic acumen and intelligence to execute, and to continually update, disability policy in a fair and efficient manner. We can’t avoid adding patches along the way. Policies must adjust when new psychotropic drugs or HIV medications comes along. New public understandings of conditions such as childhood autism must be translated into public policy.
These problems are made harder to manage by our huge and diverse population, and by our fragmented form of government. Yet many of these problems would remain vexing to a small, socially cohesive, highly centralized social democracy. Other domains such as environmental policy or the proper design of health insurance exchange have similar features.
A less fractured and less polarized political system might handle these midcourse corrections more gracefully and with less acrimony. But one should acknowledge that policy complexity can’t be completely avoided; nor should it be entirely lamented, either. The challenge is to manage policy complexity with greater aplomb and proficiency, to make the necessary software patches less buggy, more disciplined, transparent, and efficient, and thus less vulnerable to interest-group malware than they currently are.
But make no mistake. Complicated patches will still be needed for our existing code. Somewhere in the Danish ministry of whatever is an updated and revised 20,000 page disability manual that wrestles with dilemmas arising from a myriad of medical conditions, workplace injuries, and disabilities. Politicians can thwap thousands of pages on the table for rhetorical emphasis. Neither they, nor anyone else can really do away with the need for bureaucracy and stacks of paper.
Length isn’t the fundamental problem, anyway. It’s what’s actually written on those 20,000 pages that really matters. Maybe even more important is how that 20,000 pages is continually edited, proofread, updated, and fixed. That’s where much of the art of public policy actually resides.
This isn’t just a challenge for public policy. LINUX and Apple OS X may be less kludgy than Windows. They arise from very different philosophies and different levels of centralization. I hear that they’re pretty complicated, too.