Tuesday, March 30, 2010

short classics in bureaucratic politics

"History never repeats itself," Mark Twain supposedly said, "but sometimes it rhymes." I've never been able to verify the source, but the line is too good not to use.

Today I was reminded of two short pieces on U.S. policy in Vietnam that have classic status because they describe broader processes of government than the historical incidents they describe.

James C. Thomson, Jr., an Asia scholar who served on the Kennedy-Johnson NSC staff, in 1968 wrote an "autopsy" on U.S. policy that coined several concepts still useful for understanding how officials think and behave -- the domestication of dissenters, the effectiveness, the curator mentality.

Four years later, "Blowtorch Bob"Komer, an LBJ staffer who argued for and later was given directive power over a combined military-civilian counterinsurgency program in Vietnam, wrote an analysis for the RAND corporation explaining U.S. failures. Among other insights, he mentioned the "institutional inertia -- the built-in reluctance of organizations to change preferred ways of functioning except slowly and incrementally." He also noted the power of weakness: "But for many reasons we did not use vigorously the leverage over Veitnamese leaders that our contributions gave us. We became their prisoners rather than they ours: the GVN [Government of South Vietnam] used its weakness far more effectively as leverage on us than we used our strength to lever it."

I knew and admired both men, and I cite their work now not to make any particular comparisons between Vietnam and our current conflicts, but rather to draw attention to the value of their insights -- not as a conclusion about policy but as a set of tests worth performing on any major policy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

follow the money

The purpose of government budgets is to control spending. That's why the president and congress fight so hard to assert that control over federal agencies. Budgets also serve another purpose -- as a pie chart of governmental priorities. When the government spends tens times as much on defense as on education, that has consequences. When interest on our debt is 3% of federal spending, and likely to surge in the coming years, that limits everything else that government can do.

The American people pay their taxes, but they don't really follow where their money goes. They hear a lot they don't like about "foreign aid" and assume that it must be a huge slice of the budget, far more than the actual 1%. A recent survey showed this general lack of knowledge, with 60% of the respondents saying that international assistance is at least 6-10% of the budget or higher.

On the other hand, the answers on defense and Medicare and Medicaid were much closer to the mark. Take a look.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

causes and correlations

I think there's something in western culture that demands causes for major events. In the years before the Enlightenment, I suppose people were willing to attribute outcomes to God, or the devil. In our more secular and scientific era, we want theories and formulas that demonstrate causation.

I've always been puzzled by news reports attempting to explain why the stock market went up or down on a particular day. Too many factors are at work most of the time.

I hope that my political science colleagues will not de-frock me for saying that we do a poor job of explaining election outcomes, too. Sometimes there are multiple indicators that point the same way and can be combined to show why Jones won and Smith lost. But most of the time the only sure conclusion is that Jones did a better job of getting his supporters to the polls than Smith did.

The media, even more than scholars, want instant analyses, and are willing to ascribe changes in opinion polls to whatever they are focusing on at the moment. Presidential popularity tracks with economic data much of the time, as Brendan Nyhan points out. He makes this telling point: "If/when the economy picks up, Obama's speeches will start "connecting" and everyone will marvel at how effective the White House political team has become."

What's more useful than single point apparent causes are the trends of multiple indicators.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

critical mass for Senate reform?

There are cycles in congressional reform, usually driven by newly empowered members who sense more than usual public disgust with the legislative branch. One such time was 1946; another, 1974-7; more recently, 1995. Maybe we are on the verge of another such time, especially with regard to the Senate.

I'm less troubled than many commentators by the existence of the filibuster in the Senate, for I see it as only one of many devices for delay and I find value in protecting minority views against a political juggernaut. But I would welcome a whole range of Senate rules and procedural reforms to make that body more efficient, including changes that allow obstructive tactics only rarely.

I sense that the Republicans may be overreaching with their vastly increased use of the filibuster and related tactics like "holds" on bills and nominations. That error has been compounded by the dramatic use of obstructive tactics by Senator Jim Bunning [R-KY], who has prevented passage of a bill extending unemployment benefits and funding transportation projects. This is the kind of event that has immediate, tangible consequences to make voters angry and more willing to support reform.

By the way, as the reconciliation process appears to be the likely path for ultimate passage of health care reform legislation, Sam Stein of Huffington Post reminds us that the Vice President is indeed President of the Senate and thereby empowered to make parliamentary rulings that can smooth the passage of such legislation in a rancorous Senate.

Monday, March 1, 2010

the priesthood of secrecy

I've had security clearances for several decades. In my first job in government, a summer long ago, while still awaiting my clearance to come through, I wrote a paper which my boss deemed worth sending to several other offices and embassies -- and which he promptly classified "Confidential," thereby denying me the right to read it until my clearance eventually was granted.

I've had access to Top Secret materials, atomic energy information, and even intelligence community products. While I've seen some questionable classification actions, I've also learned the value of keeping classified information secret from those without the need or right to know.

When I read Daniel Ellsberg's fascinating -- and of course self-serving -- autobiography a few years ago, I was struck by one passage in which he recounts a conversation with Henry Kissinger at the start of the Nixon administration. Kevin Drum repeats that passage today. I think it tells powerful truth: that many officials become too enamored of classified information and too willing to trust it more than contradictory open source information. I think the priesthood of secrecy is too closed for wise policymaking.