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Gruber and the Politics of Complexity

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This week bloggers raised ethical questions about the relationship between the Obama administration and an MIT economist hired as an expert consultant to carefully assess the impact of health care reform. Without jumping to conclusions about anyone's rectitude, the incident highlights an issue of vital importance to our democratic society. What is the role of complexity in modern politics?

Today it's not unusual for a major piece of federal legislation to involve hundreds of pages of text and thousands of separate details. Very few people, including the legislators themselves, actually read it all. And of that select few, even fewer have the time, resources and expertise to evaluate complex policy proposals as a whole. It's a situation that the founding fathers hardly could have imagined. The elegant brevity of yesteryear has fallen victim to the age of word processing, spreadsheets and self-proclaimed experts. But does lawmaking have to be so complex?

Certainly the answer is no. Complexity is merely a tool used in modern politics to pass legislation. Adding features, or complexity, allows assembly of a coalition with diverse interests by separately appealing to distinct groups. As a mere tool, in itself it is neither good nor bad. But today complexity is the tool of choice for groups passionately devoted to their own interest to use against an opposing but docile majority.

Using complexity--or pork barrel politics, if you prefer an older phrase--it is possible to obtain sufficient votes to pass legislative grotesqueries wherein not just some, but every feature is not in the interest of a substantial majority of the public. It works like this. In a democracy of ten souls, one can combine six separate initiatives, each beneficial to only one separate person and therefore on its own immensely unpopular, into a unified whole that can attract majority support. The cherished ideal of real debate, an honest contest that leads to thoughtful decisions and clear policy choices based on majority rule, is abandoned in favor of "dealmaking."

Sadly, political coalitions formed around the pet topics of minorities all too often produce less than ideal results. We think we live by majority rule, and we've learned to expect our constitution to protect us from the most extreme predations. But we haven't developed an effective response to growing complexity. The result is an unnecessarily polarized electorate and an alphabet soup of laws and regulations.

The overwhelming complexity of today's legislation has induced a form of learned helplessness. The entire polity, including voters, lawmakers and perhaps most critically journalists, relies on experts. Experts in turn thrive on funding. As a result, on any given issue you'll find experts of varying opinions that (lo and behold!) in more than a few cases reflect their sources of funding. On complex subjects, experts can draw different conclusions in a reasoned fashion that serve to obscure the overall picture. The poor voter can't make a choice about policy itself and is relegated to choose which expert "sounds good" on an issue.

With health care poised to join the budget process and the tax code in the pantheon of legislative complexity, it's time to re-think our reliance on the experts and ask, isn't there a simpler solution? The path to change is difficult, but it may be a necessary one. Perhaps then we might get public policy worthy of the name.