Tim Harford: Some things are best left to the technocrats


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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57 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    It is better to keep such topics away from politics as much as possible. Complex problems cannot just be wished away. Reality cannot be fooled.

    And yet people seem convinced reality isn’t paying attention.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Depends on what you mean by “reality”. The technocratic Ryan plan would have in reality achieved its goals: reducing costs to the fedrul gummint. No one liked it.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        This would serve as a response to @saul-degraw as well.

        Politicians set goals, technocrats get you to the goal.

        If the goal is to reduce the federal budgetary impact of health coverage, then the Ryan plan gets you the goal. If the goal is expanded health coverage, then the ACA gets you further toward that goal.

        If you charter a plane, you tell the pilot (technocrat) where you are and where you want to go. You don’t tell them how to get to you, or how to get you to your destination aside from maybe some general parameters (least time, shortest distance, etc.). You also can’t insist that they land the G5 in front of Trump Tower.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          How is the system we have any different than that, tho? The ACA was written by the health insurance and healthcare experts. Given the legislative architecture, how could it have gotten more “technocratic” than it was?*

          *Leave out Ben Nelson’s attempted extortion of 100 million in Medicaid subsidies to garner his own vote…Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            That’s what I am saying. If the goal was expanded coverage, the ACA was a good technocratic start. It could probably have more permissive limits for subsidies (so those middle class folks who can’t afford insurance on their own could get it), and stiffer penalties for not getting covered somehow, and perhaps other tweaks, but it was a good first attempt.

            The ACA is not a good technocratic solution if the goal is to vastly reduce the amount of money the feds spend on uncovered health care.Report

        • Avatar J__A says:

          Politicians set goals, technocrats get you to the goal.

          The unspoken clause here is that you should state your goal. Not lie about it. If I want to fly to NYC I shouldn’t say I want to fly to LA when chartering a plane.

          The goals of the AHCA were never “more access”, “less cost to patients”, or “more coverage”. The goals were “cut taxes”, “eliminate guaranteed coverage”, and a general -ideological- “get the government out of healthcare as much as possible because freedom”. The AHCA was actually very effective about its real goals, but it could never deliver its announced goals.

          On a more abstract level, you have to know how to identify what the goal really is. Keep ends and means clearly distinct.

          So, a better example would probably be “we want to improve the living conditions of the Appalachian mining country”. I can accept that Trump, or Bannon, or the GOP in general, really wants to accomplish this. Absent a technocratic input, their policy might be: “we will open the mines and hire all the unemployed miners”. That’s where a technocrat would come and say “unless the world economy changes in dramatic ways, this won’t ever happen, no matter how much you say you want to”. Perhaps the best you can possibly do in reality is to mitigate the impact, perhaps by putting all the unemployed miners on Social Security and Medicare right now.

          Again, opening the mines shouldn’t be your goal. That’s a HOW. Your goal should be a WHAT, improving life in mining communities in Appalachia.Report

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I think I generally agree. The issue though becomes “Whose technocrats?” and what policy endgoals.

    To borrow a bit from legal realism, technocrats are people too and are going to have ideologies. We see this in say healthcare debates. You have to start with what is the end goal. Currently we have a deep philosophical divide which we barely admit to. This philosophical divide is about the extent to which a government can or should have an obligation to help citizens gain access to health care and at what level of services.

    On one end of the spectrum, you have people who answer the question above with an absolute no and on the other end, you have people who want every hospital to be top of the line and funded via something like an American equivalent of National Health Service. In between, you have people who are more or less sympathetic to one of the extremes but can acknowledge varying political realities.

    In hindsight, the ACA took 13 months to pass and needed the support of moderate Democrats like Nelson and Lieberman but also the liberals who wanted Medicare for All. Obama got it done. The GOP could not find a way to square the circle between their hard-liners who want no government insurance and those who realize government needs to help with access. Even the access people had a hard time coming up with anything that would be useful to the majority of people.

    But there is still a problem that technocrats tend to be ideologues of various stripes and are very willing on taking people along with them to fulfill their ideologies, popular will be damned.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Endgoal: Murdering fewer sick people.
      Solution: End obamacare. **
      Death Panels? We don’t need no freaking death panels, this is America. We let our people die the free market way!

      **yes, I’m aware that this is more a medicare reimbursement rule, but that’s really a mouthful to say.

      Gloat in two years, Saul, when the Republicans are gone. Until then, assume they will pull their heads out of their asses.Report

  3. Avatar greginak says:

    Ugh. Using the word technocrats poisons the point since we are supposed to hate technocrats. If you want to fly someplace you get a pilot. The payer still decides where to fly but you stay the hell off the controls. You want a health care system hire people who know how to build one. If you are conservative then find people who know how to build a conservative flavored system. But Stuff Knowers are the people who should be designing complex stuff. Pols still vote and set goals and priorities and all that good stuff so it’s not like they don’t have the final word.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      *yawn* most stuff knowers are absolute shite at game design.
      Make me a game that’s fun to play, that has the right incentives, and we won’t need to mind the play so much.

      The LAST bunch of technocrats managed to have hospitals intentionally killing the very sick.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Pols still vote and set goals and priorities and all that good stuff so it’s not like they don’t have the final word.

      Here’s where I think the technocrats play a very important role: they can inform politicians of the coherence of policies they champion. For example, if Trump would have consulted the technocrats regarding the coherence of his own stated goals they would have told him the only model satisfying those condition is single-payer rather than the Ryan Plan.

      To their credit, in advance of the ACA the Dems were busy pounding pavement to gather intelligent views on how all the moving parts in a healthcare bill work together. They consulted the wonks. The GOP seems to have been operating on a “wing and a prayer” model of legislation and never consulted anyone with any expertise on the topic beyond the ideological.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Also, and along those lines, the GOP is hamstrung because the Dems implemented the only comprehensive conservative policy proposal known to USkind. They literally have no other plan than RomneyCare, and the Dems own it.

        Politically, especially given Cleek’s Law, they’re in a pretty pickle because their political philosophy is to identify themselves as “not liberal/not Dem”, but only in relational terms. Where do they go from here?

        The passage of the ACA – a fundamentally conservative bill – puts them behind an 8-ball where any partisanly motivated changes will result in worse outcomes. The true conservative solution should be to tweak some of the ACA’s market mechanisms, especially in the exchanges and etc, and leave the mandate and most everything else in place. Cuz it could get even worse: single payer!!!

        Also, a logic that presumes political advantage in the future can result from punishing the poorest and most marginalized when it comes to gaining insurance coverage not only strikes me as terrible short and long term politics but also craven from a policy pov.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      The problem with the american system is that pols get to amend. They get to say they like this part or dont like this part. Suppose we have a nice proposal on the floor and because some parts are demoagogued one rep from Arkansas wants this little tweak while the rep from vermont want s that tweak at so on. Very soon you have a piece of legislation that may have started off as technocratic but ended up like the sort of funhouse version of technocracy that people love to hate. It would be better if they could just take it or leave it as a whole.Report

  4. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Chiquita! Can someone ask Harford about the curvature of a banana please?

    Because he really sounds like a fucking moron.

    I do know someone who paid to have the entire GATT printed out and mailed to him. It’s huge.

    Sources cited: https://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/mar/05/eu.wto3
    Because banana wars are fun!Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Good luck trying to keep complex problems away from politics. Like Saul said, technocrats are people to and are quite capable of disagreement among themselves on many issues like healthcare or climate change. What technocratic solution seems the best to non-technocrats depends heavily on what the non-technocrat believes as we repeatedly demonstrate on this blog.Report

  6. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Some key technocratic aspects of ACA were thrown out by the courts, and/or rejected by state governments. And there was the court case that had to rescue the technocrats from their own typographical error.Report

    • Avatar InMD says:

      This. Plus there’s the issue of whether or not there’s really such a thing as a completely apolitical technocrat. At the very least they all have an interest in keeping their jobs, which itself is a political question.Report

  7. I disagree with the idea that the law being so complex that only a small subset of experts can understand and interpret it is a good thing.Report

    • Avatar Francis says:

      Painting with a very broad brush, there are essentially two approaches to drafting laws that have a regulatory component and their underlying regulations.

      A. The regulator shall have the authority to direct the bank to take such activities including but not limited to [long string] if in the exercise of the regulator’s discretion he thinks that the bank is [doing a bad thing].

      B. In the event that this precise condition [N] exists, the regulator has the power to do [x]. [Repeat for large number of N.]

      There’s really no good middle ground between tendentious levels of complexity and substantial discretion being vested in regulators.Report

      • The government could simply fish off.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain says:

          Well, Congress decided back around 1895 that they weren’t going to fish off — someone had to restrain big corporations. And Congress decided that it was going to take more expertise than the anyone but experts could provide.

          If anyone thinks that corporations have gotten better… In Front Range Colorado’s efforts to clean up its air, the next major source is methane and volatiles from oil and gas drilling and collection systems. Now that the state has acquired the technology to actually monitor those emissions, it turns out the industry has been leaking those nasties at about an order of magnitude higher rate than they have always claimed.Report

          • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

            Do you think it’s wise to leave regulation of corporations to “experts”?Report

            • Avatar Michael Cain says:

              For some things, I think it beats the heck out of leaving the decisions up to Congress or a state legislature or the Supreme Court. Eg, there are tens of thousands of industrial chemicals, some harmless and some horribly toxic. Some break down quickly and disappear, some don’t and get concentrated as they move up the food chain.

              Even something as nominally simple as dividing up radio frequency spectrum for various uses and users gets complicated.

              The decision to regulate I’d leave to Congress.Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                I kind of support Christopher on this one. Unless there is considerable churning of new labs, any lab that exists long enough to get ‘captured’ to the point of having ‘experts’ runs the risk of being corruptible.

                There is probably a market solution to that, but I can’t see beyond the current situation.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Underwriters Laboratories does a lot to fix things, the good ol’ fashioned market way.Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                Yeah, it helps, but even they are hit and miss.Report

              • Avatar J_A says:

                There is probably a market solution to that, but I can’t see beyond the current situation.

                This is just a mere statement of Faith. “There is a market solution, we are just too sunk in the corruption of social constructs to see it. If we pray more to Blessed John Galt, PBUH, we will be illuminated”

                Perhaps there is really no market solution to the problem of the commons.Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                “Can we just let the free market find a solution?”

                “No, no we can’t”

                (break legs, sell crutches all day long, not the good crutches either, the ones that wear out every ten steps)Report

              • Avatar J_A says:

                How long do we need to wait in Faith for the market to bring in a solution?

                How much (other people) need to suffer before I am willing to consider the possibility that my priors might not match reality.

                I mean, if only black people would have stayed in the back of the bus, outside the sidewalks, and away from the lunch counters for a couple more decades, eventually the market would have brought racial equality.

                I mean, if people in West Virginia would just keep drinking water polluted with MCHM, eventually the market would force Freedom Industries (great name, so very individual construct) to stop making the water undrinkable.

                Instead we have people being forced (the horror) to share sidewalks and lunch counters with people they’d rather avoid, and regulations saying what I can and can’t throw into the water that runs through my property.

                It’s just a matter of having Faith and wait for the market driven deliverance.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                “I mean, if only black people would have stayed in the back of the bus, outside the sidewalks, and away from the lunch counters for a couple more decades…”

                What’s amusing is that all of those things you talk about were the result of government mandates that they exist.Report

              • Avatar J_A says:

                What’s amusing is that all of those things you talk about were the result of government mandates that they exist.

                I thought that the argument was that the free market was going to correct all those injustices, at some point, in the future, perhaps.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                The argument is that had it just been a case of Jim Crow attitudes, rather than Jim Crow laws, the market would have taken care of most of the problem.

                Once those attitudes were codified into law, and people were actively punished for breaking said laws, the ability of the market to correct things was severely curtailed, since the incentives had all been distorted.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                which entirely discounts the propaganda engine.
                I mean, seriously, we’ve seen Mass Effect: Andromeda, haven’t we?Report

              • Weren’t all of the examples you give entrenched in law?Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                Oh, and as a side note…….John Galt in the way you are using it, is a social construct 😉Report

              • Avatar J_A says:


                I’m not afraid of social constructs. Social constructs contribute to passing your genes. I mean, my ancestors hunted mammoths using social constructs, and here I am now.Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                All I’m saying is your projecting your own religion, stop trying to make me the religious guy on a social constructs level. How is that social mammoth hunting thing going these days anyhow?Report

        • Avatar Francis says:

          Every single regulation in the CFR was written in response to some corporation somewhere putting the screws to someone.

          Choosing not to regulate in the face of [environmental / financial / physical / etc.] harm is still making a choice.Report

    • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

      I’m not sure anybody is arguing that it’s a “good thing” so much as a necessary thing. Most people would probably agree that it would be great if laws were short and simple, but there’s no reason to think that short and simple will actually do the job.

      It would probably be great if all software was so simple that it could be understood by anybody with a passing interest rather than being written by experts after careful design, but there’s only so much you an achieve with software that simple. If you want to solve a really complex problem, you may just be stuck with a complex solution.Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Technocracy is mostly incompatible with democracy.

    Technocracy is also mostly incompatible with public sector unions.Report

  9. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I’m so glad I’m a Beta. Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.Report

    • Avatar Francis says:

      This is what I meant earlier about your new-found smug styleReport

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Who do you go to when you fall sick?
      Who do yo go to when your pipe busts a leak?
      Why do you think it should be different for public policy?

      Also, you actually trust the Epsilons to have a say in how to run your life?Report

        • Avatar Murali says:

          Yes technocrats when they screw up, screw up big. But, at the end of the day, I’m really happy that most of the world is on the metric system and I can read and understand research done in a different country. Also the green revolution as Scott admits saved a heckuva lot of lives. I’d rather live in extensively planned Singapore than in organically grown London precisely because its got wide roads lined with trees that are pruned in just the right way to shade the entire road.

          Looking towards the end:

          Well, for one thing, Scott basically admits to stacking the dice against High Modernism and legibility. He admits that the organic livable cities of old had life expectancies in the forties because nobody got any light or fresh air and they were all packed together with no sewers and so everyone just died of cholera. He admits that at some point agricultural productivity multiplied by like a thousand times and the Green Revolution saved millions of lives and all that, and probably that has something to do with scientific farming methods and rectangular grids. He admits that it’s pretty convenient having a unit of measurement that local lords can’t change whenever they feel like it. Even modern timber farms seem pretty successful. After all those admissions, it’s kind of hard to see what’s left of his case.

          I’m not saying we should have planned economies. I’m still by and large a libertarian. But I’m not anti civilisation, nor am I anti-modern.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            To answer your question here:

            Also, you actually trust the Epsilons to have a say in how to run your life?

            Of course not.

            But, for some reason, they keep getting elected to positions of power.Report

  10. Avatar Damon says:

    Yes, the technocrats.

    Just following the law.

    For the same reason the military reports to civilian authority, the technocrats should never be in charge. The largest exterminations of people happened by technocrats “just following the laws”.Report

    • Avatar Joe Sal says:

      “If your technocracy requires having the ‘right kind of people’ in charge…. your technocracy will fail.”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        This, this, one thousand times this.

        The right kind of technocrats will tend to find that they aren’t as good as fulfilling HR requirements for promotions as the wrong kind of technocrats and, one generation later, we’ve got the wrong kind of technocrats in power.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        Every type of government relies on having good people behind the wheel. A wise king, or wise voters, or wise representatives, or wise technocrats, or whoever. No system guarantees that good people will rise to the top. Every one of these potential leaderships will be inclined to overestimate its ability. I like our system in that it prevents power from building up in any one place – ideally. But it requires effort to maintain that.Report

        • Avatar Joe Sal says:

          Power is the pandora’s box. When in it’s relentless pursuit has it ever left society better off than when not pursued at all?

          This nation will fall from it as all the nations that pursued it before. A republic would have divested power to each and every individual within it, that is not what was kept. Every branch of the three has prolifirated it’s power. Every local government continued it’s march into making order the agenda instead of freedom.

          The human species is likely not to survive the quest for power.Report

          • Avatar Pinky says:

            “Power is the pandora’s box. When in it’s relentless pursuit has it ever left society better off than when not pursued at all?”

            Are you talking about countries pursuing international power, or entities within a country pursuing power over that country? And either way, when hasn’t that happened, except for in the former when a country goes isolationist?Report

            • Avatar Joe Sal says:

              I am willing to discuss it in several frame works. I don’t deny that it happens, just if it is of benefit when it does.Report