Friday, February 20, 2009

Institutional Foundations of Hackery

The blog post title above is a backhand reference to the title of my recently published book, Institutional Foundations of Public Finance, co-edited with Alan Auerbach, and collecting the excellent papers from a 2006 conference at NYU Law School in honor of David Bradford. But the topic I have in mind is considerably less edifying than David's work or that of any of the authors in that volume. We in academics have it easy, what with tenure plus our internal review mechanisms and prestige competitions. Personal taste aside, I actually find that I have strong career incentives to be honest in following ideas and arguments wherever they properly lead. One earns more respect that way. In our biz, not just hackery, which deserves any punishment it ever gets, but predictability is sometimes penalized - perhaps unduly, since, while it's genuinely a fault, avoiding it through quirky, whimsical schtick can be even worse.

But in other parts of the policy-talk world, hackery can get entrenched like the battling armies at the Marne, grinding up anyone who dares to stick his head up or rather his neck out. (Sorry, too tired to think of a better metaphor.)

Getting to the point, I've been distressed lately by what I hear concerning Bruce Bartlett, who publishes regularly, and generally very interestingly, but has not had a think tank job since the National Center for Policy Analysis fired him in 2005 for daring to criticize George W. Bush.

Bruce is a strong traditional conservative, believing in Reagan-era principles such as free markets and limited government, who became convinced not just of the odiousness of the George W. Bush Administration (from conservative as well as liberal principles), but also of such heresies, from the standpoint of his "base," as the case for a VAT to prevent fiscal collapse and more recently the macroeconomic need for a large-scale stimulus program. Whether he's right or wrong - and I'd say he's usually right - you simply aren't allowed to say these things if you're otherwise on the conservative side. They may not kill you, but they certainly won't hire you.

In much of the media and think tank worlds - certainly on the conservative side, but I suspect it's not entirely limited thereto - the career path that pays is to be a hack, and to stick to the party line, never honestly evaluating issues but saying what you're expected to say.

I'm hoping and tend to believe it's better on the left, but it depends where one looks, and perhaps over time we will see. Certainly there are places where, for example, one might have to watch what one says about Social Security's long-term financing.

The institutionally entrenched command to obey top-down military discipline, or perhaps I should call it Maoist group conformity, not only is unedifying, but leads to debased and dishonest public discourse that literally risks destroying our country. Without honest debate one cannot consistently make sane choices, much less affirmatively good ones.

Perhaps Obama will make some good choices, though even then he'll have to sell them. But rational policymaking needs to have deeper roots than a particular president or it simply won't happen regularly enough.

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