Friday, October 05, 2007

The word from Washington

I've just returned from a brief trip to Washington, where I attended a conference on taxes, technology, and privacy, and offered comments on a paper by Kyle Logue and Joel Slemrod on endowment taxation, the use by the tax system of genetic "tags" that correlate with expected income, etc.

While there, I happened to chat with several people who have worked for a long time in different agencies of the executive branch of the government (not just tax-related), and who report on what a historically unprecedented horror it is for career professionals in the government to have to deal with the current Bush Administration (earlier Republican Administrations were generally fine). Essentially, it's like being in the Soviet Union with a party commissar harassing everyone, except that while he can (and does) make your life miserable and prevent all honest governance he at least can't have you arrested.

Once the national nightmare has ended, someone should really go around collecting accounts from people in different departments. While unlikely to be a best-seller, it would be genuinely eye-opening reading with a lot of startling stories about dishonesty and dirty work.


Anonymous said...

Dan -

Are you trying to compete with Krugman?

I have to say that my experience at Treasury (2001-2003) was not the "horror" you note.

I did have struggles with political appointees in other agencies -- and, yes, I would say that some of their motives appeared to be purely partisan rather than just turf -- but I don't believe it ever affected our analysis or recommendations to the Secretary or to the White House. (Someone once told me -- a decade before I came to Treasury -- that if you can't work in this environment, it's a bit like a doctor complaining about working around sick people.)

I have a great deal of respect for the career folks I worked with and believe most of them know how to try to get the best policy proposed (and keep the worst policies from being proposed)regardless of which party is in control.

Drew Lyon

Daniel Shaviro said...

Drew, I'm glad you had a better experience there, but there is a great deal of discouragement on the professional Treasury staff. It's very widespread and I've heard about it from a lot of sources. I also have friends in other agencies who report similarly. And I don't even know anyone at DOJ - I can hardly imagine what it's like there.

You may have been there at a better time. When Glen Hubbard was in the Administration, along with people such as Kent Smetters, possibly things were better at least at some levels for economics people whether in Treasury or elsewhere. Also, you got to work on some things where principled analysis actually did take place (e.g., the tax expenditures stuff). But the story at this point from many parts of the executive branch is pretty clear.