Emerging Issues: To act or not to act --- Is that the question for governments?

October 3, 2011
by Bill Barnes

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and PBS political pundit, is often right, usually on the right and always thoughtful and charmingly earnest. This time, however, he's wrong, importantly wrong - twice. 

Brooks' September 15 column ("The Planning Fallacy") advocates excessive caution and a small-bore way to think about what governments and planning can do about the economic and financial mess we're in. 

He first develops a sober-sided caution about "the limits of social policy." Citing the 1960s war on poverty, the recent effort to transform American schools, and perennial claims about creating prosperity in the developing world, he concludes that "it is really hard to turn around complex systems." 

Well, yes and no. We can all agree that accomplishing big, complicated things is difficult. Just think about trying to get your kid to make his bed in the morning.

Whether complex things are accomplished, however, depends on whether we are serious and knowledgeable about them and willing to devote commensurate resources to accomplishing them. In Brooks' poverty and prosperity examples, we were not. It also depends on whether we are mostly agreed as to what to do. In Brooks' schools example, we are not. 

In contrast, Medicare and increased Social Security payments significantly and quickly reduced poverty and untreated ill health among the elderly. At the local level, Pittsburgh cleaned its dirty air and revived its quality of life; Chattanooga, Tenn., regained its civic vision and implemented an ambitious development strategy; and the Denver metro planned and funded a transit system.

The fault is not in the complexity of our stars, it is usually in ourselves. Nothing's perfect; lots of things don't work right and unintended consequences intrude; the political system goes badly awry. But governments can and have achieved large purposes. And we should continue to expect them to do so.

Contradictions

Brooks himself knows all this and thus cannot obey his own mandate for humility in the face of great problems. On June 14, he declared that he will be "opining on this whole [presidential election] campaign under protest... because... the two parties contesting this election are unusually pathetic." (We may all be able to agree on that too, but we'll talk about that another time.) He announced that he holds a "Hamiltonian/National Greatness perspective," and that the 2012 election "is about how to avert national decline. ... All other issues flow from that anxiety." Proposing a "reinvigoration agenda," he outlined four "baskets" of policy ideas, any one of which would count as turning around a complex system. 

And he didn't pause even once to warn about the limits of any kind of policy.

In the broader context of Brooks' other columns, his "limits of social policy" can be understood as a wise way to start thinking carefully about what is to be done and what it will take to do it. 

But if you stop there, radically paralyzed by complications, it's an obstacle to wisdom. Worse, if you are an influential pundit, your view can offer an intellectual refuge from the challenge of responsibility for the comfortable and the frightened and a craven dodge for the merely selfish. 

Even Deeper Waters

Brooks' September 15 column ventures awkwardly into even deeper waters. "The key to wisdom" - the kind of phrase that signals something silly is about to happen - is to understand that "when you are in the grip of a big, complex mess, you have the power to do discrete good but probably not systemic good." 

The former includes paving roads and hiring teachers. The latter, he describes only as "the power to transform the whole situation." 

At a glance, this seems like the excellent advice that, when you are in a deep hole, you should stop digging. On the other hand, the option to "transform the whole situation" is an unrealistic and grandiose straw man; it offers a false choice. Brooks is straining to find a distinction that retains his cautionary mandate but still provides a path for action. It doesn't work in its little-bits-of-this-and-that approach.

Most importantly, a big, complex mess may indeed be susceptible to systemic, even if not "transformative," change. 

We got results from major stimulus efforts in 2008 and 2009, and we still need more, preferably better constructed than the previous two. 

We needed systemic financial reform and we got something along that line in the Dodd-Frank legislation, although affected interests are now whittling down the results. 

Moreover, we tend to accept, for example, that the New Deal and the Reagan years, along with the tenures of some governors and mayors, were transformative times (though we disagree about the value of the changes) and that government itself played major roles. 

There's an analytically useful continuum of possible action from "discrete" to "systemic." Putting all your eggs in the "discrete" basket, however, is not a recipe for a nourishing action agenda. It's an obstacle to clear thinking that can lead to effective action.

Clear thinking is surely what we need more of now, from Mr. Brooks himself, as well as other thought leaders.

Bill Barnes (barnes@nlc.org ) is the director for emerging issues at the National League of Cities. His Emerging Issues columns appear regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly and are collected on theNLC website. at www.nlc.org.