Thursday, March 12, 2009

Big Technocrats and the Big Picture

Much US policy is short-sighted. Here are just a few examples:
  • Our military actions abroad, which aim to promote US-friendly governance, arguably hurts our security in the future by provoking widespread anti-US sentiment, not to mention the opportunity cost of all the resources that we pour into wour.
  • Our lack of environmental protections, and in particular the absence of a carbon tax, may stimulate economic growth in the short term, but threatens the survival of our society for future generations. Interesting fact: Your typical cow releases more greenhouse gasses in a year than your typical car.
  • Massive federal deficit spending stimulates economic growth in the short-term, but weakens our society for future generations. Much public spending seems necessary, but much of this spending is not sustainable. It would be better to spread out the pain rather than having a sudden future collapse.
What explains the short-sightedness of policy? Probably the strongest explanation is that policy is ultimately controlled by elected politicians who are elected by a society that is rarely confronted with big-picture issues. Our low-population density and prominence as a world super-power promote a sense that there is no limit to our opportunities and influence.

I offer an additional explanation for our lack of foresight. Although populist politics may play the dominant role in forming policy, a large group of technocrats, academic and industrial experts who become political appointees, lurks in the shadows of politicians, and these technocrats have substantial influence on policy.

Of course, politicians tell the technocrats what to say in many cases, but I believe that the influence runs just as strongly in the opposite direction, especially on policy issues that are of such a technical and important nature that the opinions of the experts are the primary sources of direction. Case in point: Bernanke at the Federal Reserve. Politicians and the general public are completely baffled by monetary policy, and few politicians dare to pretend otherwise.

To the extent that policy is dictated by the expertise of technocrats, you would think that policy would be well-founded. Many technocrats are the best and brightest in their respective fields.

Unfortunately, few Big Technocrats are experts in the Big Picture.
  • Robert Gates at the DOD knows how to combat terrorism, but less about promoting friendly foreign relations 50 years down the road.
  • Bernanke at the Federal Reserve knows how to direct monetary policy for steady economic growth within a 5-year forecast period, but very little about how to model sustainable growth over the the next 50 years while accounting for contraints imposed by the environmental implications and resource limitations of our industry-based economy.
  • Geithner at the Treasury knows how to confront immediate problems posed by a financial crisis, but less about how to form regulations that will ensure a smoothly functioning financial sector into the indefinite future.
  • Surgeon General Steven Galson knows how to promote public health awareness on the topics of exercise, diet, and drugs, but less about the long-term consequences of health policy on the direction of future human evolution, or about the psychological implications of the exodus from laboring in the fields into pumping iron at fitness facilities.
  • Surely there are other examples. I know little about other fields, because I aspire to become technocrat.
I believe that the excessive focus of technocrats on the isolated short-term problems of their respective fields is largely a consequence of the fact that people like to address problems that they already know how to solve. Industry and academics trains experts to come up with quantitative solutions to extremely specialized questions. As the proverb goes, to a person with a hammer, everything appears as a nail.

Few experts in the Big Picture exist, and even fewer are appointed by politicians as advisors. Jesus weeps.


Anonymous goodbadi said...

Maybe you'll be the first of a new generation of big picture technocrats.

7:50 PM  

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