Peter Orszag calls for less democracy, more rule by elite technocrats

Hmm. Wonder what corner of the ruling class that would benefit. His own, perhaps?

This article is making the rounds — in a walk-of-shame kind of way — the object of much comment. Its author is Peter Orszag, late of Exeter and the Obama administration, and a man who recently gestated into the loving (and providential) arms of Citigroup.

Now he’s writing in the pages of The New Republic (my emphasis throughout):

In an 1814 letter to John Taylor, John Adams wrote that “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” That may read today like an overstatement, but it is certainly true that our democracy finds itself facing a deep challenge: During my recent stint in the Obama administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget, it was clear to me that the country’s political polarization was growing worse—harming Washington’s ability to do the basic, necessary work of governing. If you need confirmation of this, look no further than the recent debt-limit debacle, which clearly showed that we are becoming two nations governed by a single Congress—and that paralyzing gridlock is the result.

So what to do? To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.

That “debt-limit debacle” was the one that Obama caused, because he wouldn’t accept Mitch McConnell’s offer of a clean bill. And those “automatic policies and depoliticized commissions” sound a lot like the twin horrors of the Catfood Commission (aka Simpson-Bowles) and the congressional “bipartisan” Super Committee set to kill the recovery (and slice down the safety net) the minute they convene.

The best way to read Peter Orszag is as a Social Security–hating Obama surrogate who also represents Wall Street billionaires — the Dem-supporting elites who aren’t as socially conservative as the Koch Bros-type oil-and-gas billionaires who support Republicans.

(You do know that our “democracy” has devolved into a War of the Roses Lancaster vs. York conflict, don’t you. Or as I wrote elsewhere, “dueling billionaires“. Me, I always root for the red roses; can’t stand the white ones.)

There’s been a fair amount of reaction, at least from the center and left. Here’s Catherine Rampell in the New York Times:

These policy areas [Orszag’s issues like “climate change, the hard slog of recovering from a financial slump, and our long-term fiscal gap”] may sound like dry academic subjects. But they are thoroughly infused with, and ultimately shaped by, moral beliefs.

There are, after all, infinite combinations of spending cuts and tax increases that can add up to the same bottom line. Deciding what should get trimmed and what taxes should be increased or decreased involves questions of favoritism, welfare, compassion, fairness and all sorts of other subjective judgments not answerable by the “laws” of economics.

It’s not clear that a doctorate in economics (or, for that matter, in theology) gives a person any more moral authority than anyone else. That’s why such decisions are decided through a republican democracy — both lower case — and not by genius academics[.]

Very kind of Ms. Rampell not to mention that elites also have moral prejudices, and to continue the pretense that “technocrats” are Robby the Robot machines who respond to math and logic alone. (Dueling billionaires, remember? They each have their retainers. She’s pretending it ain’t so.)

Paul Krugman comments on Ms. Rampell’s comment, adding:

[T]his is an odd time [for Orszag] to make such a proposal. Yes, the political world is deeply dysfunctional — but what’s equally remarkable is just how terrible the judgment of the supposed experts has been. It’s not just the complete failure to foresee this crisis. Fancy international organizations have been persistently offering disastrous advice, counseling austerity and interest rate hikes just as the recovery, such as it is, stumbles. … The point is that what we need are the right ideas, not the right sort of people. Madmen in authority come in all forms[.]

Madmen in authority — thus he refutes Orszag.

On the other hand, props to Peter for playing his unique hand — a made man with OMB cred and an economics background, who can write. He’s managed to climb up from low-end retainer (permanent denizen of a Thank You think tank) to an higher-end one (temporary denizen of a Thank You bank).

I suspect his reach will exceed his grasp (meaning, he’s reached or is approaching his ceiling), but we’ll see. It’s an interesting niche he has, a sort of non-professorial Jared Bernstein with techno-seeming cred and a fast-expiring shelf life. If Rick Perry is the next president, that bank won’t need him forever.


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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