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Why Government Fails So Often

Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 440
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  • Book Info
    Why Government Fails So Often
    Book Description:

    From healthcare to workplace conduct, the federal government is taking on ever more responsibility for managing our lives. At the same time, Americans have never been more disaffected with Washington, seeing it as an intrusive, incompetent, wasteful giant. The most alarming consequence of ineffective policies, in addition to unrealized social goals, is the growing threat to the government's democratic legitimacy. Understanding why government fails so often-and how it might become more effective-is an urgent responsibility of citizenship. In this book, lawyer and political scientist Peter Schuck provides a wide range of examples and an enormous body of evidence to explain why so many domestic policies go awry-and how to right the foundering ship of state.

    Schuck argues that Washington's failures are due not to episodic problems or partisan bickering, but rather to deep structural flaws that undermineeveryadministration, Democratic and Republican. These recurrent weaknesses include unrealistic goals, perverse incentives, poor and distorted information, systemic irrationality, rigidity and lack of credibility, a mediocre bureaucracy, powerful and inescapable markets, and the inherent limits of law. To counteract each of these problems, Schuck proposes numerous achievable reforms, from avoiding moral hazard in student loan, mortgage, and other subsidy programs, to empowering consumers of public services, simplifying programs and testing them for cost-effectiveness, and increasing the use of "big data." The book also examines successful policies-including the G.I. Bill, the Voting Rights Act, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and airline deregulation-to highlight the factors that made them work.

    An urgent call for reform,Why Government Fails So Oftenis essential reading for anyone curious about why government is in such disrepute and how it can do better.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5004-4
    Subjects: Political Science, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-36)

    Our political system has long been admired and wondered at by Americans and outsiders who marvel at its ability to govern for 225 years a remarkably dynamic, diverse society. Yet most Americans today believe that our government is failing to deliver what it promises, and they have lost confidence in its effectiveness. Herein lies a deep and dangerous dilemma, one that this book seeks to explain and perhaps to help solve.

    Consider some of our government’s past successes—many of commission, some of restraint. Since the Civil War, the U.S. political system has been extraordinarily stable and durable, experiencing no...

  5. Part 1: The Context of Policy Making

    • CHAPTER 2 Success, Failure, and In Between
      (pp. 39-63)

      It is tempting to think that government performance, like so much else in life, is simply in the eye of the beholder. Where you stand, as Miles’s Law puts it, depends on where you sit.* After all, supporters of a program often perceive great success where opponents see abject failure. The truth may lie somewhere in between, as the cliché has it, but how can we know when that is so? Moreover, in between covers a vast territory, and it matters a great deal where particular programs fall within that wide spectrum.

      Like investors who assess their portfolios periodically, conscientious...

    • CHAPTER 3 Policy-Making Functions, Processes, Missions, Instruments, and Institutions
      (pp. 64-90)

      Public policies are the product of five interacting factors. First, government must tailor its policy choices to the particularfunctionsthat it wishes to perform. Second, these policy choices are made through a variety of formal and informalprocesses. Third, policy makers assignmissionsto administrative agencies—indeed, often multiple and sometimes conflicting ones. Fourth, the policy that is chosen will pursue these missions by deploying some specificinstrumentsrather than others. Fifth, public policies—when created and when implemented—are profoundly influenced by theformal institutionsthat surround and shape them. (Policy making’s political culture—itsinformalinstitutions, in...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Political Culture of Policy Making
      (pp. 91-124)

      A government’s political culture—the ensemble of institutions, practices, and attitudes that animate public policy—is in a sense its DNA. Political culture does not wholly predetermine policy outcomes, but it does create very powerful tendencies and constraints on which outcomes are possible and likely. This culture does change over time. The most important examples are attitudes toward ethnic minorities, gay people, and women, and the “new system” of policy making discussed in chapter 1. But absent an existential threat such as an all-out war or a deep economic depression, most changes in public policy occur over generations within limits...

  6. Part 2: The Structural Sources of Policy Failure

    • CHAPTER 5 Incentives and Collective Irrationality
      (pp. 127-160)

      Discussion of the quality and effectiveness of government activity often emphasizes budgetary factors. When programs fail, the argument goes, it is usually because a good policy was not adequately funded. Doubtless this is sometimes true, but more typically the real causes lie elsewhere—and far deeper.

      Policy success depends, at a minimum, on six attributes of a policy that have little or nothing to do with its budget. First,incentivesmust be capable of eliciting the desired behaviors both of the policy makers and of the actors they must influence in order for the policy to work. Second, the policy...

    • CHAPTER 6 Information, Inflexibility, Incredibility, and Mismanagement
      (pp. 161-197)

      In this chapter I extend the analysis of policy failure beyond incentives and irrationality to consider four other sources of ineffectiveness: (1) poor information; (2) rigidity where flexibility is needed; (3) lack of the credibility needed to secure the cooperation of other actors; and (4) mismanagement, particularly in the forms of fraud, waste, and abuse. These impediments to policy success are alike in their deep, structural, endemic nature.

      In addition to the problem of incentives (discussed in chapter 5), much government failure reflects the fact that information is costly—to gather, verify, contextualize, assess, deploy, and keep up to date....

    • CHAPTER 7 Markets
      (pp. 198-228)

      On September 15, 2013, theNew York Timesran a front-page story with a two-page spread inside headlined “Wall St. Exploits Ethanol Credits, and Prices Spike.” TheTimesreported that government regulators were shocked—shocked!—that banks and other financial speculators were buying up ethanol credits created by the Environmental Protection Agency in order to reduce air pollution by mandating the increased use of ethanol in gasoline, which had the effect of driving the price of these credits up twentyfold in just six months and increasing gas prices accordingly.¹ Chapter 8 discusses the ethanol program in some detail; I mention...

    • CHAPTER 8 Implementation
      (pp. 229-276)

      The public policy world brims with interesting, provocative, often plausible ideas for improving social welfare. These ideas emerge from executive branch policy shops, congressional staff work, independent think tanks, lobbyists, economics and political science departments, public policy programs, law schools, business organizations, “public interest” groups, and other sources. Even judges sometimes get into policy-making-in-the-large when they find constitutional violations by government bureaucracies and then fashion unusual remedies—that is, those that go beyond simply awarding monetary damages or a simple prohibitory injunction—with the goal of rectifying those violations.¹ A very small percentage of these ideas successfully run the marathon...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Limits of Law
      (pp. 277-306)

      Law is everywhere. Like the metaphorical fog in Charles Dickens’sBleak House, it seeps silently into each nook and cranny of our lives, affecting virtually all behavior and relationships. This is simply a fact of life. We may want more or less of it, and we may wish that it took different forms, contained different principles, and prescribed different rules. But like the air we breathe, we cannot do without it.

      Law is the dominant instrument of public policy, and the American polity entertains growing ambitions for it. Modern public law—the body of statutes, agency rules, and court decisions...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Bureaucracy
      (pp. 307-326)

      Every public policy is run through a bureaucracy. In America, bureaucracy is often used as an epithet, evoking ubiquitous red tape, rigidity, soullessness, waste, unreasonableness, impenetrability, and Kafkaesque cruelty and arbitrariness. Other than systematic scholars of the subject like Max Weber,¹ James Q. Wilson,² and Donald Kettl,³ few have a kind word to say about it. Nevertheless, bureaucracy—the exercise of legal authority by a large, complex, more or less permanent body of officials required to act according to rules, procedures, precedents, institutional and documented memory, hierarchical accountability, and a culture of legality—is a necessary (though insufficient) feature of...

    • CHAPTER 11 Policy Successes
      (pp. 327-368)

      The preceding chapters have focused on policy failures, for three main reasons. First, there are so many significant failures. Taken individually, and especially in the aggregate, they exact a heavy toll on social welfare—under any plausible definition of that concept. Although some readers may view my criteria of success (see chapter 2) as too demanding, the criteria are really quite minimal. The very least that citizens can reasonably demand of a program is that it be socially beneficial on net, be cost-effective, meet its stated performance and cost goals, serve those who need it most, and use the most...

  7. Part 3: Remedies and Reprise

    • CHAPTER 12 Remedies: Lowering Government’s Failure Rate
      (pp. 371-407)

      The pages of this book are littered with scores of federal policy failures—programs that create fewer benefits than costs, are cost-ineffective, or are perversely targeted—and only a relative handful of major successes (see chapter 11). Even allowing for some disagreement about definitions and some of the assessments I have reported and presented, this is a deeply dismaying record. Moreover, as I noted in chapter 1, there are strong reasons to believe that these failures are but the tip of the iceberg—a longer book could have easily multiplied examples—and that the public increasingly senses this.

      Unfortunately, this...

    • CHAPTER 13 Conclusion
      (pp. 408-412)

      We have completed a long journey into the heart of domestic policy failure. Along the way, we have reviewed a plethora of evidence documenting this failure and analyses of the systemic, deeply embedded reasons why it occurs so often. All Americans—liberals, conservatives, in-betweens, and even the socialist and libertarian fringes—are well-advised to accept these facts and reasons, and to ponder their implications for our collective future. Liberals should worry that their ability to generate public support for governmental programs is increasingly hostage to low quality performance and vulnerable legitimacy. Conservatives should accept the fact, demonstrated in chapter 1,...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 413-462)
  9. Index
    (pp. 463-472)