Mistakes made by people who write about politics

Tyler Cowen posts lists of mistakes made by left and right wing economists. Ezra Klein followed up with a post on mistakes made by economists in general.

Here’s my list of mistakes made by political columnists and economists who are heavily influenced by all the outward trappings of politics by have no actual idea how policies are really made.

1) Regulations are written by normal people with normal human motivations. There are still some old timers around the various agencies that I work with who take the concept of public service seriously. They fly coach even if they’re eligible for a more expensive ticket. They get the taxi driver to fill out the receipt, etc. But all of these people will retire in the next few years.

2) Stop acting like regulations are written with an eye to costs and benefits. Those of us that write rules cannot possible understand the total costs and benefits of any particular rule. Lots of people write as if we carefully weigh the costs and benefits and come to optimal solution that is beneficial for society. No regulation has ever been written in this way. Agencies may debate costs and benefits amongst themselves, but there are too many variables so that this debate degenerates quickly. Since I’m a good bureaucrat, I can argue that benefits of virtually any potential regulation outweigh the costs. Any other decent bureaucrat could take the other side.

3) Regulations are written to increase the authority or funding for the agency writing the regulation. I have yet to see an exception to this law (Foseti’s Law?).

4) In general political columnists and economists pay way too much attention to the person at the top of the agency and not to the permanent staff of the agency. If you want to understand an agency, you have to understand its staff.

5) I’ve worked at three agencies. At all three agencies, I worked under two different heads of the agencies. I’ve been in government under two different Presidents. So far, I haven’t seen the day-to-day work of anyone (outside of someone I know who works at the Justice Department) change in any way when the President changed or when the head of the agencies changed.

6) Virtually everyone that writes regulations has the same political philosophy.

7) Virtually everyone that writes regulations cannot be fired from their job. Authority without responsibility is not a recipe for success in any circumstance.

8) Often the only people paying attention to a regulation are those directly impacted by the regulation. They generally know the subject matter better than those writing the regulation.

Update: In the comments, Handle adds: “most regulations are written with a mind of preserving maximum discretion, option value, and room-for-maneuver.” Very true. People shouldn’t forget that regulators are often legislator, executive and judiciary.


7 Responses to Mistakes made by people who write about politics

  1. Handle says:

    This is so true, well done. I would only add that most regulations are written with a mind of preserving maximum discretion, option value, and room-for-maneuver. There’s no “cost-benefit” analysis to arrogating maximum future potential prerogative – from the point of view of the bureaucracy it’s all benefit.

    These, in practice, turn out to be grants of something like plenary power to civil servants. Bureaucrats writing themselves blank-check of authority under the (semi-legitimate) rationale that no one can predict every contingency or consequence, and so agencies must be able to respond flexibly to evolving or unforeseen circumstances.

    This is often accomplished with certain “weasel words” (which are just legal terms-of-art designed to hedge against constrained interpretation). For example, if it remains in the “discretion” of the Secretary of an agency (usually delegated far down in practice) to grant a “waiver” for an “renewable” period in the case of circumstances “hardship” then what you have is nothing like “law” at all – it’s just raw power.

    And it is, of course, 100% anti-constitutional. It’s not “unconstitutional” as in, “illegal”, but it utterly nullifies the intent of the document. These grants of discretionary power to permanent civil servants simply and completely defy the ability to achieve “limited-authority and accountable-through-democratic-elections” government.

  2. dearieme says:

    I’d be surprised if Foseti’s Law isn’t just a special case of one of Parkinson’s Laws.

  3. […] Foseti knows how regulations are drafted. Also here. […]

  4. […] Foseti – “Mistakes Made by People Who Write About Politics” […]

  5. And it is, of course, 100% anti-constitutional. It’s not “unconstitutional” as in, “illegal”, but it utterly nullifies the intent of the document. – Handle

    That’s a good point – the Constitution doesn’t ban or allow bureaucracy-ocracy per se. The 10th Amendment (combined with Article I Section 8) does ban a lot of agencies, though. Anything to do with health care or education, for starters.

  6. james wilson says:

    Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all–
    Peter Drucker

    An efficient bureaucracy is more dangerous to liberty than a bungling democracy–
    Garet Garrett

    The differences between a society which organizes itself around stern lessons administered by bureaucrats preaching to schoolchildren and a society of free men who hire bureaucrats to take out the garbage is profound–
    Richard Fernandez

    All authority implies an extreme reluctance to admit error–
    Patrick O’Brian

    Work expands to fill the time available for completion. Officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals–
    Cyril Parkinson’s First Law of Bureaucracy

    It is the least effective organs within government that invariably receive the largest increases in funding and staffing–
    Charles Peters

    We should not be surprised to find the Left concentrated in institutions where ideas do not have to work in order to survive–
    Thomas Sowell

    Competition is the only trustworthy principle of regulation–
    Garet Garrett

    It is difficult for a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it–
    Upton Sinclair

    A civil servant doesn’t make jokes–
    Eugene Ionesco

    Government does not grow by seizing our freedoms, but by assuming our responsibilities–
    Michael Cloud

  7. Handle says:

    And in the “Bureaucrats writing themselves blank-checks of plenary authority whether Congress allowed them to or not” vein, don’t miss Professor Philip Hamburger’s latest article about the unconstitutional and undelegated Obamacare waivers.

    The delegation argument thus becomes rather comic. The statute authorized the secretary of HHS to determine the restricted annual limits. On this foundation, the secretary then made regulations determining the limits and authorizing the secretary to waive those limits. The secretary thus is the source of the secretary’s power to issue the waivers. If this is delegation, it is self-delegation.


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