in defense of (some) technocracy

April 1, 2013 — 1 Comment

robot and human

Generally, political pundits are quick to ridicule technocrats and wonks for assuming that they’ll solve all the world’s problems with spreadsheets and computers, sounding so very dispassionate as they do their seemingly tedious jobs. One of the more recent examples is this critique of Ezra Klein’s wonkish style which has a hard time accepting the focus on numbers rather than entering the political fray with partisan zeal. As if this was a bad thing. Ever notice that political debates in general seem to be a morass of big emotions, big ideas, big personalities, bold pronouncements about the past, present, and future, and pretty much devoid of facts, that if present, are verbally violated to fit into whatever pigeonhole the person abusing them wants to fit them? Discussing the mathematical and statistical viability of a budget proposal and the ideological underpinnings that the budget tries to advance are two different conversations. One is the goal, the other is a means of reaching it, and it’s good to focus on how well that works out on paper.

Yes, well meaning technocrats can go way too far, I know. Yes, I know that people are creatures of messy, disorganized, and often irrational habits. And that’s exactly why they need technocrats to help them parse the facts and just the facts. I’m not saying that people like me should run the world, in fact I think I could make a very lengthy case as to why you would definitely not want to do that. But you do need technocrats to play a big enough role to stop wasteful projects or shut down impossible pipe dreams inspired by delusions of grandeur or ideology than sound logic. A political pundit will read whatever he or she wants to read from a budget to support a position all his or her viewers tune in to see every weeknight. Technocrats have a harder time doing that to justify their ideas because for them, the math has to add up, and whatever grandiose plans they have, they’re going to debate about implementation until a decent one is hammered out. This is not to say they could never be biased or ideological, just that they have to be less so.

Politicians can afford to talk big and act larger than life. They’re not the ones who have to see how their laws are implemented after they’re passed. The technocrats are the ones doing much of the real world work involved in turning policies and ideas into workable plans, and when they get it wrong, the results are soon obvious and it takes an amazing amount of stubbornness not to admit that something went wrong. A terrific example is sex ed. The ideologues insist that we must shove abstinence and scare tactics down teenagers’ throats. They fail. They always fail. They’ll continue failing compared to comprehensive sex ed, which does a far better job at delaying sex than any abstinence-based farce of a curriculum. Yet they continue to whiz into the windstorm in oblivious disregard of how the world works. Meanwhile, the technocrats are pushing for superior comprehensive sex ed classes because they looked at the numbers and pick what was factually shown to be better. And that’s why we need them around, dissecting facts rather than allowing a rabid ideologue to drag them down into partisan politics and beat them with experience.

[ illustration by Allan Sanders ]

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  • TheBrett

    The article wasn’t dismissive of Klein’s wonkery. It just pointed out that there’s no such thing as a truly “objective” view-point on policy in the political sphere, something that Klein has tried to portray since joining the Washington Post. You can rally numbers in support of one policy approach over another, but it ultimately doesn’t tell you if this is something you should be doing.

    More’s the pity. I followed Klein’s blog when he was still at The American Prospect, and he had a much stronger voice back then to go with the wonkery.