Living in a Failed Kludgeocracy

Writing in the Atlantic, George Packer tells us that the Covid-19 emergency didn’t break the United States. Instead, he claims that the virus simply revealed how deeply broken our government already was. We are Living in a Failed State.

The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare. From the president came willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies. From his mouthpieces, conspiracy theories and miracle cures. A few senators and corporate executives acted quickly—not to prevent the coming disaster, but to profit from it. When a government doctor tried to warn the public of the danger, the White House took the mic and politicized the message.

Packer, George We are Living in a Failed State. The Atlantic, June 2020

Packer points out that this is the THIRD crisis that the United States has faced since 2000, following the attacks of 9/11 and the banking crisis of 2008. The political fall out from the first two crises set the stage for the election of Trump. Since taking office,

Trump began to immolate what was left of national civic life. He never even pretended to be president of the whole country, but pitted us against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region, and—every day of his presidency—political party. His main tool of governance was to lie. A third of the country locked itself in a hall of mirrors that it believed to be reality; a third drove itself mad with the effort to hold on to the idea of knowable truth; and a third gave up even trying.

Trump acquired a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. He set about finishing off the job and destroying the professional civil service. He drove out some of the most talented and experienced career officials, left essential positions unfilled, and installed loyalists as commissars over the cowed survivors, with one purpose: to serve his own interests. His major legislative accomplishment, one of the largest tax cuts in history, sent hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations and the rich. The beneficiaries flocked to patronize his resorts and line his reelection pockets. If lying was his means for using power, corruption was his end.

Packer then states that

The fight to overcome the pandemic must also be a fight to recover the health of our country, and build it anew, or the hardship and grief we’re now enduring will never be redeemed. Under our current leadership, nothing will change. If 9/11 and 2008 wore out trust in the old political establishment, 2020 should kill off the idea that anti-politics is our salvation. But putting an end to this regime, so necessary and deserved, is only the beginning.

We will get through this as a nation, but then what? What kind of a nation will we be? If putting an end to the Trump regime is just the beginning, then what is the long term goal, and how do we move in that direction?

Johns Hopkins University political scientist Steven M Teles wrote in 2012 that one of the key problems facing this nation is that the complexity of our government, prevents us from developing effective policies, and instead supports a “Kludeocracy”, which impedes or prevents effective policy formulation.

The dictionary tells us that a kludge is “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to be backward compatible with the rest of a system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes. In other words, Windows.


“Clumsy but temporarily effective” also describes much of American public policy. For any particular problem we have arrived at the most gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated response. From the mind-numbing complexity of the health care system (which has only gotten more complicated, if also more just, after the passage of obamacare), our Byzantine system of funding higher education, and our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from the welfare state to environmental regulation, America has chosen more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than any comparable country.

The pervasiveness of these kludges almost guarantees that sooner or later, there would be a crash. The 2008 banking crisis grew out of a series of choices that continuously added complexity to housing market,

The way out, I am afraid, is neither going to be easy or fast. It is going to require involvement from all of us. Healing our society and rebuilding is going to require a deep examination of who we are, what we value, and what we are willing to sacrifice.

It will be a long all, but we can do it – we have to

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