Sunday, November 27, 2011

It's a Vegetable!

The blogosphere loves catchy headlines. Since publishing a blog titled Greed is Still Good and two follow-ups that continued the theme, the Google statistics for this blog show readership quadrupling.

Among the many responses I received, one stood out as unique and piqued my interest. A Belgian reader advocated that technocrats do a better job than democratically elected politicians and the free market at ensuring prosperity for the public. Here’s what he said, in part:

“When dealing with corporate matters, look for the best CEOs. When dealing with agricultural matters, look for the most successful farmers. When dealing with exact science, look in academe for the most respected scientists. When dealing with matters of justice, look for the most respected judges.

“Basically, you look for experts wherever they can be found. Competent technocrats are most likely to be found among those who get the best results or achieve most respect in their respective fields of expertise.”

I challenged him to provide examples of where this works. He responded that it does so in the democracies of northern and western Europe.

This exchange took place a few days before the prime ministers of both Greece and Italy were replaced by technocrats.

When I hear the word, technocrat, I think of a bureaucrat – a government employee whose dogged adherence to some arcane set of rules yields an unreasoned result. But, technocrats don’t comply with policies. They are the experts who make policies.

The argument in favor of technocrats – and, indeed, the European example – is that well-crafted technocracies overcome the inequalities of opportunity that result from unbridled capitalism. Europe has embraced technocracy, perhaps because of its history of class-ridden societies. As a result, Western Europe has better childhood health results and better public education systems than the United States. A recently published study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) observed that economic mobility from the bottom is more difficult in the US than most countries of Western Europe.

Naturally, programs that produce these results come with a price tag. Sweden, for example, has the second highest tax revenue as a percent of GDP in Europe at around 48% (more than double the US percentage). They balance their budget, provide extensive health and welfare benefits and run a capitalist economy. Their high tax rates are part of the social contract that the citizens have made with their government.

Many pundits in this country have suggested that the Euro debt crisis demonstrates the failure of European social democracies. That model of governing is unsustainable, they say. But, the Euro crisis is not the result of social democracies. It’s the result of debt. Unsustainable debt is the result of long term, structural budget deficits. Some western European countries – France, Belgium, Italy, Spain – run large deficits and are facing difficult choices. Others, like Sweden, do not.

Americans shouldn’t be casting dispersions on Europe simply because they seem to have hit the wall a few years before we are projected to. Indeed, running a balanced budget is a statement of national character. National character that we apparently lack.

But, neither is the Swedish example proof of the superiority of technocracies. Wasn’t it a group of technocrats who dreamed up the Euro in the first place. The concept of a currency not backed up by a central bank is flawed by definition.

The American model is driven by economic freedom. Property rights, free trade, minimal government regulation, low taxes and freedom to fail are central to our superior economic growth over the last two centuries. The success of that model is best exemplified by the 1990’s when low taxes and a balanced budget were at the root of our economic success.

Clearly, not everyone in this country embraces these principles of economic freedom. There are some obvious flaws to a system that rewards Lady Gaga more than it rewards its teachers. But our nation was founded on the right to pursue happiness. And, Americans do not believe it is the responsibility of government to ensure it. If asked, Americans would express admiration for the Swedish model; but, they would not sacrifice their standard of living – their second car, their McMansions -- to achieve it.

The US has its technocracies. We have technocrats at the helm of the FCC, the FTC, the FEC and, of course, the most important technocracy of all, the Federal Reserve Board. But, on a larger scale, Americans reject the idea. Remember when healthcare reform was to include a panel of experts to examine the high cost of care during the last year of life? “DEATH PANELS!” screamed the opposition.

On the other hand, I would like to meet the technocrat who pointed out that, calorie for calorie, tomato paste has the same nutritional value as an apple. Under one proposal, the National School Lunch Program could credit a serving of pizza as a vegetable. Now, that’s my kind of technocrat.


  1. Ken Mayeaux • John ...... I love the way you tee up your blogs to elicit the responses from both sides of the spectrum. I think that anyone that reads anything I write would have no problem in placing me in my proper spot on the spectrum based on my obvious opinions and positions on our current form of government, or Over Governed-ment.

    I think the problem I see with Technocrats is that for the most part, especially in this country, they are appointed and governed by polticians. We all know that politicians are "supposed" to be representative for their constituents, but by in large their "first priority" always seems to be "self-preservation" at whatever cost that might be to their constituents. Therein lies the problem or in a much greater sense the PROBLEMS.

    What we are seeing in this country is an increasing number of politicians who are running up huge government debt in order to "appeal" to their voting base in order to garner their favor at the polls during the next election. They have ceased to be represent what is best for the country, but what is best for themselves. Entitlement + Entitlement + Entilement = DEBT + DEBT + DEBT. That formula is so easy "Even a caveman can understand it."

    Government is like an agressive cancer, even in a benign state that will eventually kills the patient, or the citizens it seeks to protect. The only way that I see for us to get this cancerous growth under control is to take the need away for politicians to constantly be focused on "Re-election" and refocus their efforts on "Good Governance" and maybe let a Technocrat run the day to day business. TERM LIMITS could accomplish this and bring this country back to something like what the Founding Fathers had envisioned, a Government run by citizens that were performing a service to their country for a "short" period of time and then returning back to their former lives, not "Career Politicians" with all the benefits and perks as we have today. I long for this to happen, but getting those in office to basically vote for legislation that will take them out of office is a tall order. It will take men of courage and honor and an electorate that insists on this happening. Undoing this apathetic, poltically correct, and entitlement mentality populus will be that tall order.

    Speaking of a tall order, put my serving of Vegetables on some hand tossed crust with pepperoni, mushrooms, red onions, bell peppers, and black olives. Carry-out please. Non Sibi!!

  2. Thanks for the high compliment, Ken. You have confirmed that I am achieving my objective. I always endeavor to create a perspective that doesn't align with either political party.

    The main thrust here is that voters pick their "social contract". In the US, an entrepreneurial culture, we choose low taxes and less government compared to Europe. That doesn't make it better or worse. Just different.

    If the voters of Sweden, Germany or the Netherlands choose to forgo some economic growth in favor of government provided programs, that is their choice. Those three governments (and the voters who put them there) have also chosen a balanced budget. The US has not.

    It is not the form of social contract that got the EU in trouble. It is government debt. Despite our different social contract, it threatens to get us in the same trouble albeit a few years down the road.

    If we do nothing (as it seems we are), the entire Federal budget will go to paying interest on the debt by the end of this decade.