Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


©2009, UrbisMedia

©2009, UrbisMedia

Barack Obama on 60 Minutes told us that he wants to fix the country, that he will take actions to do so and, if it they don’t work, he will find policies that do work. That assertion sounded innocuous enough, and politically apposite. But it touched a different nerve with me because it relates to a subject that I taught for over thirty years in a graduate seminar in Planning Theory. To students who took than seminar, our president-elect would have sounded like a “disjointed incrementalist.”

OK, stifle that yawn for a moment longer; I’m not hauling out some old lecture notes to unload on you. What I want to address, is what kind of philosophy of policy is Obama going to pursue, because I am getting some different messages from the guy I voted for when he says things like he did on 60 Minutes. Now, admittedly, Obama wasn’t all that specific about most of his policy positions during the primaries or the campaign. It’s not a good idea to get too specific and get himself pinned down. But he tended to sound like a man with vision, with a sense of direction for the changes he was calling for. In my terminology, I pegged him as a “rationalist,” a guy who went with facts and information, who tested policy ideas against prevailing theories. (I don’t think he will go consulting Rev. White) He sounded enough this way to give conservatives the idea that they could start calling him a socialist who would be leading us toward some soviet-style government that taxed us for the very air we breathe.

So his sounding like an “incrementalist” caught my attention. Was it a response to the socialist charge? An attempt to defuse it? Because it is conservatives who tend to be incrementalists, because “incrementalism” is a conservative way of approaching policy and problem solving. By that I mean that incrementalism means taking small, short-term, careful steps towards policy, not bold and comprehensive approaches that are rooted in broad, long-term solutions. Sometimes this is called the “science” of “muddling through.” Conservative, supply-side, economists would argue that it is preferable to allow the market, or consumer preferences, to work these things out.

Incrementalists tend to distrust comprehensive theories and models. Not only do such theories remind them of threatening notions such as those proposed by Mr. Marx ad Mr. Engles, but conservatives argue that there is not enough “information” (as they do for example about global warming) upon which to base broad, long-term decisions upon them. Hence, they would recommend to try something small, treating an aspect of the problem (like bio-fuels).

There is an oft-quoted saying of Daniel Burnham, the architect in charge of the great Chicago World’s Fair at the end of the 19th Century. Burnham said: “Make no little plans, they have not the power to stir men’s blood.” The Senator from Chicago cum President Elect spoke ceaselessly of the need for change, but was that change to consist of a myriad of disconnected alterations and about faces in different dimensions of public policy? Or, was it suggestive of a notion that he has in mind the re-constitution of the institutional infrastructure of America; a restructuring of the interrelationships of those institutions—education, work, health, commerce, art, foreign affairs, security, urbanism and environment, and governance—that would be viewed holistically and as potentially reciprocally synergistic. (Yeah, I know, that sounds like that liberal dreamer speak to any conservatives out there.) But what I am suggesting here is that incrementalism tends to view things in parts, not systemically. That is why we don’t get proper attention from them on issues such as global warming, which they tend to see as a cycle rather than, as scientists are telling us, is leaning toward systemic breakdown.

What would a comprehensive, systemic perspective mean? Well, first a re-constitution of what these days we pejoratively call the bureaucracy to perform an intelligence function rather than a self-preserving servant of the interests of K Street and the preservation of the power of the party in power. The intelligence function might also require the purging of some of the strictly political appointees who have been placed in the bureaus over the past eight years whose roles have been the manufacture and management of “intelligence.” This will take time and diligence, but it is absolutely necessary. One need not recount the malfeasances of the CIA (WMD intel), FBI (botched domestic security), and Justice departments (waterboarding), the rendering of facts in the Departments of Interior and others, or the placement of school cronies or department head’s who publicly professed “gut feelings” as a basis for decisions, to indicate the gravity of the need. This is not to say that decisions can be made without political dimensions—any decision is a choice, and choosing is an intrinsically political (although not necessarily ideological) act—but the substantive merits of the decision cannot be irrational (that is, counterfactual).

The purpose of the intelligence function of governmental bureaus is prediction and analysis (some have executive functions) without which there is little capability to steer the ship of state toward it goals.

But it is the goals of an administration that are the chief difference that separates rational-comprehensivists and incrementalists. The former tend to hold to the notion that there is ageneral public interest, a commonweal, that can be the beacon to guide the policies of the state. Incrementalists, on the other hand, see society as composed of many different, and competing, interests, often irreconcilable with one another, and that there exists no general public interest. Hence, a rationalist might argue that a national health care program is in the interest of all because say, the eradication of communicable diseases would be an obvious benefit, whereas the incrementalist might argue against having to share the cost of a national program with people who cannot pay their share of it, or who do not attend to their own good health. Moreover, since most policy choices have ideological dimensions, such choices often raise concerns that policies aimed toward the enhancement of a general welfare are inherently socialistic. We witness just such charges in the recent presidential campaigns in which Obama’s notions for medical care as well as his tax policies were characterized by his opposition as socialism. Ironically, even when Obama employed the phraseology “share the wealth of the nation” as an argument for the redistributive aspect of his proposed tax policy, that very benign phrase was called “playing Robin Hood” and socialism.

But there is a second aspect of the importance of goals, what might be called the visionarydimension of setting of goals. Vision must be a combination of the realities revealed by the prognostic aspects of the intelligence function, but also the realistic picture of where we need and want to go, and what can be realistically achieved. That vision should be consonant with the stated principles of the nation as specified in its Constitution and Bill of Rights. We can see just how far we have drifted from any such vision in the recent administration. Vision must involve the integrative and synergistic aspects of policy formulation. This is where the rational-comprehensivists greatly deviate from the incrementalists. For example, educational policies need to considered in terms of projections of a future work force determined by need and international competition, and by research and development needs. A future work force with enhanced prospects also intersects with aspects of health policy, housing, and environmental concerns. Thus, approaching substantive policy areas not as discreet, case by case, issues, but at intersecting and even reciprocal needs and concerns, requires an executive have a peripheral policy vision—the way a good basketball player sees “the whole court”— and leadership that can both express these in terms of sound policy frameworks, but also communicable national goals. It is important here to emphasize that I am not talking about a strictly management enterprise—management is not vision.

So, what has this to do with Obama? Well, his campaign was run on a rhetoric of change, not just change from the status quo, which was (and is) regarded as miserable by four-fifths of the American public, but with the implication of soothing proactive, something with the suggestion of a vision. Two questions have been building. One is whether he will begin to put together a comprehensive vision of the future direction for the country, whether he even has one. The second is whether he will even be able to articulate such a vision through the haze of the smoke and ruins of the Bush legacy, a legacy that is tantamount to a scorched earth policy.

I see Obama as poised between the polarities of rational-comprehensive and disjointed-incrementalist modalities of policy formulation. It is the latter that will have the greatest gravity because we have become inured to it and because there are salient and most insistent matters demanding attention. Deconstructing the Bush debacle piece by piece might be necessary, but not sufficient to affect the change inspired by the Obama campaign. Not Bush is an attitude, but not a policy. Bush crippled our country, but he did not kill it off. The politics game is all that much like basketball, but it needs a quick point guard to change the approach and tempo of the game, somebody who “see the whole floor.” If you watch how this guy plays basketball, you will notice at once his ability, as we say, to “go to his left.”

Now, how well can the O-Man go to his Left when it really counts?
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.7.2009)