May 24, 2003

Politics and Policy

Christie Todd-Whitman resigned last week from her position as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. I was surprised she didn't resign the first time that the rug was pulled out from under her in the first weeks of her tenure. She was in the middle of a lot of scraps, but I always felt that she worked to advance her agencies missions by constructing the best policies possible based on what we know about interactions between humans and the environment. This often means moving away from a problem rather than solving it outright. She did some things I didn't agree with, but given the current administrations complete lack of understanding of the value of a healthy environment, I think she as good a job as possibly could have been done. I admire the fact that she didn't throw in the towel on many of the occasions when she was blind sided.

This is in the context of a distinction between means and ends. Whitman kept the common good that her agency was charged with in mind as she worked the politics of advancing her agency's mission. I thinks this sets her apart from much of the maneuvering that goes on in our government today. It is not clear that politics has not become the ends rather than the means.

Begin Aside
A lot of the following comes from conversations I have been having with David Gilbert-Keith.
End Aside

I read a more recent article by Lindblom this week. He continues to think that incrementalism is basically a good idea, but he is a bit more concerned about how common good is protected in the policy process. He sketches a scenario of tension among competing groups as a means to seek common ground and as a platform for developing policy. The problem comes when one group gains an overwhelming majority (the tyranny of the majority). I read an article in The New Yorker that follows this theme in the context of a discussion of Karl Rove; it seems that some of The Federalist Papers were also concerned with balancing the influence of "interests."

My question / concern is "How do we design policy processes that avoid tyrannies of interests?" As a member of an elite, it is not hard for me to entertain the value of a technocracy. As a liberal intellectual, I wonder how my far my ideas of societal good should be pressed in a highly heterogeneous society. We can no longer solve problems of difference by moving the frontier a little further west. We have reached the edges and are now filling in.

If we are going to be successful at managing Earth systems, then we will have to find ways to make trade-offs among competing interests. In building the necessary processes we will need to be careful the ends remain a healthy planet and that they don't contract to focus on strengthening the political power of "interests."