Making Things Work

Whether one looks to the domestic or the international arena, it appears that little is working these days. Three issues I have been following:

1. The Affordable Care Act (formerly known as Obamacare): The difficulties in the ACA roll out persist and the circular firing squad continues to take aim at the guilty parties. Megan McArdle  adds a new dimension with her piece on “the illusion of omnicompetence” and Healthcare.gov. A fine quote:

The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. Neither group produces many folks who can consistently generate readable, engaging writing on a deadline. And none of us would be able to win a campaign for Congress. Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well. It’s the illusion of omnicompetence, and in the case of HealthCare.gov, it seems to have been nearly fatal.

There are some useful lessons here on the limits of technocracy and planning more generally.

2. Our exit from Afghanistan: As the proud father of a Marine, I have particular interest in this story. I find it interesting that President Karzai is making more demands before accepting a long-term security arrangement. Absent an agreement, the US exits Afghanistan in 2014 with predictable results (you will likely get the same result regardless of when you exit). I am at a loss to understand (1) what makes Karzi believe he has a strong bargaining position, and (2) why we are not exiting Afghanistan immediately (other than the obvious: no president wants another “evacuation of Saigon” as part of his legacy).

3. Climate Change: If the negotiations over Afghanistan sound complicated, they pale in comparison to the attempts to find a path forward on climate change post-Kyoto. The 19th Conference of the Parties meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw generated little. As Alex Brown notes:

United Nations climate talks ended Saturday with a last-ditch agreement to set a timetable in the future to make goals that will hopefully one day comprise part of a future pact on climate change.

I can’t imagine that the 20th Conference of the Parties (next December in Peru) will resolve things.  Given the diversity of interests, the distribution of costs and benefits, the lack of powerful institutions, and the complexity of the underlying science, perhaps the best we can hope for is cooperation in adapting to a changing environment.

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