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The Citizen

Policy Outcomes and Political Dysfunction: An Interview with Matthew Yglesias

By Adrian Arroyo, Opinions Writer, MPP ‘13

Matthew Yglesias is a Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Harvard University. Matt has previously worked as an Associate Editor at The Atlantic, a Staff Writer at The American Prospect, and an Associate Editor at Talking Points Memo. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Guardian, Slate, The Washington Monthly, and other publications.

What do you think are some of the key mistakes that academics, media figures and practitioners (both wonks and legislators) make when thinking about policy?

The biggest mistake that I think you see across these different types of people is a failure to take an adequately comparative perspective. The United States is a very large and insular country, so people can get away with all kinds of assertions about America that don’t ask the question “compared to what.” When you do see reference to foreign countries, you often get a lot of lazy generalizations. This really struck me during arguments about the filibuster back in 2010 when nobody would point to some specific example of a democracy going astray with majority-rules voting for its legislature, but would nonetheless persist in acting like this was some radical suggestion. But the problem crops up all the time in diverse contexts. Matthew Yglesias

You’ve written a great deal about the importance of institutions and rules in determining policy outcomes. Is there anything young people interested in a career in policy can do to shape the institutions they join?

Absolutely. I think the biggest thing is that you need to keep a lifeline to an outside perspective. One of the biggest problems we have is that people who spend enough time in a given institution tend to come to love its quirks, whatever they are. So veteran Senate staffers are instinctively resistant to ideas that would make the Senate less distinctive. Newspaper reporters are inclined to valorize whatever particular habits are common to American newspapers. Everyone always has to ask themselves, “Does this make sense? Do other people do it this way? What’s the reason this practice arose?”

You’ve also devoted space to the dysfunction that plagues our political institutions. In your view, what’s the “thing,” if any, that moves us from dysfunction to function, given established political trends?

We happen to be governed right now by a cohort of people who’s too young to have really lived with the evils of American apartheid but old enough to have experienced the still-unpolarized congresses of the 1970s and 80s and they spend a lot of time focusing on personalities and nostalgia for the less polarized era. But today’s elected officials aren’t worse people than the elected officials of 1983; it’s just a different time. We’ve known since James Madison that we can’t count on being governed by angels. What we need are institutions that function given the objective incentives facing normal people. That means, in the current context, empowering elected majorities to govern since the electorate will hold them accountable for results.

Given the power of incumbency, cohort replacement seems like a surprisingly long-term process for addressing the dysfunction that’s exacerbating problems in the here and now. So my impression is that “empowering elected majorities” has to be doing a lot of the work in the short term. Could you explain how that happens in an institution like the senate, where that sort of reform isn’t in the interest of any given senator? 

In the Senate, the whole “problem” such as it is, is precisely that our more ideological parties make Senators less likely to put their personal interests ahead of party interests. In the days of yoke, President Obama would have cut a deal to provide free health insurance to lobstermen into the health care bill, Senators Collins & Snowe would have voted for it, and another couple dozen GOP Senators would be kicking themselves over not cutting a deal when they had the chance. That kind of brokerage model of legislation was the American Way for a long time, and while it had a lot of problems it was also a way to make our institutions work. I’m pretty confident that we won’t see a re-run of 2009 where a party wins huge majorities and then lets itself be stymied by the minority. If Rick Perry sweeps into office with 53% of the vote and a new Senate majority, he’s either going to do everything through reconciliation or else find a way to curb obstruction tactics.

It seems like you’re arguing that governing cohorts are always fighting the last war. During our childhood it was the cultural schisms of the 1960s and now it’s the inflation/labor flashpoints of the 1970s and 80s. But why should we expect that the next governing cohort will be any better than the last in that regard? When the Millennials run the show, won’t we simply have shifted the nostalgic frame?

One does tend to fight the last war. But you can make progress this way. Overall, things are much better than they were 50 years ago and I think we’ll keep improving.

You seem to favor an institution-building approach to progressive change rather than an agent-based one. Why? What does that look like? Can those institutions ever be as “real” for their members as something like a church group or a union?

I think we see flashes of real institution building at a society level from time to time. You saw it with Howard Dean’s “Meetups” and with the throngs of people who turned out to Barack Obama’s early rallies. The problem is that both of those were sort of built around one man, so they melted away after elections. But I do think people are learning here, especially after Obama won, that while elections and elected officials are crucial to politics, political movements need leaders and icons that aren’t subject to the day-to-day constraints of politics.

You’ve also urged progressive activists to engage on important issues that are somewhat obscure, like monetary policy. Beyond monetary policy, what issues fit the bill?

Activism on monetary policy could look like activism on anything else. The whole idea of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau went from zero to sixty on the activist radar in a remarkably short period of time. What was needed was a compelling idea, a good spokeswoman, and some people who were smart about activist organizing to decide they liked her idea. Beyond monetary policy the other big issue I think people need to elevate is the management of our scarce developed urban spaces. The problems of traffic jams and affordable housing are things we can solve if we’re willing to price and regulate land in sensible ways.

In your view, what are some skills essential for operating in a policy context that are neglected by major policy programs?

I’ve never been a student in a major policy program so I don’t really know what’s being neglected. I do get the sense, however, that people in the policy realm sometimes overstate the role of policy in causing or solving certain problems. Oftentimes the real issue is simply a lack of knowledge, either in the sense that *nobody* knows how to do something right or else that the broad public is confused about something that relevant experts know. In America, everyone knows not to feed your kid raw chicken but most people don’t seem to understand that the death risks from automobile accidents are much higher than from urban crime. That makes a big difference to a lot of aspects of American life, but I’m not sure it’s really explained by the presence or absence of a “policy initiative.”