Comment deleted
Expand full comment

In a nutshell, vetocracy derives from the fear of majority rule. People tend to think that relying on majority rule will mean a constant oppression of a specific minority by a specific majority. But people are different in numerous dimensions, there are no fixed majorities. This gives rise to a kind of consensual government that both protects all sorts of minorities - because everyone is a minority in some dimension - but also is capable to move ahead decisively when it really benefits the common good. Read Anthony Mcgann.

Expand full comment

“ Third, if the government can't do anything, why aren't we a libertarian paradise?”

This theme is part of the destructive libertarian propaganda.

Expand full comment

This seems like one of those times where it's worth insisting on a non-US centric perspective. Plenty of countries don't have anything like the same number of veto points the US has, and do absolutely fine.

Expand full comment

The “why now?” question seems like it could be related to a wealthier society having more money and luxury to spend towards activism, political engagement, etc. most of which just creates more veto points and is a net loss. Moreover, government can afford to do more things, which in practice end up being more veto points. My impression is that we didn’t get bad at building things and large scale project in the last 20 years, it’s been a multi-decade stagnation after the post WWII boom.

Expand full comment

The common underlying cause to polarization and vetocracy here is that we're becoming a lower-trust society, I think. That clearly creates polarization (because siege mentality), and also creates vetocracy (the less you trust the generic group of other people, the higher the odds that a random project of theirs will actually be bad for you, and the more veto power you want over it).

And the second issue you raise at the end - that eliminating vetocracy may actually enable bad things - is also a consequence here, because lower-trust societies are generally not just less trusting, but also less trustworthy, so to a large degree the reduced level of trust is actually rational. The ideal solution would be to increase trust, but that's a Hard Problem.

Expand full comment

One explanation: vetocracy entrenches the status quo. There are always powerful elements within the status quo who fight to keep it intact. As the hegemonic corporate and governmental forces in the US become stronger, so too do their efforts to keep the status quo in place. They sometimes claim to do this in the name of preventing bad things, but in reality, they want to prevent new things.

This seems simpler than assuming it's an unintended consequence of actually trying to protect vulnerable people. After all, the powerless lack power; the powerful do not. It's usually a better bet to think that the powerful have had greater influence in bringing about a particular state of affairs, especially when that state of affairs keeps them in power.

Expand full comment

“ Everybody heard about the Obama administration's supposedly-bad decision to fund Solyndra.”

The government didn’t fund Solyndra. Solyndra in 2009 was part of a $40B DOE loan guarantee program.


Expand full comment

"Still, isn't it kind of contradictory to say the government can't do anything, and then blame regulations? Shouldn't this be a self-limiting problem?"

Most regulations originate from authority delegated to independent agencies such as the FDA, FCC, FTC, etc, etc, etc... They often have a lot of latitude to say "you can't do X" in their area of influence, but they can't appropriate funds and start a big infrastructure project without new legislation.

Expand full comment

> Still, isn't it kind of contradictory to say the government can't do anything, and then blame regulations? Shouldn't this be a self-limiting problem? Don't we eventually reach the point where the government can't implement more regulations on itself, and then disappears in a puff of logic?

No, right? Surely any theory of how regulations slow things down hinges on accretion. If the government can't navigate the N regulations it's already passed in order to pass the N+1th... the first N are still there!

Expand full comment

If even the private sector is experiencing this issue, wouldn't that point to the veto ratchet theory? It seems that in say 1850, a large public works project that displaced hundreds of people in a poor neighborhood would be a lot easier to pull off than now, and not just because of political will. Or maybe the only reason it would get noticed is that there's a party big enough that will take notice and try to stop it?

And as you mentioned, I'm not sure polarization and vetocracy are exactly the same. It might be that polarization leads to vetocracy, if for no other reason than to stymie the other side, but it's very easy to imagine a stuck system even with sides that get along. Klein talks about there being stagnation for the 20 years he's covered Congress, but it seems that polarization wasn't nearly as bad then as it is now.

Expand full comment

"The US could be building our way out of the housing crisis and the climate crisis. We could be building a better education system, more advanced infrastructure. We could have more and better factories, supersonic aircraft, delivery drones, flying cars [...]"

I love this blog. But if it has one weak point it's economics. First of all, you can't start with the premise that having the government "build stuff" is better than not. You have to figure out why the marginal benefit is supposedly worth the marginal cost before you bemoan the lack of spending. A tip-off to this sloppy thinking is the sloppy use of language in talking about "building" a better "education system" as if that was a form of lasting infrastructure and not money down a rathole of special interests like teachers unions. Once Klein can make a case that "more government stuff" is a good thig we can talk about whether it's a bad thing that we don't have "more government stuff." But Klein is completely ignorant of economics. He is just a stopped-clock on the left who takes it as an article of faith that more government spending is always a good idea.

Klein apparently wants more stuff like the latest NYC subway expansion, which is surely a bargain at a mere $2.5-3.7 Billion per mile.

https://www.marketplace.org/2019/04/11/subways-us-expensive-cost-comparison/ Or California's $80-billion "high-speed" rail that may someday travel almost as fast as a car between downtown Modesto and Fresno. https://reason.com/2020/06/23/even-the-coronavirus-might-not-be-able-to-kill-californias-bullet-train-boondoggle/

Where was the vetocracy when we needed it for those projects?

Expand full comment

If it's preventing things I like, it's vetocracy. If it's preventing things I don't like, it's a healthy system of checks and balances.

Don't blame me, I don't make the rules.

Expand full comment

I think this (and many of the broader challenges) derive from the reality that our society is now so incredibly rich, we have no urgency or really any need to do anything effectively, because even if we are incredibly inefficient and suboptimal, we are still "rich" enough. If somehow our GDP were to be cut by a third - and our decisions/systems started to actually matter, I suspect we would be much more effective at dealing with these issues.

Expand full comment

> the post office still needs to deliver the same amount of mail

The post office *hasn't* needed to deliver the same amount of mail, though - historically, the number was always rising as the population grew, more recently it's plummeted thanks to email and the widespread adoption of the internet in general.

Also, the post office was always this weird branch of semi-privatized government that combined the worst aspects of privatization (required to remain revenue-neutral, no tax dollars for funding) and government (having to answer to the whims of Congress), so again, not really the best example of why the government needs to consume more GDP.

Expand full comment

This seems like it's at least in part a problem of how our institutions have scaled. We just have a lot more people than we used to, but at the same time, our institutions haven't scaled up to meet the challenges of that increased population. We have processes and procedures that make greatly amplify the voice and power of small groups of people, and those have not scaled up as well.

The NRA has a budget of $412 million and 5.5 million member, which sounds like a lot, but really doesn't amount to much when compared to the majority (66% in one poll, 75% in another) of Americans who favor gun control. If we take the lower number, 66%, that's around 240 million people. Yet somehow the NRA, with just $412M and 5.5M people, is able to hugely influence the country's gun laws.

But this isn't just a left/right thing. We could find many other examples of small groups of people exercising extremely high political leverage. Polls in the Bay Area show a clear majority favor building more housing, yet the NIMBYs seem to be winning.

Of course, the very forces that have led to this situation make it hard to fix. Any attempt to reduce the power that minority groups exercise is an existential threat to those minority groups. And of course, there is a very legitimate concern that a system which _doesn't_ have these sorts of safeguards _will_ disregard the well-being of minority groups.

Sorry, I don't have any good solutions.

Expand full comment

Rather than removing veto points, since it's hard to know what is a safe trade-off, how about structuring them (or more of them) so they can be used at a finite rate? E.g. each caucus in Congress gets a fixed number of filibusters per term. Some veto points would be difficult to do this with -- e.g. judicial review of laws -- but where implemented it would force prioritization of vetos without eliminating them.

Expand full comment

There's a much simpler explanation for the rise of vetocracy, especially for local issues: the relevant people already have what they need, so they see no need to build more. That's the reason for the fall of supersonic aircraft -- it's not worth annoying millions of people with a sonic boom every time a businessman wants to save one hour going from NY to LA.

Decades ago when waves of middle-class families moved to the suburbs, huge highway networks were built so they could commute. So logically, there is no energy now to build good public transport for commutes; the people who would use it already have cars. But that doesn't mean that we've forgotten how to build things! When the MacArthur Maze collapsed in 2007, making lots of Bay Area commutes impossible, it was fixed under budget and in record time. The reason California can't build high speed rail but can repair the MacArthur Maze is that important people would have been fired if the Maze wasn't repaired quickly, while nobody is going to be fired if high speed rail takes another 50 years, because nobody is organizing their life around needing high speed rail.

The same dynamic explains most of the other examples. For instance, the state of public schools in large cities. There isn't going to be pressure at the top to fix them, because everybody in the upper-middle class there already has their kids in private school. That's why many private schools in the US are open now, while most public schools are closed. The same dynamic goes on with police versus private security in gated communities, the post office versus UPS, and public defenders versus lawyers. Once an alternative forms, and those that can afford it move over, the public option just decays away. Unfortunately, I've never heard of an example of this process reversing itself.

Expand full comment

At least with the private sector, an alternative to regulation would be liability through lawsuits: make people pay if, and only if, they cause actual harm. You could have punitive multipliers for those who fail to follow best practices in safety standards and some protection for those who actually do.

Seems that regulation is lot like enforcing pre-crime in Minority Report. If punitive measures were only focused on actual harm, not potential harm, then people could take calculated risks and much more would get done.

Expand full comment

On a slightly tangential note, the late Roman Republic was absolutely a vetocracy. Reading about it, I was blown away by just how many officials had veto power. Imagine if the US Senate tried to pass a law and the Mayor of DC vetoed it. That's approximately what the Roman Republic was like. Part of what made Caesar so popular is that there was a huge backlog of popular policy changes that virtually everyone knew were necessary but couldn't get past someone's veto.

Expand full comment

One reason we "can't build stuff" (or, perhaps, just another way to say the same thing) is that "building stuff" is too expensive. It's not a secret at this point that construction costs are much, much higher in the US than elsewhere in the First World. It shouldn't be a secret, either, that construction costs were much cheaper here in the relatively recent past.

Consider an example from DC. The NoMa Metro station was completed in 2004 at a final construction cost of $104 million, or $137 million in 2018 dollars. By comparison, the Potomac Yards station budget was revised upward in April 2018 from $268 million to $320 million. I am unfamiliar with the details of either project (and I suspect that construction in Virginia away from an already-finished neighborhood would be easier), but it is inconceivable to me that in just 14 years, the cost of a comparable project can more than double in inflation-adjusted terms.

At my own employer, a large urban water utility, the cost of replacing water pipes has become so prohibitive (and there are so many other construction cost pressures) that we barely do it despite explicitly promising the public that we will. On a per-mile basis, costs have jumped from the $10 million-or-so range to upwards of $50 million or even more.

The vetocracy is one potential cause, and an important one. One project I am familiar with (urgently demanded by the public it would serve, and where the need was widely-recognized!) took 10 years to go from design to construction as various permits were applied for and reviews were conducted. But I think it's only one item on a long list of candidates. The NYT pointed their finger (in late 2017 or 18) in an article about the 2nd Ave Subway at a negative-feedback loop between politicians who like more jobs and don't care about efficiency and unions who like having more members and don't care about efficiency. I've seen explanations that include things like US safety regulations (way more rulebound and stupid than Europe's), the Americans with Disabilities Act (check out South American transit infrastructure for wheelchair accessibility), more middlemen and markups, environmental rules, allocation of financial risk, free public health insurance elsewhere, actual corruption, hidden inflation due to monetary policy, fewer illegal immigrants making labor more expensive, and others.

My own suspicion is that a CYA mindset and lack of competence has ruined the engineering profession in this country. Spec documents are enormous, byzantine, and require a huge amount of effort and expense to even write bids for. Why? Because someone got screwed by some shady contractor at some point in the past. The response wasn't to find better contractors that can be trusted, it was to add cruft to the system. Ultimately, only enormous firms that can afford the initial outlay can bid, and they make it all back in the cost of construction (since all bidders include that cost in their bids, even a fair, corruption-free competition doesn't help). Plus, our engineers tend to suck, lacking experience at actually building things and lacking the ability to detect bullshit from bidders, designers, construction managers, etc.

Even those who decry how much gets paid for this stuff don't seem to be able to fix the system and clean house.

Expand full comment

"First, is vetocracy the same as polarization? ... I'm not sure how Klein thinks of this. " Klein has clarified the difference and the interaction in a number of interviews I've heard. The idea is basically what how you put it - "vote points + polarization = gridlock" - and the prime example is indeed the filibuster.

"And a lot NIMBYism is unrelated to the Democrat/Republican divide." It's true that people's diverse identities have been subsumed into their national political identities, which have in turn polarized. This has affected state politics as well. But local land use is the one area where this hasn't happened, because it's where people have actual skin in the game, and their self-interest overrides national narratives. Witness "pro-climate" New York liberals opposing grid-scale solar farms being built near their second homes in the Hudson Valley. Everybody's a libertarian until the neighbor wants to build something you don't like.

"Second, why is this happening?" Tyler Cowen's book the Complacent Class gives a cultural argument for this: people across the political spectrum have become more averse to change, so we get stagnation because that's what people want.

Expand full comment

Whoever else we blame for "vetocracy", I doubt it can be Robert Moses or his opponents-- at least not directly. The backlash against Moses was mostly in the 60's AFAICT, and this data suggests subway costs at least (one commonly cited kind of infrastructure that's gotten harder to build) had their biggest increases pre-1940 and post-1988.


Expand full comment

Fundamentally there really isn’t a mechanism to decrease the size of civic bureaucracy. As an example, unincorporated communities within a county can become a city but I’ve never heard of cities merging or self abolishing. The same goes for government agencies who are structurally incentivized to grow their rice bowl (budget). Perhaps institutions need term limits or expiration dates.

As an aside, I don’t agree with the idea that corporate governance suffers from too much oversight. Corporate Governance trends generally follow the business cycle with frothy times leading to dual class shares and other insanely favorable mechanisms for management.

Expand full comment

“Third, if the government can't do anything, why aren't we a libertarian paradise?”

One of the things Reason likes to harp on is that an increasing piece of the budget is non-discretionary and spent automatically, i.e. the vetocracy prevents us from spending less

Expand full comment

Perhaps, people are increasingly disconnected from how anything actually gets done, or made, or built. Many of my former classmates hold jobs where they don't come into contact with anyone who directly does anything. I have one where I do, but I specifically sought it out. Water utilities, power utilities, etc often have to do public education campaigns just to remind people that they exist, show them how they work, and inform them that those resources don't appear by magic.

Perhaps we take for granted that material goods will be plentiful and cheap, and that any one barrier placed in one person's or company's way will be overcome - and when those goods do become unavailable, the blame is put on vast impersonal forces ("systemic racism causes food deserts"; "housing is a human right") when simple economics (as warped by government interventions or otherwise) are more likely the cause.

Expand full comment

I don’t really see why you struggle to square a big, sclerotic government with a lack of proactive policymaking / ‘building’. Historically, that’s a common combination. By the 80s, the Soviet State was simultaneously big and useless. Given we have plenty of other real-life examples, we shouldnt really focus on how it works abstractly, although, just for the record, the abstract answer is just as easy: making and enforcing rules is a lot easier than creating what the rules regulate. The rest is just a mixture of rent seeking and status quo bias.

Expand full comment

This doesn't answer the "why now?" question, but an intermediate answer as to "why the veto points" is that we're simply a lot less callous* than people were up through about the early '70s. They wanted to build this stuff more than we do.

I'm going to confine my comments to infrastructure, because I am most familiar with it. But what you see is that we want other stuff more than we want to build infrastructure. In earlier generations, they wanted the infrastructure.

Any time you put a conditional on a project, you are implicitly saying you want that condition more than you want the project. The simplest one everybody is familiar with is cost: you generally have a maximum amount you're willing to spend, and if the project costs over that, well, you don't build. But this applies to other things.

If you say, "We want high-speed rail, but we don't want to displace people to do it" you're saying "We want to avoid displacing people more than we want high-speed rail." The previous generation that built stuff may have had a vague wish to not displace people, but when push came to shove and it turns out that efficient highway routing meant somebody was going to get displaced, well, pick the cheapest land (i.e., poor neighborhood) and push it flat. But if you can't satisfy the conditional statement, ehhh, if you're smart you say "we can't do this because the problem is overconstrained" but since admitting we can't build high-speed rail under these conditions is politically unacceptable, we flail around for decades trying to find an answer.

Not only do we not want to displace people (rich people because we have to buy the land at fair-market value which blows up the costs of the project and poor people because that has racial implications), but we've got a laundry list of other things as well. The combination of these mean that there is no solution that can provide the infrastructure and satisfy these demands. I cannot emphasize how much easier it was for previous engineers, who cut this Gordian Knot by simply not worrying about it.

As a less theoretical example, I'll talk about something from my job. Because I don't want to get fired, I'm going to mix things up to avoid identifying specifics, but I'll ask you to believe that what I'm saying is at least "truthy" if not the exact sequence of events.

I have a project where we've been tasked to pass juvenile fish around a dam so they can go to the ocean to spawn. However, this dam actually *had* a system, that was built into the dam when it was constructed, which was early 50's to mid-60s. However (×2), the system...didn't work. Fish mortality was very high, and other issues meant that even what few adults made it weren't returning. The answer at the time was to abandon the system in place.

Now, looking over documents and the original design, I believe that this system was a relatively good-faith effort to provide this passage. When I first saw it (with little experience in fish passage systems) I had to have somebody explain to me *why* it didn't work, because it seemed like it should to my little structural engineer brain. But, and this is the point of my rambling post, when it *didn't* work, they didn't desperately try to figure out how to make it work, or start on a new system that might have worked, they said, "Well, I guess we tried," threw in the bulkheads, turned around, walked away, and agreed to never speak of this again. Then three generations later a court told the Executive Branch that we needed to figure out how to make it work, and we've not come up with an answer that won't cost in the low 9 figures, because it turns out it's *really hard*.

So that was their decision matrix: Try to pass fish, and if it doesn't work, fuck it. I want to emphasize that this is a fundamental value difference! If you had told them that they shouldn't build the dam because it will cause a dramatic reduction in fish populations, they would have looked at you like you had a dick growing out of your forehead. That just...wouldn't have mattered to them. They weren't going around hating the fish, they just didn't think there was a value there that justified the loss of flood control that halting the project would have represented. They wouldn't have minded if their system *did* work, and would have been proud if it did, but it's proper functioning wasn't a *requirement*, either.

* "Callousness" may not be exactly the right word, but my vocabulary is failing me ATM.

Expand full comment

The solution is to create competition and allow institutions to fail. USG can create competing regulatory agencies that operate in different locations. (like state competition but more intense). This even solves the career suicide problem, since only that agency will fail and not others. (FDA2 vs FDA1 etc). Tax dollars only go to institutions that a person chooses which can be a mechanism for failure or something like that. A vibrant China could also kick start the USG back into power

Expand full comment

I'm surprised that neither Ezra Klein nor Scott have mentioned that perhaps the U.S. is just too big and diverse to have any sort of effective centralized plans that appeal to a large enough slice of the population. We trumpet our national space programs and considering the tiny budget of NASA as a % of the federal budget it is indeed pretty good and while there's no doubt that it does favor a few congressional districts it is also focused on something outside the US - namely, well, space. Any big project that seems to favor one state, city or district is immediately thought of as "pork" before any objective evaluation is made and perhaps in a country as big and diverse as this, we can't hope to achieve the use of objective criteria to evaluate projects that would benefit the "nation." Yes, DoD R&D (which consumes more than 40% of all federal R&D spending according to the Congressional Research Service) might also fall in this Focused Outside the US category but my own experience in DoD R&D suggests it has succumbed to far too much congressional 'steering' and less basic science. Hard to see this country getting behind any big future projects without an immediate existential threat creating urgency. Private R&D seems to be 'steering' most investments now and, of course, only if there's money to be made within the near-term. For example, it's hard to envision any transportation system that isn't reliant on expanding paved surfaces and moving single persons around in several thousand pound boxes even when it makes little sense objectively; there's just too much money invested in roads and road-dependent suburbs and we are tied to too much sunk-cost fallacy thinking. The ever increasing cost of just maintaining what we have - whether it's roads, social security, or the size of the military will continue to suppress any ability to create new things. We've gotten too big, too old, and too focused on 'what's mine.'

Expand full comment

Maybe I'm misreading. Is it fair or a straw man to call this an appeal to (slightly more) unchecked majoritarianism? I feel like the Federalist Papers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bryan Caplan have already staked pretty fertile ground here. Any proposal should at least mention why they were all wrong in passing.

I.e., would "fewer vetoes" really have been better under [politician you don't like]?

As anyone, I want the state to get more power to do things I like and less power to do the things I don't like. I like weird things though, so "more power in general" sounds orthogonal to that. Not opposed to my interests, per se, some good some bad. Just about perpendicular, plus or minus 10 degrees. So I'm honestly pretty ambivalent.

What if "more" or "less" power to do things just isn't the right dial to turn?

Like... If we're really worried about signal/noise ratio, say you have a staticky radio, maybe instead of debating which way to turn the volume... Why not turn the other dial?

How about...

Everything needs 70/100 votes, which is a nutty vetocracy. But wait! There are all these neat fun ways to earn extra credit.

- If you propose your policy run for 5 years as an RCT distributed across the various zip codes or whatever, and set metrics and targets, and if you meet those at the end of 5 years the policy expands, and if you miss the policy sunsets, then you get 10 free votes in favor.

- If your policy passes some conditional metric on prediction markets, you get 10 free votes in favor.

- If you like bipartisanship, then maybe if your policy gets at least 25 votes from at least two different parties, you get 10 free votes.

- If your legislation just names a post office or landmark or endorses a symbolic statement without actually changing anything, you get negative 10 votes.

- If some "group we like" endorses the legislation, it gets a few extra votes. Maybe this is a duly appointed panel of experts, or the CBO, or a group protecting the interests of some element of our society we like and support. To be honest, this one probably collapses under its potential for abuse. But it is something you could play with if you wanted to tilt things in favor of certain groups, much as the bicameral legislature currently does for states, or the Supreme Court does for, I don't know, elite lawyers obsessed with nuanced paradoxes in meta level rulemaking, or however you'd prefer to characterize them.)

Expand full comment

I feel like I see similar things in corporate structures. Fear from mistakes can hamstring you to the point of not taking on crazy projects that could have a really large upswing in payout. And it isn't like all fear is unwarranted. There are plenty of honestly bad ideas floated as projects all of the time. Thing is, some of them succeed for no real reason that was predictable ahead of time.

It is frustrating, as I want to tell folks to take those ridiculous ideas and run with them. But I also don't want to lie to anyone if their idea is likely going to fail. Nor do I want to let folks run down a road to failure if I don't know that they can recover from it.

To that end, is this something that grows into things? Another rehashing of startup versus establishment?

Expand full comment

You're quite focused on the doing more/doing less trade-off. I would view this problem in terms of *what* the government is able to do. Regulations - often in the form of telling companies "you can't do that" - look to me like they can be standing in the way of getting stuff (excluding bossing people around) done. See, for example, regulations standing in the way of covid tests and protective equipment early in the pandemic. On housing, the government is great at saying you can't build any higher there, you need to make an underground parking garage, etc.

Bottom line, I don't think that you have to be all or nothing. Making cumbersome regulations is one thing the government is good at. Procuring things (face masks) for the armed forces is something the government is bad at. No contradiction!

Expand full comment

The vetocracy does not just exist outside organizations. Organizations do a great job of killing projects internally long before they reach the public eye.

If your department becomes more efficient, you can look forward to a budget cut next year. If your department fails, you can blame circumstances outside your control (the economy, the weather, old infrastructure, whatever) and say that more money is needed to deal with those problems.

Time to hire replacement employees is measured in years. Someone's not doing a good job? The standard of comparison is: are they better than literally noone at all. And that's for management, where you have the option to fire someone! If they're union, there's no point in even considering it.

Promotions are extremely slow, because there is no growth. There's never a new division being created that you can promote the up-and-comer to go run. People are promoted when someone up the ladder retires. And at each rung, it's 3-5 candidates per, each time. Performance isn't irrelevant, but there's rarely enough to go around. Good people will stick around for ~5 years, realize they're going nowhere, and head to greener pastures.

Randomly, someone who sucks will impress an Important Leader. That person will then rocket up the org chart to some newly-created position with a newly-impressive salary. More than anything else, this kills the morale of the handful of actually effective employees being told to bide their time and pushes them out.

Management is always into the latest buzzwords and fads, but lacks the energy to truly embrace them and the force to implement them (nobody's going to get fired, and the long-timers know they're not getting promoted). As a result, management initiatives are frequent, but greeted with eyerolls and then ignored.

You can propose a good project with a strong ROI. Everybody will agree that it sounds like a great idea and would certainly help the organization reach its goals. It will then be met with the following objections: (1) we can't do it for legal reasons. (2) we don't have the money to build it now, even if it will pay off over time. (3) nobody here knows how to do it, and we aren't capable of hiring anyone. (4) if we did it, it would piss off someone important. (5) we can't do anything until we have considered every possible project and ranked them- if we did something other than the top priority first, that would be inefficient. (6) none of the people who we would hire to do this are women/minorities/veterans/whatever. (7) not all of the people who would benefit most from this are women/minorities/veterans/whatever. (8) if we built it, we couldn't operate it. (9) if we could operate it, we couldn't maintain it. (10) it's much too risky.

Expand full comment

This used to be easy. Stage a Civil War, a World War, a Great Depression, or something of that nature once or twice a generation. Something severe enough that the usual veto points are simply tossed out of the window and progress gets made. (Too bad about those innocent Japanese-Americans.)

But the last one of those ended before I was born, and I'm old enough to have adult children. Apollo and Vietnam were carefully kept from growing quite that drastic. Then Vietnam and Watergate led to such mistrust of government that removing veto points became 3x harder.

No, I don't have research to back this up.

Expand full comment

Re: “is vetocracy the same as polarization?”

The explanation I’ve heard from Klein on his podcast is that they reinforce each other. Vetocracy, where nothing is getting done, leaves politicians with less of substance to talk about, so that public discourse tends toward more and more symbolic— and polarizing—stuff. And the post already described the other direction, where polarization leads to the veto points being utilized more and more.

Expand full comment

In a way, it boils down to the technical definition of "veto" in the sense of *one* party being able to say no, instead of deciding by majority vote.

After WWII in Europe there was a strong need for unification, and while everyone agreed on principle, no state wanted to give up its veto power. The result were institutions like Council of Europe (don't confuse with European Council and Council of European Union - we are great at naming things here) which is like UN, but on European level, and very much like UN it can't do much, because of the veto.

The breakthrough came only with European Coal and Steel Community, where some of the member state sovereignty was deletegated to the organization and later on as voting with veto was being gradually replaced by deciding by qualified majority.

But, at the same time, there's still lot of power being exercised by member states (subsidiarity principle, council of ministers, veto is some areas) which prevents EU from becoming a superstate where a minority could be oppressed by the majority.

Another way to look at it is what Robinson & Acemoglu describe in their book "The Narrow Corridor". What they say is that we get "liberty" only if the power of state is in balance with the pover of society. (By society they mean all the sub-state interest groups such as NGOs, regions, trade unions, religious confessions, organized crime, you name it.)

If state is stronger that society what you get is China. Society can't do anything and CPC bulldozes it over whenever it wants. If society is stronger than state what you get is Democratic Republic of Congo. The state doesn't even control parts of its territory, much less the more subtle issues like taxation or public services. (Picture: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EJS1iUWWkAA-pQX.jpg)

Maybe it's stating the obvious, but in R&A view, the US is erring in the latter, not the former way.

In technical sense, I think, there are two mechanisms needed to keep the balance.

First, a mechanism to choose the solution in presence of disagreement. This could be majority voting in parliament, national referendums, as in Switzerland, or similar.

However, this should be only an incentive to engage in negotiaton and not to drag it on forever. Basically, a threat: If you can't negotiate a nice positive-sum solution, the matter will be decided by formal procedure and likely leave the both parties worse off.

Therefore, the second mechanism is needed: A dispute resolution procedure. A way to get the relevant interest groups to the negotiating table and a procedure to favorize those willing to agree on a compromise over those at the extremes. (An example of such depolarizing measure is collegiality principle: The deciding group is made of representatives of all parties, yet the group speaks with one voice. Once the decision is made, everybody must back it.)

Expand full comment

The traditional model for getting around this is rights, especially ones that smell like property rights.

Actual private property is the simple case. In libertopia Dr. Nozick has an unvetoable right to build a rollercoaster in his back yard. The blast radius is limited by the size of his yard (and more realistically, can common law ideas like nuisance).

Governments too had domains where they held rights. These domains did overlap a bit to give us checks and balances but the US Constitution lays out a fairly limited and legible amount of this.

The modern administrative state intrudes into private rights in detail. Government power also has been pushed down to a plethora of agencies each with the power to veto each other and the public.

More authoritarian countries have produced a relatively veti-proof administrative state.

Expand full comment

>"Well, you could decrease the number of veto points. But anyone who tried that would encounter two problems. First, it would be career suicide - when something bad inevitably happened, they would be on the hook for failing to prevent it - and no credit they got for all the cool things they were able to build would be able to save them."

You're being far too pessimistic here. There have been many modern examples of "veto" power being reduced or removed. The result, mainly, is that the general public is unaware of these arcane procedural details, and it bears little to no impact on the larger narratives of "success" or "failure".

A few to start with:

-Removal of the filibuster for Judicial nominees in 2013

-The increased use of "acting" cabinet appointments during the Trump admin

-The recent increased use of executive orders

-The introduction of reconciliation in the 1980s in order to circumvent the filibuster

Just to name a few off the top of my head. These all seem fine and good, with no public backlash (and little public awareness). We can reduce the vetocracy, so long as we have the political willpower to do so.

The more salient problem, as you hint at, is that there are ideologies in the U.S. who rather like it this way. Everybody ranks "legislature does thing I like=good, legislature does thing I don't like=bad" in the same way. But the asymmetry here is that one ideology also ranks "legislature does nothing at all = good", which changes the whole game. In a vetoless system, this ideological group may win half the time, but in a legislative vetocracy it's always winning.

Expand full comment

Robin Hanson has a suggestion to replace the zoning system: https://www.overcomingbias.com/2019/01/fine-grain-futarchy-zoning-via-harberger-taxes.html

Expand full comment

It's understandable that people worry about things changing to worse. However, in theory, we could run a prototype on a small scale, prove that it is working well and then expand once trust is built. The problem is when we are polarized we cannot agree on our evaluation of prototypes' success. Like, a person initially praising Romneycare doesn't extend the same praise to Obamacare. (I've even seen more than one person praising ACA while bashing Obamacare.)

Expand full comment

In theory, it seems like you could also instate bans on bans. Imagine, for example, a city that outlawed zoning regulations - beyond just not having any, it actively legislated against such regulations.

If veto powers are a sort of political resource that gets handed out to various interest groups, why don’t we also see “veto vetos” handed out in a similar way? Why isn’t the right to do X as vigorously defended as the right to complain about X?

Well, it is actually. Gun laws get huge pushback from conservatives, who vigorously defend their right to bear arms. We have a right to own property, a right to vote, a right to take pictures of people in public, a right to speak (although I admit it’s under attack, but then again when hasn’t it been?). It seems to me we’ve tended to diminish punitive sentencing over time, expand rights, roll back the war on drugs.

It’s not obvious to me that we exist in a vetocracy, except of course in the arenas of politics that are vetocracies.

Imagine that political/economic life was divided into lots of different independent segments, and they randomly morphed into varying levels of freedom vs restriction over time.

We’d then wind up with a few that are one or even two standard deviations in the “over-restricted” direction. Assuming they were all important, we’d notice these areas and be pissed about it. Likewise with areas that were under-regulated. The middle ground maybe we wouldn’t notice: the food industry seems to get things about right, along with most other consumer goods.

So how can I tell the difference between an over- and under-regulated society *in general*? Because if the underlying model is that asymmetric justice and inaction bias tend to produce over-regulation, we ought to verify this by seeing a general trend in society as a whole. Not just be able to cherry pick areas of the economy that seem catastrophically over-regulated. I’d expect that to happen just by “regulatory drift.”

Expand full comment

Switzerland is an interesting counterexample, as they seem to thrive on vetocracy. see Martin Sustrik's article on LessWrong:


Expand full comment

I realise you probably weren't very serious, but the scientific consensus is that cold fusion is straight up impossible. Our Standard Model of particle physics does not allow for it.

Maybe use "commercially viable fusion" instead? Or de novo protein folding or something similar?

Expand full comment

I think it's a bit misleading to say "But Congress was able to get by with [the filibuster] for decades, because everyone was polite and cooperative and didn't want to screw things up too badly."

There are two different things referred to as the "filibuster"! The filibuster in the original sense, the sort that required getting up and actually talking to hijack proceedings (the "talking filibuster"), and the "virtual filibuster" or "silent filibuster" that allows you to demand a 3/5 cloture vote even without having to get up and talk. IINM, the virtual filibuster was only introduced in 1975. Prior to that filibustering was a bit more costly. Although a talking filibuster could also be quite costly on the party *not* filibustering, as discussed here: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2003/02/filibusted.html . So I'm not advocating a return to the talking filibuster, or at least not the talking filibuster as it previously existed. (IMO it should be done away with entirely, but that's a separate matter -- point is if you want to bring back the talking filibuster you also have to fix the problems with it.)

Anyway, point is I'm skeptical that it makes sense to group these two together.

(Note also that the filibuster is purely a Senate phenomenon; the House has never had any filibuster.)

Expand full comment

Take a hard vetocracy (e.g. France) vs a mild one (e.g. UK) vs democratically elected dictatorship (e.g. Germany)

Was this blog always soooo much about politics? And in such a US-centric pundit way? I don't remember that being the case.

Where's the data? This is a thing where numbers exist, compile them, compare them.

I miss albion seed style reviews...

Please, please, please don't let some weird hive mind substack mentality of publishing daily driver you towards only publishing things you can write in a day, or if you do, just write fiction.

Expand full comment

I sometimes wonder if it would make sense for the government to buy out the interests of a veto group.

Let's imagine an example where the government would like to make it simpler for people to pay their taxes, but there's currently an entrenched industry selling people tax preparation assistance who will obviously lose out if this change is made, and they have enough political clout to block the change.

What if the government says: We realize it's kind of unfair to have your career ruined because of some dumb procedural change. So: Everyone who loses their job due to this change has a permanent guaranteed government job until retirement age. We'll try to find something useful for you to do (first idea: audits!), but even if we can't, we'll still pay you as compensation for destroying your other career.

And hey, we need some place for all these new government employees to work, so let's buy the buildings they already work in, at fair market price (or even slightly above). And we'll also buy their office equipment and any other notable sunk capital investments in the industry.

NOW, you have no reason to veto anymore, and society can go ahead and make this net-beneficial change that would otherwise be vetoed.

Obviously, this costs more (to the government) than just making the change and letting the current industry die. And if you actually had the ability to take that option, then that might be a valid objection. But we've already established that they can effectively veto you, so that option is illusory. (Lots of plans look bad when compared to theoretical alternatives that you can't actually take!)

The relevant comparison is how much it costs compared to the status quo. And since society as a whole is already SOMEHOW paying all of the salaries and capital returns of this whole industry (otherwise it would not exist), it's not obvious that there is any NET cost to paying them through the government instead.

Now, likely paying that rent PLUS the cost of implementing the new tax system will be more expensive. But most of the costs of implementing the new system are probably labor and equipment for the people doing the implementing, and look! we just acquired a bunch of labor and equipment of approximately the right type, for a cost that was already factored into this plan! I bet that offsets a pretty large fraction of the implementation costs of the legal change.

There is also the obvious problem that it's very hard (both politically and practically) to pay for this plan by capturing EXACTLY the money that society was already somehow paying to support this industry. In practice those costs will not be distributed quite the same way as before; SOMEONE will lose out and howl about it. But hopefully not an existing and well-coordinated lobbying group. And this particular veto is gone forever.

And as I am not an expert in ANY of the fields relevant to this proposal, it probably has huge problems that have not occurred to me, which might or might not be solvable.

Expand full comment

This is a well-studied phenomenon in public choice economics. Any economically and politically powerful special interests groups grow over time until the stifle any political progress and change. It's a one-way street of increasing institutional entrenchment.

As a proof, you could look towards any high potential country with an educated, healthy, law-abiding workforce, decimate their government and rebuild it from scratch, and you would see huge social development and economic growth. In the Rise and Decline of Nations, Mancur Olson (a left-wing economist) notes that we have a natural experiment in the form of post-WW2 Japan and Germany, both which underwent the treatment and saw what are generally known as "economic miracles", becoming some of the largest economies in the world.

Incidentally, this is exactly what's happening to the technology industry as we speak. Economic theories of industry lifecycles dictate that each industry undergoes a period of initial growth, increasing maturity and regulation, and then stagnation - standard textbook stuff. The Internet was basically an unregulated anarchist paradise where everyone could do whatever they wanted, followed by immense growth of a few companies. Now special interests such as media and government longingly look at all the economic and political power these companies wield, create a moral panic from the mostly made-up, although somewhat real social ills caused by these companies to regulate the industry. New company formation, innovation and economic growth are all already tapering out and will soon cease just as they have in other industries.

Expand full comment

"labor unions forcing terms on companies - all of these are examples of good people trying to prevent bad things in ways that introduce more veto points."

You could resolve this problem by having labour in control of the means of production. This way capitalist would not be able to veto them.

Expand full comment

I live in New Zealand. Our national government can do whatever the hell it likes and has zero veto points other than a desire to get re-elected every 3 years. There is no constitution, when the courts rule they have done something illegal they can just ignore it, they routinely interfere with local government on a fundamental level, there is no upper house, there is no presidential veto (de facto).

New Zealand also has an acute case of can't-build-anything-itis. The most serious crisis here at the moment isn't covid, it's a major shortfall of houses and extreme price rises (especially considering our low population density). It does not end there as major infrastructure projects have virtually ground to a halt over the last 30 years.

Neoliberalism is strongest in the Anglo countries and I'd advise looking there for comparisons first. Ideology is what is keeping politicians from doing stuff.

Expand full comment

I think treating this as a consequence of polarization is wrong. Conservatives want less checks, Democrats more. 2-out-1-in regulatory approaches are very popular with right wing governments around the world. Boris Johnson implemented simplified zoning and planning laws. Not saying there aren't drawbacks, but if you're looking to deregulate you clearly have more allies on the right.

Expand full comment

The most surprising thing is that people often seem to neglect the non-zero-sum nature of many of these problems, and how much potentially easier that should make it to solve them.

A sector with a huge deadweight loss is often an opportunity to create large amounts of value and share that value with enough of the veto players to get reform through – see e.g. Michael Trebilcock's work on transitional gains traps –


or Michael Weimer's work on policy analysis: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1541-1338.1992.tb00479.x

One of Trebilcock's key points is that just making the veto player's entitlements tradeable (alienable) can sometimes help to reduce or eliminate the deadweight loss.

Another underused technique is "layering" to add an innocuous policy that will snowball over time, like the initial introduction of 401(k) plans and IRA accounts: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/beyond-continuity-9780199280469

The space of policy options is almost infinitely dimensioned so it should very often be possible to assemble a bundle of policies that will unite a winning coalition for change (see William Riker's "heresthetic", and pp. 61-65 of this https://www.macmillanihe.com/page/detail/Rational-Choice/?K=9781137427410).

To some extent the rise in veto points may be an aspect of Demsetz's points about increasing demand for protection against externalities as technology increases: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1821637?seq=1

The problem is that many of our legal systems for protecting against externalities are highly vulnerable to blame avoidance by officials: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0143814X00004219 . Methods of direct democratic decision with qualified majority, especially at the very smallest scales possible (ideally only a few people) might provide a way to overcome those veto powers and re-enable Coasean bargaining, as I argue for zoning here: https://www.mercatus.org/publications/urban-economics/fixing-urban-planning-ostrom-strategies-existing-cities-adopt-0, kindly recommended by Tyler https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/07/street-by-street-zoning.html

As you have pointed out there are other sectors like education and healthcare which plausibly seem to have enormous deadweight losses. Government has grown massively in extent and complexity but we have not yet evolved good institutions to find sectors of large deadweight losses and seek to improve regulations on an as near to win-win basis as possible.

There arguments why it may be hard for government to fix those, relating for example to credible commitment problems, which I summarize in that Mercatus piece above [from Lee J. Alston and Bernardo Mueller, “Property Rights and the State,” in Handbook of New Institutional Economics, ed. Claude Ménard and Mary M. Shirley (Berlin: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2008), 573–90] but I don't think those are insurmountable.

This piece in Works in Progress argues that these problems are highly significant for Progress Studies, with a flag to various sectors where it seems to be relevant: https://worksinprogress.co/progress-studies-the-hard-question/

The current political political players may be acting entirely rationally – their support base may make it difficult for them to frame issues as non-zero-sum, for example – but that doesn't mean that others outside the system e.g. EA or Progress Studies people could not make headway by designing policies that will help to create a new Schelling point around which a coalition can form. I think it would be good if these techniques were more widely known within those movements.

Expand full comment

Increasing risk-aversion among individuals is another big factor to throw in.

i.e. it feels to me that people have become more risk-averse over the last few decades. We (on average) care more about being safe from bad things than on creating good things.

If that's the case (presumably data exists somewhere), then the vetocracy would just be giving the people what they want.

There might still be ways to square the circle. The LW crowd seem even more risk-averse than the general population, but still keen on making big projects happen. I'm just not sure where the secret sauce is in that.

Expand full comment

First, I think there's a massive conflation that Ezra has been making on vetocracy Vs polarisation and that's a big reason his thesis doesn't really hold up once you add a) all the other issues that were polarising us before but aren't now like religion, b) the issues that are central to identity but aren't polarising, and c) international political Polarisation in other countries which have also seen rise in far right movements. This was my biggest issue with Why We're Polarised too, as I'd written in my strange loop canon commentary.

Secondly, the vetocracy issue is a feature of the system. We have democratic rulemaking, a (sensible) worry about negative events and a bias for action. Which means we can only keep adding new rules rather than remove them. There's no incentive to not be NIMBY other than "being a good citizen", but that's not nearly strong enough to overcome this collective action problem. All decisions have tradeoffs, and if we're solely focused on win-win decisioning hen of course we'll get stuck in a local minima.

It's also a self fulfilling prophecy, because if I thought the construction of a high speed rail was great, but it will take fifteen years, I wouldn't want it near my house either.

My preferred solution is to introduce more negative veto points, like a benevolent czar who's been appointed, to power through by not needing to make every decision subject to individual veto - focus on exit instead of voice in Hirschman's parlance. But even that won't work for things like NY rail. We should also be using wayyyy more sunset provisions in our bills, to reduce the regulatory quagmire. They won't solve the problem of making people want to build extra housing and reduce their property values, but that too we can solve with more infrastructure (schools, amenities, transport links) etc.

So to me there are 3 attack vectors

1. Make decision making easier - a bit more benevolent dictatorship

2. Reduce the number of roadblocks - sunset provisions in law, killing bills, reducing regulatory complexity, an empowered agency to curtail the other agencies?

3. Technology - if making a railway took 1 year instead of 15, just might make things happen faster.

Expand full comment

There's a book called, "American Nations," by someone named Colin Woodard. He actually wrote about this issue a little bit in his book, but the basic gist is that at the time the constitution was widely adopted by the colonies and was expanding to territories in the early 19th century, it was geared towards giving distinct ethnic/cultural groups specific veto powers in order to induce them to join the union. Basically, puritans were thrown done bones, the dutch were thrown some bones, Southerners were thrown some bones, the Germans, the Quakers, etc. The reality is that these groups don't naturally get along, or really trust each other, which means that a political coalition among them would be tenuous at best. In the early days of the federal government, land was plentiful and population density was exceptionally low. Now, the various cultures are geographically intermixed and population density has increased dramatically since then. Thus, it shouldn't be surprising that political entities at all levels have created new veto points since that was and is what basically keeps the population from separating. Essentially, veto power exists to defer dealing with the problem of cultural disassociation and the consequent dissolution of the union.

Expand full comment

I don't buy the premise about what the US could be doing. It also could be doing much worse. Does Ezra read the tweets of the people that happen to get into positions of power?

Expand full comment

So the richer society => more status quo bias seems reasonable to me. But I also think it’s a function of an aging (and even older electorate) creates a status quo bias. Our politicians themselves are also super old (partly reflecting the electorate, partly pay often sucks vs alternatives so it’s an end of career activity, electorate doesn’t like change so name recognition wins?). I find myself less interested in new slightly more optimized ways to do things as I get older.

The build more housing crowd for example is mostly young people who see their generation unable to afford houses. If the country’s demographics were younger they would have more clout. Granted thinking about “when did TFP slow down” doesn’t line up neatly with baby boomers aging, so that makes me a little less confident in the thesis.

Expand full comment

The first step should be moving to a loser pays legal system. I was just reading about a wind turbine proposal and how all the local busy bodies filed lawsuits to stop it. Now these are upper middle class people who can spend $25k on a lawyer to file a frivolous lawsuit. But if they faced the prospect of losing their house if they lost the case and had to pay the oppositions legal bills, we’d have a lot fewer lawsuits.

In reading about how the cost to build rail, roads, wind turbines, power plants etc are vastly higher in the US than in other advanced countries one of the major factors is the cost of litigation.

Expand full comment

I think a part of the problem is that congress is broken. Lots of reasons for this... talked about many places. The major problem is tribalism. No one wants to help the other side get something done. I'm constantly reminded of "Death Throws of the Republic" the series of history podcasts from Dan Carlin. We are at a point where party matters more than country. My short term solution is to vote for candidates who are veterans. (they have shown some signs of putting country first... I know shades of "Starship Troopers" by RAH.) Long term I hope for a third party, that can maybe force congress to take back it's power and do it's job. (Third parties seem to be losing power though... sigh)

Expand full comment

Since I agree with Steven Pinker that the world has been quite drastically improving each and every decade for a long time, I fail to see the riddle.

The systems we have are much better than the system that we had 50 years ago. If we want to improve them, then this is naturally harder. Regulations are part of this.

It was very easy to build a crappy car 50 years ago and sell it. If the brakes failed, then the people die, and you shrugged it off because people died all the time from car accidents. Today, people don't die anymore. Approximately zero people die from car accidents. This is actually a pretty precise approximation when you compare with 1970. So nowadays, when you want to build a car, you need to meet the requirement that brakes must not fail. It's not just a recommendation, there is actually a regulation that ensures this. But even without regulation, it is just much harder to build a car that meets the high standards of other car companies.

The same also holds for institutions. They are incredibly much better than 50 years ago. Look at mental asylums now and then. Schools. Hospitals. Do you really want to be treated in a hospital with 1970 standards, even if they had access to modern drugs?

But that means that changing them for the better is harder now. Not because someone wants to prevent you from doing things, but just because of diminishing returns. I like to picture it as an energy landscape -- the deeper you are in a sink, the further you need to move to find an even better one.

In my eyes, the increasing amount of regulations are symptom, because they (should) basically encode all the directions in which you will make things worse. Of course, they are a proxy, and can go wrong. And sometimes the overall level of regulation is not right, so that we have over- or underregulation. So we should put effort into making the right regulations, and the right amount.

But in principle, if we live in an improving world, we should expect the number of regulations go up.

Expand full comment

I think part of the problem is that vetos are so easy to exercise, and many are even automatic (in the form of prohibitive fixed costs). I wonder if there's a consistent way to make vetos themselves more costly, so that they are deployed to prevent atrocities but not out of casual spite or signalling.

Maybe things like 'you have to run an environmental impact proposal before building IF someone submits a petition with 1000 local signatures requesting it within 1 month of announcing the build' or 'Every Senator gets to filibuster exactly once during their Senate career, after that they may be removed from the floor if they try it again.'

I imagine that the problems which cause vetocracy will find ways to route around these restrictions, of course. But maybe an attitude that favors theses types of common-sense restrictions on the power of vetoes would be able to gain enough support to actively fight those forces over the long term, where the attitude that says 'no regulations ever don't tread on me taxation is theft' fails to capture public support.

Expand full comment

What I see happening in The Netherlands is a really weird dynamic where laws are adopted that have significant consequences, but these get passed with very little opposition by politicians, nor very much debate. Subsequently, the executive tries really hard to not follow the law, by coming up with all kinds of loopholes or cheats, but this seems to often be supported by a majority of the legislative. It can't be explained by checks and balances, when politicians refuse to back the laws they passed themselves.

I think that the Dutch legislative branch is fundamentally broken. It certainly operates very differently from the past in objectively measurable ways. For example, the tour of duty of the Dutch House of Representatives (which leads in lawmaking) has declined immensely, to 6 years. Half of them last only 4 years, which is a single term. So the level of experience is appalling and the incentives to pass a law that promises the moon, but at enormous costs to other important things, or to not fix structural problems that require unpopular solutions, are immense.

They've adopted new rules that allow a smaller group of legislators to call for an emergency session, which rapidly got abused so it takes month before an emergency session can be scheduled. Recently, even the media has started complaining about their own short term focus, where they have a symbiosis with politicians who proudly go on TV to explain how horrible the latest incident is and who make all kinds of hollow promises, only to make the exact opposite promises for the next incident, when that incident is blamed on the opposite problem.

I think that something broke politics and that it probably has something to do with how politicians get treated, changing their incentives from choosing a long term career as a politician and to take ownership of problems, to far more short term oriented behavior.

I'm not convinced that an increase in Nimbyism is the cause, because my country has done it's best to make it very hard to go against the government. Basically, only professionally organized NGOs tend to have a chance. Yet that legislation doesn't seem to have had a significant positive effect. Many problems aren't even at the level where veto's can work. For example, government IT problems are a major cause of making it impossible to do things, which are often to blame on completely unreasonable demands by legislators & the executive, who demand an unreasonable level of complexity from such systems (and change their demands along the way). No citizen gets a veto over such IT projects, nor are there environmental laws in play.

Expand full comment

It may be helpful to see constitutional democracy as a peaceful alternative to civil war.

When civil war is a risk or a reality, a common approach is to match institutional vetoes to major players ("potential spoilers") at that time. The key is to give major players (defined as those who could throw everyone into civil war) some payoff to stay peaceful, and a veto so that their payoff can't be taken away. In theory, this means that major players will (a) prefer peace to civil war, (b) be protected from one another, and (c) see changes to the status quo as consensual. ABC segment gets privileged access to tax dollars; DEF gets licenses to extract natural resources; XYZ gets recognition for some other property rights. My co-author Michael and I call this the "chronic challenge."

One problem is that the status quo changes on its own. Oil prices fall. The economy goes into a recession. Demographic change happens. A once powerful segment loses an iconic leader, and falls into division. If a new major player doesn't have a stake in the system, and a veto to protect itself, it may throw the system into civil war. Particularly, if a once major player has lost size or status, but still reaps disproportionate gains. We call this the "constitutive challenge."

Now layer in the opportunities to "build", to solve problems in an agile, adaptive way in the near term. The structures that protect us from one another can impede our ability to respond gracefully to the environment. We call this the "acute challenge."

So we have three different time scales of action, putting different demands on the system:

- Near term: we want agility to solve problems ("the acute challenge")

- Medium term: we need major players to have a stake in the system ("the chronic challenge")

- Long term: we need to gracefully reallocate vetoes as power + identity of major players shifts ("constitutive challenge")

It's a lot. 

In theory, a constrained executive + a collaborative legislature can walk the line here. In practice, it's not so simple. We are witnessing the breakdown of that theory.

Veto-based systems can tip into brinkmanship and other ugly bargaining behaviors. Or delegate their authority to the executive when they control it. The executive, in turn, can use their power to act unilaterally to loosen the constraints on them. 

There are better ways to build trust being opposing elites. 

I would go on, but my 6 yo is wanting me to play tag.

If you're interested, Michael and I have a paper on "Trust in the Executive" that you can find here:https://michael-weintraub.squarespace.com/research1

Expand full comment

I feel like a lot of this discussion is too abstract. What specifically should we be building? Why aren't we? And what can we do?

1: Housing: Zoning laws set up perverse incentives. The only people who seem to have any say is the people who stand to lose something. The people who would like to buy more housing and move in don't get a say. It's easy to say zoning should be more permissive, but it's unclear how to actually convince NIMBY communities to allow this.

2: Energy infrastructure: It's unclear to me that there is actually a problem? We already have a cheap source of energy. It's hard to displace that without making new renewable energy not just cheaper, but so cheap that's it's actually worthwhile to uproot the current system.

3: COVID tests: That was a unique technical screw up, not an incentive or a veto problem, and the problem has been more than solved for months. We have more tests than states are using.

4: Ventilators, PPE: These problems have been solved for months. If anything these are a testament to our current economic strength. I doubt that an America in the 1980s could have solved an acute ventilator shortage in mere months. And it's difficult to build a system that would already have enough ventilators on hand. Equipment that is not being used is a waste - it takes up storage space, it needs to be maintained, money spent on it could have been better invested elsewhere.

5: ICU beds: This is a genuinely difficult problem because ICU beds (and all of the respiratory therapist, nursing, sanitation, physician, technician and pharmacist staffing that goes along with it), is really freaking expensive. We could lower barriers to entry in all of those professions. Get rid of the bachelors degree as a requirement for more specialized fields.

7: Flying cars and supersonic flight: Is that a joke? They are too expensive - so the demand is insufficient to justify investment. The Concord failed because they weren't profitable. They would have eventually withered away even if it weren't for the infamous crash. Not a veto problem.

Expand full comment

When people are optimistic about the future, they try to make that future a reality by building. When people are pessimistic about the future, they try to prevent that future from becoming reality by clinging to the past. I think a lot of the political will for exercising veto power is rooted in America's growing pessimism about the future.

I've been reading a lot of classic science fiction from the 1940s - 1960s recently. The optimism jumps off the page. Most of it's not utopian -- there are still lots of challenges -- but they're still confident about progress.

Contrast that with a scenario that played out this fall in the small town of 30,000 where I live in the Shenandoah Valley. This town has a lot of late 19th / early 20th century homes and buildings near the downtown core. They're mostly Queen Anne Victorian's with some facsimile's of continental European styles thrown in. Some are kept up nicely, others aren't (more on that in a bit).

The old county courthouse is a kind of neo-classical mishmash (I'm not an architectural historian -- it's got Corinthian columns, a dome, and a brick facade). The county says it needs to expand the courthouse and proposed a plan to the city to build an ugly 5-story neoclassical mishmash of Corinthian columns, a brick facade, and glass, adjacent to the existing courthouse. Some old, tiny office buildings that used to be used by the "barristers" would have been torn down.

Almost overnight "Save Our Downtown!" yard signs started popping up all over town. There was a huge public outcry. How could they build this eyesore in the middle of our lovely downtown?!?! We have to preserve historical character of our city!

The historical preservation commission rejected the plan. Who knows what'll happen next.

This isn't about protecting the environment or helping the poor and the vulnerable. This is about the aesthetic preferences of a bunch of upper middle class people who are quite happy that the townsfolk of 150-100 years ago experimented with a range of eclectic styles that were considered modern at the time, but who decided to put an end to those experiments circa 1970 and now want to live in a museum rather than a vibrant, growing, risk-taking city.

That's the exact opposite of helping the poor and the vulnerable. The Victorian houses that aren't in good condition stay that way because the historical preservation commission makes renovations too expensive for anyone not in the upper middle class, while also making it impossible to tear them down and build something new and affordable.

It's a petty tyranny of people who think our best days are behind us. That's how I've experienced vetocracy.

But the real tragedy is that younger generations who would normally push back against this mindset and carry society into the future, kicking and screaming if necessary, *also* are convinced America's best days are behind it. I can't *totally* blame them -- they were told that as long as they went to college they would be successful, but also that they could do and be anything they wanted. So a whole lot of people amassed a whole lot of debt getting degrees that weren't that valuable, and then they got out into the real world and decided the future wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Unfortunately, their way of fixing things is just a return to the failed ideas of the past.

Ross Douthat's book "The Decadent Society" captures this nicely, albeit through the lens of his Catholic moral sensibilities.

Maybe it's inevitable that institutions and societies become sclerotic once they reach a certain level of comfort, and then the sclerosis leads to slower growth, which leads to pessimism about the future, which leads people to pine after a mythical Golden Age, which leads to more sclerosis, which leads to...

I actually *am* optimistic about the future. There is so, so much potential for huge improvements in material, social, emotional, and psychological well being in my lifetime. But I'll admit that the rut that polarization, or vetocracy, or decadence, or whatever you want to call it gets me down sometimes, especially over the last year. And I'm really concerned that neither America nor any other western-style democracy will be the leaders of the major advances of the next century, and that makes it even harder to be optimistic, because the current alternative seems to be places governed by authoritarians that trample over individual rights in service of their definition of the collective good.

I still think we can break out of it, though it might take a good solid kick in the ass (COVID?). But It takes a deliberate effort to remain optimistic these days. Which is all the more reason to stop building copies of 18th and 19th century buildings!

Expand full comment

One issue I have with this is you seem to be regarding "the government" at too high a level. At least in the US there is a fundamental and structurally intended difference between the branch of the government that generates regulations pursuant to validly passed statutes (e.g. the executive branch) and the branch that enacts the statutes (e.g. the legislative branch). For a variety of historical reasons the structural veto points in our system are at the legislative level and not in the executive branch. This would help explain why you get ever increasing use of regulatory powers while simultaneously not being able to pass new laws. Also because the Executive is less constrained and is incentivized to actually try and get things done for the electorate they constantly push their powers towards the practical and theoretical limit.

Expand full comment

I'm not sure the conclusions you draw from Ezra are the same conclusions he draws. You seem to suggest that since our institutions are failing, we need to find a way to work around these failing institutions, since they are destined to fail. Ezra, on the other hand, argues that our institutions are failing because they are configured in such a way that leads them to fail. While compromise use to be possible, current levels of polarization mean that the opposition no longer has an incentive to compromise, and pays no political price for obstructing action. As a result, the American system of checks and balances, which use to work, needs to be reformed so that stuff can get done. Simple reforms include eliminating the filibuster, reforming the electoral college, and broadening the Senate so it is more representative (a good start would be to grant statehood to DC and PR). Once you allow elected government to actually implement an agenda, then stuff gets done. And if their policies fail, or are unpopular, they are held accountable by the electorate: the fear of a "throw the bums out" reaction works pretty well as an incentive for the government in power to "do the right thing". On the other hand, getting things done, if it is the right thing and is popular, will be rewarded by the electorate with a renewed mandate to continue to get things done. It become a virtuous cycle, where incentives work as they should: that is, good works that are popular get rewarded and bad work that is unpopular gets punished. In short, I think Ezra would argue that institutional reform, not blockchain, is the answer.

Expand full comment

In regards to your third point, my understanding of the seeming discrepancy between the general conception that "government can't do things" and the simultaneous growth of regulation is largely due to the ever increasing power of regulatory agencies to craft the regulations they carry out. So while Congress may have trouble accomplishing much, the RAs continue to do their thing as they aren't generally constrained, or at least not to the same degree, as the factors that inhibit Congress - whether that's largely due to vetocracy or any other force.

Add in the ever growing unilateral powers of the presidency, government overall can still do a lot, both good and bad (depending on your viewpoint), while simultaneously appearing like they "can't do anything" because Congress frequently has trouble passing legislation, whether it's for something every Congressperson claims to want (e.g. "addressing infrastructure") or one of its actual core functions, like passing a real budget.

So if you define a "libertarian paradise" to be a system in which the government does little to nothing, even though it appears our "government can't do anything," the absence of this "libertarian paradise" (among other reasons) is despite the frequent failings of Congress, on net government continues to grow, which in turn typically means a growth in the burdens it imposes.

Expand full comment

The federal government work force has steadily shrunk relative to U.S. population over the last 50 years (https://ourpublicservice.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/FedFigures_FY18-Workforce.pdf) and is smaller than most OECD countries relative to population. I wonder if this is a factor? To what extent is the government hamstringing itself by trying to accomplish ambitious projects without adequate staffing?

Has this public sector shrinking happened at state and local levels too?

Japan seems to have a comparably small public sector as the U.S. at around 6% of total employment. Do they get more done despite that? If so, how?

Expand full comment

Much of the conversation here has focused on majority v. minority political dynamics. I'm skeptical that political polarization is in fact a primary cause of vetocracy escalation.

With respect to 'building things' I would argue that dynamics of the administrative state, not the political state, are the more relevant enabler. In the US the only branch of federal government that actually makes stuff is the administrative state within the executive branch. The judicial branch obviously plays a major role in resolving procedural conflict - calling the vetoes - but it doesn't make stuff.

In the administrative sphere we have anointed civil service bureaucracies to act as permanent guardians of those less powerful / minority interests - notably the EPA, FTC and Dept of Labor. As noted elsewhere, those entities have copious incentives to expand both the scope of their jurisdiction and the quantity of regulation. Conversely, they have zero incentive to prune, edit and streamline their regulations. Said another way, it is easier for these agencies to promulgate new regulations than to eliminate or reform existing ones.

These bureaucratic realities raise an interesting question: is the common interest being held hostage by an empowered minority with an intractable anti-growth, don't-build-stuff bias? While I share no ground with the Qanon description of a 'deep state', it is necessary to unpack the culture of the administrative branch if you want to diagnose vetocractic creep.

Despite endless attempts by political appointees to fundamentally change the administrative focus of such agencies, each one clearly retains a core (protective) bias (that arguably aligns best with one political tribe). After said reform efforts, the focus of the agency quickly reverts to the pro-regulatory, expansive ambitions mean. Compounding this problem are the numerous historical examples of administrative agencies expanding the scope of the regulatory purview via unilateral 're-interpretation' of the law (e.g. EPA and Clean Water Act). As a Bush v. Trump comparison demonstrates, political appointees can't really alter the expansive-tending-DNA of these agencies. Instead, per Trump, the more effective way to blunt their bias is to dismantle, de-fund and/or de-legitimize their very existence.

Last argument - in the context of building stuff, local NIMBY veto power is far more relevant that political polarization / national political dynamics. How many planned bridges, railways, overpasses, transit lines etc. have been tanked by local opposition rather than federal regulations? When it comes to making stuff (pharma, mfg, GMO's) federal regulation is clearly the more relevant veto, which brings us back to administrative DNA.

Expand full comment

> The crypto solution, which has yet to fully mature, is something like “create structures which it’s impossible for anyone, including the creator, to change”.

This is not a good description of how crypto governance works. A more apt metaphor is that you have an unelected oligarchy (the dev team) that controls its own admission and makes all the laws. Then you have a confederation of… states? corporations? — the mining nodes — which implement those laws and monitor their peers to ensure that they'll all implementing them faithfully, and restrain lawbreakers from having any influence. The sole check on oligarchical power is that any node or group of nodes always have the right to secede and then create or follow some different group of oligarchs. In practice it's more often the threat, rather than the execution of this remedy which keeps the oligarchy in line and implementing some reasonable approximation of the will of the people.

Heh, now that I put it this way it sounds vaguely like NRx, doesn't it? I never thought of it that way until just now.

Expand full comment

>“vetocracies,” in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built

This affected Poland so badly in the 18th century that there wasn't a country called Poland in the 19th century.

Expand full comment

I think it's important, that this is not only a US-centric issue but affects other countries like Germany as well (one country with very low polarization according to the other Klein post). There have been several big projects in the past that were significantly delayed (5-10 years) and cost much more (3-8x) than planned: Elbphilharmonie (a concert hall), Stuttgart 21 (a train station) and the BER airport. Each project had its own issues, but AFAICT the problems were a mix of incompetence in the government and (overly?) high building standards. For example the airport was delayed ~8 years in part because the fire safety wasn't deemed good enough, the concert hall became over 100m more expensive over a row on statics alone and the train station faced pressure over some rare insect that was harmed by the build. I can't comment on the validity of these concerns. Civic pressure either didn't happen or didn't succeed (e.g. a complaint about the new flight routes was dismissed in court). So at least over here the problem is less about vetocracy and more about politicians that don't understand how to write good contracts and (over-?)regulation.

But the simple word "over-regulation" misses a distinction. In software engineering there is a process called refactoring: It means "to remove complexity (largely without changing behavior) by identifying common cases and generalizing the process to them". In science, the analogue would be a paper that connects the dots between slightly different approaches in a field and suggests a common methodology. As a rule of thumb, if you don't refactor software it gets so big that no one can work with it anymore (a phenomenon called 'technical debt'). I believe that Germany's (and probably the States's) regulatory environment is not as much over-regulated as it is under-refactored. The problem is not necessary that all of the regulations are slightly useful but too cumbersome as a whole, but rather that we don't have good systems in place for dealing with the extra complexity introduced by them and need an ever increasing amount of lawyers for dealing with it.

Expand full comment

> The crypto solution, which has yet to fully mature, is something like “create structures which it’s impossible for anyone, including the creator, to change”. Seems like a pretty drastic solution. But what would a better one look like?

I see a call for me to comment again with my perennial favorite, ophelimist democracy:(https://adelaybeingreborn.wordpress.com/ophelimo/) . Noteworthy features that are relevant to vetocracy:

* It's democratic but non-majoritarian in the sense that it has no arbitrary thresholds, whether 50%+1, 2/3rds, unanimity, or other.

* It delivers power not to factions (who must then compromise) but essentially to manifestos, so that we would actually get to test out an ideologically-consistent set of proposals and evaluate how well they work.

* In place of veto points, it uses several mechanisms (including a fake prediction market) so that "everyone’s preferences are taken into account to the degree that they are humane, and that everyone’s humane preferences are realized to an equal extent".

Expand full comment

Two important, interlocking pieces:

1. Diffuse benefits, concentrated costs

2. Decreased coordination costs for medium-sized groups to advocate against concentrated costs

There are a lot of policies that are net good for society but inflict a cost on some set of stakeholders. For example, right now the US government subsidizes for expensive houses via the mortgage interest tax deduction. This is a diffuse cost (everyone pays a little more in taxes/bears a little more government debt) with a concentrated benefit (rich homeowners get more money). Homeowners are tuned-in enough to politics to pay close attention to anyone who makes any noise about reducing this subsidy, and can easily coordinate to punish politicians who do so. But we don't really have a way for everyone else to coordinate to remove this policy, largely because the benefits are so small per person as not to be worth it.

The costs of coordination is roughly inversely proportional to "how tuned in voters are" or "how intensely scrutinized policy changes are in widely consumed media". Media is cheap, every change is subject to a ton of scrutiny.

That's enough to get a lot of vetocracy right there - scrutiny + interest groups can coordinate and punish + broader society can't coordinate on diffuse benefits looks a lot like vetocracy in practice.

Expand full comment

> I'm not sure how Klein thinks of this. Maybe he would say that vetocracy is getting worse everywhere, but that partisan polarization turns potential veto points into actual veto points. That is, the filibuster has always been a potential problem. But Congress was able to get by with it for decades, because everyone was polite and cooperative and didn't want to screw things up too badly

Ezra wrote an entire book on this which Scott claims to have read. The answer is in there. I can't tell if he's not engaging in good faith on this stuff or he just isn't engaged enough in politics to understand the nuances. This is pretty embarrassing though

Expand full comment

Ezra Klein assumes, based on no analysis whatever, that there exists a multitude of positive return projects just laying around in plain sight, and that the failure to execute on them can be nothing other than a huge institutional failure, both public and private.

In 30+ years performing independent economic analyses on proposed private-sector capital expenditures (ranging from $75 million to $40 billion) I have seen very few good projects and hundreds of bad ones. I do not believe my experience constitutes a set of outliers, nor should this be surprising to anyone who gives it much thought. Making money is hard and competition drives out easy gains. But projects take on a life of their own, as the people who have invested significant time in their planning and justification develop an almost religious faith in them. Large, capital intensive companies will normally vet many, many times more projects than they ever approve, for good reason. And the ones they do fund will almost inevitably underperform projections, even if they wind up being profitable, which they often will not.

So, the problem of profitable private investment is extremely hard, but the problem of investment by government is harder yet. One of the reasons for this is that government decisions are not ultimately constrained by the discipline of the capital markets. Unlike companies that must convince debt and equity investors to put their money into the considered projects and to bear the risks of failure, the government uses its monopoly on the use of violence to simple take money from taxpayers and to force them to bear the risks. This is what allows failures like Solyndra, which was unable to raise money in capital markets where funding is voluntary, but whose government came through with guarantees from the taxpayers who were given no choice. For colorful detail on how and why large investments and in particular, government investments so often go wrong, see “Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition” by Bent Flyvbjerg, et al.

But the government’s dilemma is worse even that that. Unlike a corporation for whom the only (proper) objective is to maximize shareholder wealth, the government is in the position of having to balance the interests of a theoretically limitless set of stakeholders whose desires are usually in conflict. There simply is no quantitative solution to this problem – one cannot even imagine constructing an objective function subject to constraints and then solving that problem to get the proper investment decision. This is necessarily a political problem, which is unsatisfactory, but efforts to get the politics out of them leaves no decision criteria other than caprice. Nice for the untethered decision maker, but bad for the public at large.

As an economist I recognize and accept the idea that the market will tend toward underinvestment in public goods. This does not, however, imply that any and every investment in public goods is warranted or that either democracy or technocracy will somehow (magic?) be able to solve the unsolvable problem of the ‘proper’ allocation of resources to public goods. This is the proper sphere for government, which should proceed cautiously, transparently and with humility.

Government investment in non-public goods, on the other hand, applies institutional incompetence to problems for which its involvement has no moral justification. And there is almost no problem so bad that the active attention of the government cannot make worse.

Expand full comment

Having read Ezra Klein since he was a teenager I'm pretty confident about his definition of "vetocracy:" It's basically a system in which a very small minority (such as an individual President) can block consensus or otherwise invalidate the will of even a very large majority.

With this understanding there's nothing wrong with frameworks that permit vetos. Unadulterated lower-case d democracy really would be pretty brutal without it, vetos are actually a good thing. It's not that the wisdom of crowds isn't a thing -- it's that, as Lincoln dryly quipped, the wisdom of crowds is neither continuous nor is it instantaneous.

The key phrase though is "frameworks that permit vetos." Just as a system that makes it easy for everyone overrule anybody ("pure" democracy) would be highly problematic, a system that let anyone overrule everybody (a "vetocracy") has similarly obvious problems.

The question is how to find a balance so that Mennonite and Catholic students aren't forced to recite Protestant prayers in public schools on the one hand, while not letting Bay Area NIMBYs exploit environmental review of an existing parking lot block development of low-income housing.

One of the keys to "why does this keep happening" is probably related to Pareto efficiency: "Pareto efficiency is when an economy has its resources and goods allocated to the maximum level of efficiency, and no change can be made without making someone worse off." -- Wikipedia. When the system allows anyone who's made worse off to block changes that would make everyone else off (arguably including the "offended party" as in the case of wearing masks during a pandemic, for instance) the obstacles they're able to raise (file a suit, get an injunction, place a Senate hold, threaten a filibuster) can make it easier to just not bother.

The end result (to borrow another line from Pareto) is that instead of obtaining 80% of a desire result with 20% effort/cost/time we end up in a situation 80% of effort, cost, and time must be expended to get even 20% of the desired result.

In the end a lot of stuff ends up not happening because it's just too much effort to overcome even small amounts of resistance. I'm not sure you could call that authentic "vetocracy" but it's a good enough shorthand.

Expand full comment

I'm a fan of David Deutsch's explanation for democracy as error correction: democracy works not because "the will of the people" is correct, but because democratic institutions are good at removing ineffective leaders and policies (ie correct errors). This is because it's impossible to always prevent errors since the future is unknowable, so the best we can do is try things and then correct the errors. The corollary of this is that democracy depends on (1) experimentation and (2) voters being able to accurately blame a leader or party for an error. Vetocracy makes (1) worse by making it harder to pass experimental policies, and hinders (2) because policies are shaped in part by vetoers separate from the electoral process.

Expand full comment

> The crypto solution, which has yet to fully mature, is something like “create structures which it’s impossible for anyone, including the creator, to change”.

Talk of the big things crypto can do makes me a bit suspicious; there's just so much short/medium-term financial interest in favor of hyping crypto that feels like it could be distorting downstream discourse. Like, it feels like we've been in roughly the same place of "the truly important uses of crypto are yet to be realized" for a while now?

It could easily be that I just don't get it or that it might be yet to come, though.

But concretely, how does crypto help us defeat our archenemy the FDA?

Is it that an alternative FDA will be built on crypto infrastructure -- like you design a formal structure on top of crypto infrastructure which interfaces with humans and human organizations in such a way that it is incentivized to produce stamps of some form on different drugs that are just really good & discriminatory information on drugs? So good that it will organically just kind of take over as the premier authoritative institution on drugs?

Where the crypto's advantage over regular FDA is the possibility is that there are none of these vetocracy-type strings to pull on to make the CryptoFDA super conservative?

Or is it something like cryptocurrencies will allow us to conduct economic activity without fiat currency, and this will make it easy for us to live generally outside the influence of the government. Like money is the material of the chains government places on us, and by switching to crypto we dissolve the chains and then we are free (this is a vague story, reflecting my own lack of understanding).

Expand full comment

"Why is this happening here and now" is generally a great question to ask about broad trends, but it seems almost unnecessary here. It seems like institutions have been adding more veto points over time, so... when you keep doing that, eventually you have too many of them?

Expand full comment

"if the government can't do anything, why aren't we a libertarian paradise?"

Because they won't let us do anything either. Next time you go to a convenience store, look for their "permit board" which lists all the permits they need to stay in business. Contrast that with Guatemala where many people run a tiny bodega out of their front room.

"Don't we eventually reach the point where the government can't implement more regulations on itself, and then disappears in a puff of logic?"

We WILL reach the point where nobody will loan any actual money to the USG, and printing up new money just creates inflation. Then you get Mises' crack-up collapse. We kinda don't have to worry about the extent of the US government because it's going to cease to have the resources to do anything, and soon. Read Neal Stephanson's Snowcrash.

"If this is true, is there anything to do about it?"

Yes. States need to put their foot down and say to the federal government "The Constitution does not give you the power to do this. But still, we're going to get you do it for interstate commerce. But if you try to do it for intrastate commerce, we will stop you." So people will be able to just start businesses and sell things and not need any kind of permit. Oh, I mean, people in free states like New Hampshire, Montana, Florida, or Nevada. Not people in New York or New Jersey.

Expand full comment

See, for an example of vetocrazy, the fine print here: https://www.irishvernacular.com/

Expand full comment

How much of the increase in veto points etc. is just a matter of growth? More people, crowded into ever growing cities, and especially crowding into successful metro areas like SF? Seems to me that growth in and of itself creates exactly this dynamic.

Expand full comment

1. I feel like this intersects with previous discussions of "cost disease".

2. there's something more fundamental here, and I see it in the comments.

I see it everywhere. I think it has something to do with the internet. Not just the obvious things people have talked about regarding polarization and such.. but..

Pretty much no matter what it is, discussions on facebook tend to go in a godwinny, my side your side your side direction, even if its something stupid and in theory apolitical like fandoms opinions about stuff within their fandoms.

Social media plays on certain incentive structures. But also... the more percentage of time spend on social media, the more their lived experience reflects the dynamics of those interactions.

Let me make a personal contrast- there are some social groups where very passive aggressive commentary and social dynamics based on this is the norm. In those communtiies, the ideas that anyway would resort to violence over this is fundamentally absurd, this would result in violation of an extreme social taboo where the person who responded in such a way was universally condemned.

On the other hand, in certain urban punk scenes, where people live in collective houses, squat, etc, conversations tend to be more respectful. On some level because of a shared sense of community, but on another level because doing that passive aggressive shit would get you punched in the face.

My point?

Before social media, people's lived experience included more "real life" friends (as measured by many statictics) and some need for more "social trust", at least within their circles of friends and community. This lived experience is quite difference from what many people know experience where friends are fewer but "allies" are both cheap, affordable, and disposable.

The time spent living in this "real world" dynamiuc versus time spent in a social media online dyanamic probably has something to do with it- as people have less practical experience of the "social trust" deal.

Expand full comment

"Since regulating corporations and private individuals is an attempt to protect the vulnerable from too-hastily-applied power"

My impression as a Southern Californian is that vetocracy as we know it emerged around 1969 with the environmental movement in places like Santa Barbara, Beverly Hills and Malibu. The unstated but underlying goal was to protect the best-off from the well-off, for example, by making Beverly Hills housing too expensive for, say, San Fernando Valley orthodontists to move in en masse.

The population counts of these superb places have barely changed over the decades. For example, here is Beverly Hills' population trends:

Census Pop. %±

1920 674 —

1930 17,429 2,485.9%

1940 26,823 53.9%

1950 29,032 8.2%

1960 30,817 6.1%

1970 33,416 8.4%

1980 32,646 −2.3%

1990 31,971 −2.1%

2000 33,784 5.7%

2010 34,109 1.0%

2019 (est.) 33,792 [8] −0.9%

Expand full comment

"Recently [Ezra] followed it up with an editorial in the New York Times arguing that California, for all its supposed liberalism, was structurally conservative - it's good at cosmetic nods to progressive aesthetics, but incapable of progress toward real progressive goals. Its vetocracy is too entrenched to let anyone change anything."

Feature, not bug. Basically, everybody in California thinks California was best when they first got there. (That's sort of true, although a few things, most notably air quality, have improved dramatically.) And everybody in California worries that the rest of the world will someday wise up and want to move to California.

So, an enormous amount of effort has gone into vetoing new construction to keep the masses out.

Similarly, Robert Moses' downfall began when he tried to build a freeway through Greenwich Village, which people with cultured taste had long prized as a far-above average urban neighborhood.

Expand full comment

This focus on political inaction is misguided. Most of our “inability to build” arises not from the inability to pass new legislation but from the accretion of cruft over time in all “legible” (in the James Scott sense) constructs, whether it be code, regulations or just procedures/processes themselves. This sclerosis is not unique to the United States and it is not even unique to governments. It is the eventual fate of all large, old bureaucratic organisations - private or public. Bureaucracy + time = Vetocracy.

Most of this buildup occurs due to the natural need to deal with more and more scenarios and prevent gaming/abuse of the process (e.g. contractors gaming a bidding process). What starts out as a simple, legible process eventually transforms into a complex, illegible mess. Anything legible follows this pattern unless explicitly fought against - refactoring is an example of a practise that expressly tries to fight this decay. In larger, older organisations it is not realistic to expect much refactoring. No one ever gets promoted for doing “maintenance” work like refactoring.

This phenomenon isn’t even unique to capitalism. The Soviet Union was a great example of this evolution - by the 70s it was completely unable to evolve. As Robert Service pointed out, “the number of ‘normative acts’ of legislation in force across the USSR had risen to 600,000” by then. All that was possible was Brezhnevian “stability” and any attempt at true reform was more likely to trigger collapse (as Gorbachev found out).

You can’t solve this problem by making things more legible. Therefore crypto or “smart contracts” do nothing to solve this problem and may make it worse. Having an increasingly complex, arcane process enforced by crypto may make it worse as it becomes literally impossible to avoid the constraints enforced by the machine (as I describe here https://macroresilience.substack.com/p/an-explanation-for-our-current-institutional).

Expand full comment

One explanation worth considering is the US simply is bigger, has more interest groups and will thus gravitate towards creating more veto-points. What makes doing things simpler in smaller countries with less interest groups might not be something that can be scaled up. Other big countries like China or India don´t put as much consideration on groups interests as US does.

Expand full comment

I think much of the problem derives from the American system of paying lawyers even if you win. (In many countries the typical case is that if the judge agrees you were in the right all along, your opponent pays much or all of your lawyer's fees.)

This system makes it expensive to sue the government, so the right to sue is insufficient as a check on the government's power. Hence veto powers, which provide an additional check. The systematic long-term costs that this incurs is a lot less obvious than the benefit of being able to defend your rights without losing lots of money.

Expand full comment

Scott, I think you’re conflating laws with regulations. Ezra Klein’s arguments about vetocracy talks about laws passed by congress. Regulation keeps getting larger because there are many fewer veto points- generally speaking, regulatory agencies don’t need congress to approve new or expanded regulations.

Another point is that Ezra Klein seems to be wrong because the framers specifically wanted a bias for inaction. Maybe our bias for inaction became stronger, or maybe like with your argument about scientific research, we already got most of the low-hanging fruit so now it gets harder.

Expand full comment

Dovetail is Elon musk on Rogan speaking about why we need the FAA, but that pure disaster avoidance leaves out half the equation: the lives lost because of the innovations not made.

Expand full comment

"Recently he followed it up with an editorial in the New York Times arguing that California, for all its supposed liberalism, was structurally conservative - it's good at cosmetic nods to progressive aesthetics, but incapable of progress toward real progressive goals. Its vetocracy is too entrenched to let anyone change anything.

Nobody who’s ever looked into the housing crisis in San Francisco will disagree here, but it raises some complicated questions that need some sorting out."

If I go by the recent scandal, the problem with San Francisco is that local government is stupendously corrupt and everyone plus their hangers-on, acolytes, toadies, minions, and friends and family of all the above are making shedloads of money out of the convolutions of the system, therefore they have absolutely no incentive to reform any of it (especially since they might have to go to jail or even worse, disgorge the money they skimmed).

One reason for a "vetocracy" is Frank Herbert's The Bureau of Sabotage. Before he created Dune, he was writing space-age official saboteurs in the 50s-70s: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bureau_of_Sabotage

"In Herbert's fiction, sometime in the far future, government becomes terrifyingly efficient. Red tape no longer exists: laws are conceived of, passed, funded, and executed within hours, rather than months. The bureaucratic machinery becomes a juggernaut, rolling over human concerns and welfare with terrible speed, jerking the universe of sentients one way, then another, threatening to destroy everything in a fit of spastic reactions. In short, the speed of government goes beyond sentient control (in this fictional universe, many alien species co-exist, with a common definition of sentience marking their status as equals).

Founded by the mysterious "Five Ears" of unknown species, BuSab began as a terrorist organization whose sole purpose was to frustrate the workings of government in order to give sentients a chance to reflect upon changes and deal with them. Having saved sentiency from its government, BuSab was officially recognized as a necessary check on the power of government. It provides a natural (and lucrative) outlet for society's regular crop of troublemakers, who must be countered by society's regular crop of "do-gooders".

First a corps, then a bureau, BuSab gained legally recognized powers to interfere in the workings of any world, of any species, of any government or corporation, answerable only to themselves. Their motto is, "In Lieu of Red Tape."

Forbidden from committing acts of sabotage against private citizens, BuSab acts as a monitor of, and a conscience for, the collective sentiency, watching for signs of anti-sentient behaviour by corporate or government entities and preserving the dignity of individuals. Some essential functions of government are immune from BuSab by statute. BuSab is opposed by such organizations as the "Tax Watchers" who have successfully lobbied to grant themselves the same immunity from BuSab enjoyed by agencies such as public utilities.

BuSab monitors even itself and employs sabotage to prevent the agency from slipping into hidebound stasis. Agents are promoted to the head of the organization by successfully sabotaging the Secretary. By the same token, there is no term limit imposed on the Secretary of the Bureau of Sabotage. As long as he is alert enough to avoid being sabotaged, he remains qualified to lead BuSab."

Expand full comment

I think the broader historical answer to “ People have wanted fewer bad things forever, so any explanation of increasing vetocracy should start with an explanation of why this is becoming a problem now. ”

Is probably “Your [company / regime / nation / dynasty / civilization] grows ossified, collapsed, and is supplanted by a née one with fewer veto points”

Expand full comment

I guess the localist solution would be 'minimize vetoes by only allowing directly effected people a veto'.

An organization with 10 wild vetoes on the loose is a lot easier to run than one with 1000. You can get the 10 vetoes in a room and hash out an agreement in an afternoon, while with 1000 it looks more like the UN general assembly where a trade agreement stretches to thousands of pages and takes years.

The corollary would be, 'don't let any one issue effect too many people'. Big multinational corporations having a major financial incentive to veto local laws (eg https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/16/business/north-dakota-app-store-bill.html) is one of the best arguments I know for not having big multinational corporations, or at least barring them from your jurisdiction if you can.

Of course, this brings you closer to the 'fall for every trap Moloch can devise' end of the spectrum. And that is solved by decreasing the number of jurisdictions (ideally to one) and you can only do both by having less absolute number of humans. So maybe Malthus was right & we're just running out of coordination power before we run out of food.

Expand full comment

"Vetocracy" seems like a species of the genus "anticommons"--sometimes applied in the context of property law, but applicable in other contexts. Described by Michael Heller in a Harvard Law Review in the 1990s, summarized here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_anticommons

Expand full comment

A specific example of vetocracy in action: the failure to renovate and improve Penn Station in New York City. The project has been held up by various forms of bickering for over 30 years because nobody actually has the power to be Robert Moses and say "fuck you, we're doing this whether you want us to or not".


Expand full comment

If anyone else is wondering, "E/I balance" seems to be excitation/inhibition, usually used in neurology.

Expand full comment

The flaw with the increased regulation thesis is that the article does not present strong evidence that regulations are actually increasing beyond "everybody knows they do".

I know, it is the most persistent talking point among businesses, but the Ease of Doing Business around the world index has been published since 2004, and does not show a strong trend towards increased regulation in the US. For example, the number of procedures needed to build a warehouse fell from 19 in 2006 to 15.8 in 2017 (although the time needed to do so rose from 70 to 80 days). For other indicators, there is no strong change either. As an aside: it is often a libertarian assertion that governments almost never revoke regulations, and they just keep increasing. Internationally, this is, at least accoding to the index, wrong, as there is a very strong trend towards less regulation (although more so in developing countries than developed nations where the trend exists but is weaker).

2017 numbers, page 248: https://www.doingbusiness.org/en/reports/global-reports/doing-business-2017

2006 numbers, page 158: https://www.doingbusiness.org/en/reports/global-reports/doing-business-2006

International trend: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/10/24/doing-business-2020-sustaining-the-pace-of-reforms (figure at the bottom)

Expand full comment

Since Scott is a Psychiatrist, I thought he might relate Vetocracy to the psychology of saying "No". Saying "No" is multi-dimensional, but ultimately it is about power whether in personal relationships or institutional settings. Anyone who has worked in a large organization where multi-levels of approval are needed has experienced the executives who no matter what will always say no the first time a request arrives.

As an example, in getting papers approved for publication, a common practice is to put in something for an approver to delete because then when deleted they will approve......

Expand full comment

Is vetocracy measurable on a country-by-country or state-by-state level? If not, it would seem that this question is unquantifiable.

Expand full comment

How about, "Describe an existing structure which is impossible for anyone to change, and then describe how to operate effectively within it?"

Expand full comment

God I'd love scott's thoughts on Henry George (either "Progress and Poverty" or "Social Problems").

Expand full comment

Whatever happens to constructive criticism among all these vetos? It should be possible to apply some controls to bucket vetos by intent and sentiment, correct?

Expand full comment

The story about polarization/vetocracy that I've heard Ezra express on his podcast is pretty close to Scott's guess. Basically: The US government has a lot of veto points, but used to get things done in spite of these, because we had lower polarization between the parties. This usually comes up when people ask him what we should do about polarization - which usually boils down to "polarization is likely here to stay, and may even be desirable, but in order for it not to break us we need less veto points."

Expand full comment

I have 1 major problem with this piece: Why the automatic assumption that these veto points are bad things?

There's veto points to protect worker conditions, to protect the environment, to protect endangered species, to stop corruption... All of those are good things!

Back in the 17th century, the most profitable enterprise in the world was sending ships to the East Indies (side note: People often think this means India, but actually this means the lands east of India. So South-East Asia and Indonesia). This was absurdly profitable, with returns in the many hundreds of percents. These ships also regularly came back with a third of their crew dead or missing, if they came back at all.

If we had had stricter labor laws back then, the Dutch and British golden ages would have been far less rich. But that's not a bad thing! Not for those hundreds of thousands of sailors who would have survived, not to mention the native populations.

Looking at the world today, I'm sure there are some bad veto points. Obviously there will be inefficiencies in any complex system. But I see no evidence that these veto points are a bad things on average. I don't even see an attempt to make the argument. Just the automatic assumption that regulation must be bad.

So... what? If we want to build a road we should just bulldoze over everything in the way? People? Nature? Endangered Species? Ancient Burial Grounds? And if a third of the workers die during construction, we should look the other way? Because that's the logical consequence of saying there should not be any veto points.

Scott writes: "People have wanted fewer bad things forever, so any explanation of increasing vetocracy should start with an explanation of why this is becoming a problem (sic!) now."

But this is obvious! We're living at the first time in history where people have the power to enforce fewer bad things. Those 17th century sailors didn't want to die either! They just had no way to enforce safer labor conditions.

Western Europe has a lot more veto points than the USA. Stricter environmental laws, stricter labor laws, stricter privacy laws, higher food and safety standards, the list goes on. As a result, the US GDP is slightly higher, but average living standards in Western Europe are much higher, as well as indices for well-being and happiness.

So give me those veto points!

Expand full comment

If you look at the history of the US, the malapportioned-Senate veto point has been causing this sort of problem since *day one* and actually caused the Civil War. The way around it was adding new states, until they ran out of land to carve into new states. So this isn't actually new. What's odd is that the US has managed to not collapse earlier (except when it did, in the case of the Civil War).

The history of other countries is one of the removal of veto points.

Expand full comment

The moses problem seems easy enough to fix (in principle; the politics are hard now that we are here): have lots of veto points for government coercion, but not for private initiative. If Moses wants to build his road through poor ppl's houses he has to have a million listening sessions. If a private developer wants to build something it can just buy the houses, and buy any renters out of their contracts, at prices the people being displaced are willing to accept. Better yet, make Moses do the same, instead of having listening sessions. People who are actually harmed by the project get the compensation they need to make it fair; everyone else can stfu.

Expand full comment

the only purpose of an authoritarian socialist government that i can see would be its ability to achieve/build large projects rather rapidly and efficiently. But such a government would need a visionary at the helm, vs. the despots the role tends to attract - and no - trudeau is no such visionary.

Expand full comment
Jan 17, 2022·edited Jan 17, 2022

The main problem, I believe, comes from a deep misdiagnosing the problem. The problem is not over-regulation. The problem is outdated regulation. Since the rise of neoliberal mantra of "government should govern the less" in the 70s more and more roadblocks for new regulation were raised.

In effect this means many public policy fields are stuck in 50s and 60s regulatory frameworks, deeply outdated in regards to both technological and societal advancements. A thing many libertarians will never aknowledge is that a good regulation is actually necessary for a free market to remain free. An up-to-date, quality regulation has a great potential to advance competition and innovation. But the US has relinquished all capacity to create and enforce such regulations. The result are 21st century tech giants regulated by laws that were built for paper news stands and telegraphs. Cities dealing with 21st century problems using 50s euclidian zoning practices. 21st century internet content creators, publishers and platforms governed by a copyright law written in 1976.

Expand full comment