Peter Orszag Is So Over Democracy

The former White House staffer wishes America was "a bit less democratic"

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Peter Orszag has just about had it with American democracy. It's sloppy. It's inconvenient. And it rarely sides with the advice that "virtually all responsible economists" agree upon. In a new article for The New Republic, the former Obama director of Management and Budget presents the argument, "Why we need less democracy." His prescriptions for de-democratizing the country are far less exciting than Obama critics might imagine: no death panels, detainment camps or Five-Year Plans. He would, however, like to diminish the role of Congress and heighten the role of independent commissions. Orszag writes:

To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.

Real-world examples of this is include "tax stabilizers" or as Orszag explains them "those tax and spending provisions that automatically expand when the economy weakens, thereby cushioning the blow, and automatically contract as the economy recovers, thereby helping to reduce the deficit." They don't depend on fickle politicians, they simply go into effect when the GDP rises or falls.

To administration critics, the essay was an easy target. Michale Potemra at National Review depicts the former OMB director as a kind of sore loser. "There’s an iron-clad law of political physics that the party that is complaining loudest about democracy at any given moment is the party that happens to be losing politically at that same moment," he writes. Peter Suderman at Reason notes the difficulties of implementing an Orszag-perfect world:

Peel away the cute anti-democracy framework, then, and Orszag has done little more than argue that America should be governed more by empowered technocrats who agree with...Peter Orszag.

Indeed, Orszag goes on to argue that "a significant part of the response to polarization and gridlock must involve creating more independent institutions"—independent commissions and panels, presumably packed with people of Orszagian mindset.

But standing up for his man, Ezra Klein at The Washington Post notes that "'We need less democracy' is a good headline, but if you read the piece closely, that’s not actually what Orszag is arguing." He defends it thusly:

He wants to see unemployment insurance and the payroll tax cut tied to the unemployment rate, triggers that will help push Congress to act, and more semi-independent commissions and boards that can produce proposals that are protected from the filibuster. In some cases, like the idea for commissions whose recommendations would be immune to the filibuster, Orszag’s ideas would arguably make the chamber somewhat more democratic. But in all cases, it helps to understand his project for what it is: an effort to get around congressional paralysis, not to get around democracy.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.