A Camp-ground for Tax Reform

This post originally appeared on TaxVox, the Tax Policy Center blog.

By proposing a far-reaching and detailed rewrite of the Revenue Code, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) did something very few elected officials have done in recent years: He stuck out his neck and proposed radical reform. The initial press response has focused on politics and concluded that neither Republicans nor Democrats will be able to take on the special interests, that there is too much partisan gridlock, and that the plan is going nowhere.

But such responses largely ignore the history of successful reforms and forget that some policymakers do care about policy. If the goal is to conquer a mountain, someone has to start by building a common basecamp.

Almost any major systemic reform that does more than give away money creates losers. Someone always has to pay for whatever new use of resources the reform seeks—in this case, tax rate reduction and a leaner code with fewer complications. But politicians hate identifying losers. We voters punish them for their candor, which is why they nearly always increase deficits to achieve their goals and leave it to a future Congress to identify the losers who pay the bill.

With his full-blown tax reform proposal, Chairman Camp decided to lead and proposed repealing many popular tax breaks. There’s a lot I like and some things I don’t like in his proposal, but the simple fact is that a well-designed comprehensive alternative to current law can change the burden of proof. Change a few items, and each interest group argues that it was unfairly picked on. Put forward an alternative that takes on almost all preferences, and each interest then needs to justify why it deserves special treatment not accorded others.

The prospect for any reform is nil if no leaders do what Camp did and step up to the plate. The process is not one of instant epiphany. Rather it slowly builds support. Those who first propose change may increase the odds of success from 5 percent to 10 percent. Others who follow further improve those odds.  If we reject out of hand all ideas that start with less than a 50 percent chance of success, we’d probably never reform anything.

It often takes modest support by others to move the process forward.  In 1985, President Reagan and House Ways & Means Committee chair Dan Rostenkowski started the legislative process that yielded the Tax Reform Act of 1986 by simply agreeing not to criticize each other while the measure went through committee. Like Speaker Boehner today, Speaker O’Neill wasn’t enthusiastic about reform then, but Rostenkowski was able to proceed anyway.

In 1985, Rostenkowski knew he could pass a Democratic bill. But he knew it would go next to the GOP-controlled Senate Finance Committee. Each party would have a turn and a final agreement would come from a bipartisan conference committee. If House GOP leaders let Camp mark-up his bill now, Democrats would have their turn, at least this year, in the Senate. At least so far, both President Obama and senior Ways & Means Democrat Sandy Levin (D-MI)  have avoided any major criticism of Camp’s plan, but one wonders if Democrats aren’t going to forego an opportunity, once again joining Republicans in deciding in advance that nothing substantial can be done, so it won’t.

Leadership is seldom about achieving results that can be predicted with certainly. More often it requires using your clout to change the process or reframe the debate in ways more likely to serve the public. It’s certainly about more than protecting your party’s incumbents in the next election regardless of the policy consequences.

When I served as economic coordinator and original organizer of the 1984 Treasury study that led to the ’86 Act, it was a time when books declared major tax reform the “impossible dream.”  Sound familiar? In the face of that dispiriting commentary, I tried to encourage the Treasury staff with what I call the “hopper theory” of democracy: the more good things you put in the hopper, the more good things are likely to come out. By this reckoning, Chairman Camp has already won.


The Budget Deal: A Tentative Step Forward

In a recent Washington Post article, I characterized any forthcoming budget deal as two parties who had dug a hole for themselves deciding to stop throwing shovels at each other. Despite this skepticism, I must admit that this December 2013 agreement is certainly better than throwing shovels—or, more formally, threatening another government shutdown, along with its attendant costs on the workings of government, the well-being of citizens, and economic growth.

This budget agreement also takes a couple of baby steps forward. For the first time in a while, it includes modest reforms to mandatory programs, not just discretionary programs. It cuts back slightly on the silly sequester. Perhaps more important, it gets the two budget committees functioning again. Traditionally, members of these committees have had to fight with the rest of Congress as much, if not more, than with their opponents within the committees—partly because committee members, regardless of affiliation, shared the objective of getting the budget into some sort of order.

If the committee members have really decided to restore their status, and if they are constrained by other congressional leaders from making significant headway on the budget in the months leading to the next election, I hope at least they will start working on bipartisan budget process reforms, such as reducing the game-playing in future budget agreements. One example is greater constraints on future legislation that increases long-term deficits. A trick still possible (but not used in this deal) is to avoid scoring or counting costs against a bill when they fall outside an arbitrary ten-year budget window.


Sixteen Days in January: A Story of the Next Shutdown

Dateline: January 2014. Federal government shuts down completely.

Day 1. Mall, Washington, DC. Park Police decide shutdown again requires barring access to war memorials and the grounds of the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson monuments. Veterans rise up in anger and push back barricades. “If you’re furloughed, how can you keep us from entering the parks?” asks Joe Laploski, an Iraqi veteran from New Rochelle, NY. Park Police assign unpaid legal interns to determine whether Park Police should arrest themselves for working.

Day 2. White House. In hastily called press conference, President Obama announces major plan to deal with the national emergency. Enforcement on malls will be sustained, lest someone fall in the Tidal Basin and sue the government. Government debt will thereby be reduced, since Park Police cost less than those future lawsuits, at least on an expected basis.

Day 3. Capitol. Lights go out. Speaker Boehner lost underground. Democrats offer to fund search party, but, invoking the Hastert rule (requiring agreement by a majority of the majority party to act) and unable to decide whether they want to find him, Tea Party refuses.

Day 4. Longworth House Office Building. Democrats send search party after Boehner anyway. Find flasks of aged whiskey hidden by the late former Ways and Means Committee Chair Wilbur Mills two levels below the committee room where he presided. Debate ensues over whether imbibing is an essential government function. Inspired by former Occupy Wall Street supporters, Democrats decide to represent the activity as unity with the “99 percent,” who normally can’t afford such expensive booze.

Day 5. Treasury Department. Electronic payments of billions of government checks and bills stop. Secretary Lew called to emergency meeting at the White House to determine how much blame to assign to Republicans.

Day 6. Oklahoma City. Local Tea Party members claim the IRS is targeting them, citing delayed refund checks as proof. Back in Washington, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee decides to hold hearings in the dark.

Day 7. Near Capitol. Republican staffers gather at a local bar to debate how to get work done during the impasse. Consider asking the guy in charge of the lights for help, until they discover that position no longer exists because of the sequester. Boehner still missing.

Day 8. White House. President Obama plans national address during primetime. He asks the Democratic Party to pay for the speechwriters. Local TV stations refuse to broadcast the president’s speech unless their invoices for airing “Army Strong” recruiting commercials are paid.

Day 9. Treasury Department. Secretary Lew tries to issue checks to TV stations. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court bars him from doing so until he lays out the precise legal priority for billions of unpaid bills.

Day 10. Princeton, NJ. Despite the worldwide recession induced by the shutdown, foreigners still flock to outstanding US obligations, and interest rates on US government securities tumble instead of rise. In a New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman argues that at this low rate we should borrow all we can—unless it would pay for a Republican tax cut.

Day 11. Treasury Department. In response to the House Oversight Committee’s hearings, Treasury’s Inspector General issues report that Republicans were indeed targeted, indicating as proof that their delayed refund checks were bigger on average than those for Democrats. However, no crime was committed, he asserts.

Day 12. White House. President issues a statement that IRS targeting of Republicans is inexcusable. Fires top IRS data processing personnel and replaces commissioner with top executive from Avon Products with an unblemished record in taxes and data processing because she has never worked in either field.

Day 13. Sacramento. Governor Brown announces that millions of Californians are now insured under Obamacare. He asks that no penalties be assessed on those getting thousands of dollars in excess benefits since recordkeeping was impossible. On Meet the Press, Senator Cruz expresses amazement that the shutdown he favored affects every government program but Obamacare.

Day 14. White House. President Obama launches new peace initiative. He asks Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Bashar al-Assad of Syria to hire their own nuclear and chemical weapons inspectors, claiming that the U.S. shouldn’t have to pay to clean up other countries’ messes. President Putin offers to mediate and contribute Russian oil revenues.

Day 15. Capitol. Boehner found. Claims, like always, he knew exactly where he stood. Negotiates agreement with president on a continuing resolution to fund government until after congressional elections. Congress then shuts itself down until December 2014.

Day 16. Russell Senate Office Building. Before departing, Chairman Camp of the Ways and Means Committee and Chairman Baucus of the Senate Finance Committee issue a 6,700-page document with complex details on how to structure a major tax reform. Congressional leaders promise to take up issue immediately…in the next Congress.


Civil Rights and Economic Mobility

The 50th anniversary of “the March on Washington”—so famous and, in many ways, so successful that “the” is sufficient to define it—brought forth a gusto of stories about what had been achieved since then, including some very interesting blog posts by my colleagues. Several turned to data on the distribution of wealth, including some studies in which I participated, noting the lack of gains—especially in the past few decades—in the wealth and income of blacks and Hispanics relative to whites.

Those aggregate, raw figures on wealth and income act as a form of performance test on one aspect of government policy. They state rather emphatically that, whatever its merits, such policy was not sufficient to move the needle on wealth mobility across and among racial and other classes. Some simply draw the conclusion that we must redouble our efforts on programs that they have favored for a long time. Spend more on Medicare or Medicaid or cut tax rates or whatever. But what if that focus is wrong? What if the dominant liberal and conservative agendas over the past 50 years, at least when it came to social policy and taxes, never really had much to with mobility? What if the data compel us to adopt more dynamic, yet realistic, policies that put mobility and opportunity more at the forefront of policy in the 21st century?

Over these past few decades, liberal agendas have focused largely on the positive effects of ensuring that people had adequate income, food, health care, and so on—that is, consumption. Conservative agendas have focused largely on the negative effects of high income tax rates, particularly at the top of the income distribution. Often raising legitimate concerns about poverty or incentives, respectively, in many ways, each side has won its battle. Redistributive and other social welfare policies now dominate the $55,000 in federal, state and local spending, including tax subsidies, now spent on average per household, while tax rates at the top tend to be about half what they were from World War II to the early 1960s.

Relative to 50 years ago, fewer people are without food or food assistance, people can now retire on Social Security for many more years, health care has become far more life-sustaining, more people go to college, and, while economic growth hasn’t been great lately, we’re still about three times richer than we were. So the record isn’t all that bad, despite current travails. But, once again, those successes largely did not carry over to mobility among and across classes.

Here are just a few examples of how policies have given limited attention to mobility:

  • Current welfare policy helps feed and house people, but it often discourages work by imposing very high costs on moderate-income households with children, as they can lose hundreds of dollars of benefits for each $1,000 they earn.
  • Even while single parenthood remains a major source of poverty for many, that same welfare policy now penalizes—on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars—low-income couples with children who decide to get or remain married.
  • Although investing in quality early childhood education appears to have a high payoff, the means testing of Head Start and other programs re-segregates our schools, with poorer kids often clustered together in classrooms separate from middle-class kids.
  • Housing rental subsidies help people live in decent housing, but they also discourage home-buying and paying off a mortgage along the way, keeping lower-income families away from that  classic and, for large segments of the population, most important mechanism for saving.
  • Our retirement policies help most Americans live their later years in some comfort. But by encouraging early retirement, Social Security and other programs lead to an increased wealth gap among the elderly as richer classes retire later—hence, work and save longer—than poorer classes.
  • Low tax rates may encourage entrepreneurship, but when they don’t raise enough revenue to pay our bills, they add to interest costs on the debt, gradually eroding support for investments in people, education, and similar efforts.

It’s not that liberals and conservatives advocating these older agendas don’t care about mobility. They’ll tell you that people with more sustenance will be able to work and study harder and entrepreneurs facing lower tax rates will create more jobs. But they try to claim too much for agendas that, though successful on some fronts, did not improve mobility in recent decades. The proof is in the pudding.

Raising these issues threatens those who fear that acknowledging failure on any front merely empowers those who advocate for the opposing agenda. And in today’s chaos that passes for policymaking, that is probably true. I don’t even know in what galaxy to place debates over previously nonpartisan issues like extending the debt ceiling so Congress can pay off its bills.

For me, it isn’t about abandoning the past. It’s simply about moving on.


What Do Mark Mazur, Lois Lerner, and J. Russell George Have in Common?

Until recently, few Americans knew the names of these three Treasury officials, long-time public servants whose talent and many years of hard work elevated them to prestigious government positions. But many now recognize, if not their names, the issues with which they have been intimately associated. Each has moved into the spotlight recently after putting out a statement, report, or blog dealing with a very controversial aspect of tax administration: employer mandates under the new health care reform law, or Obamacare, in the first case; and tax exemption for social welfare organizations with such labels as “tea party” or “progressive” in the last two.

What Mazur, Lerner, and George also hold in common is the forced assumption of greater responsibility than is warranted, as elected officials and their top appointees—those who wrote or failed to fix the laws in the first place—scramble to secure a position of innocence and fault-finding in the blame game known as Washington, DC.

Mazur is the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury who first revealed in a blog posting the delayed implementation of one important feature of Obamacare, the mandate on larger employers to pay a penalty if they don’t offer health insurance to their full-time employees. Lerner is the IRS official, now threatened with criminal charges by politicians, who first noted that some of those under her had inappropriately targeted “tea party” and other groups for extra review when they applied for tax exemption as social welfare organizations. George is the Treasury Inspector General whose report on the IRS targeting of tea party groups is now being lambasted by Democrats for failing to note sufficiently that the IRS was simultaneously scrutinizing other applicants, such as progressives.

Should we focus so much attention on the talents of Mark Mazur in regulating, Lois Lerner in enforcing, or J. Russell George in inspecting? (I may be influenced by that fact that I know two of them, but I can assure you that many others would say that each is well above average in integrity, ability, and devotion to the public.) Or should we instead turn our attention to how the government turns inward when it functions poorly, the system creaks, and officials remain at an impasse to fix things everyone has long known are broken?

Every expert on nonprofit tax law will tell you that providing tax exemption for organizations operated for social welfare purposes (“exclusively” under Code section 501(c)(4), but “primarily” under the IRS’s more lenient regulations) does not mesh easily with organizations set up to engage in significant political activity. Also, delays in getting exemption have been an issue for years for nonprofits in general because of lack of IRS staffing, extensive abuse of the law, and the difficult-to-enforce boundary lines between exempt and nonexempt activities, the latter including political campaigning. And if there were an easy way to figure out which organizations really devote themselves to social welfare, why hasn’t the White House or any member of Congress come up with one? If things go amuck in some IRS Cincinnati office, wasn’t error built into the system a long time ago?

As for the health care reform law’s employer mandates, of course these were going to put extraordinary pressures on employers to hire part-time rather than full-time employees, on payroll and other reporting systems to devise ways to measure hours of work (however inaccurately), and on an understaffed IRS to somehow enforce the law’s requirements. If things go amuck, how much responsibility rests with Treasury and IRS versus a political system that can only vote thumbs up or thumbs down on Obamacare?

Rest assured, when new benefits are bestowed on citizens, messages spew forth from elected officials and their spokespersons in the White House and Congress. “Look what we have done for you,” they pronounce. Can you remember top White House and Treasury officials ever deferring preferentially to Mark Mazur to make one of these more politically appealing types of announcements?

When things unravel a bit, however, roles reverse. Elected officials and their top cadre quickly disassociate themselves from both the creation of the problem and their past failure to address it.

Wouldn’t it be a lot more honest to share responsibility for successes and failures, more helpful to reveal rather than hide the limits on tax administration, and more productive to spend more time on fixing than blaming? As long as every difficult issue threatens to become political high theatre, the Mazurs, Lerners, and Georges of long government service will be asked to play the role of clown or villain for scripts they can, at best, edit but not write.


Austerity, Stimulus, and Hidden Agendas

Nothing better exemplifies our gridlock over the future of 21st century government, as well as how to recover from the Great Recession, than the false dichotomy of austerity versus stimulus.

The austerity thesis, reduced to its simplest form, suggests that government has been living beyond its means for some time, only exacerbated by the actions that accompanied the recent economic downturn. Sequesters, tax increases, and spending cuts become the order of the day.

The stimulus hypothesis, reduced also to simplest form, suggests that more government spending and lower taxes puts money in people’s pockets and helps cure a country’s economic doldrums. Once the economy is doing better, government spending will naturally fall and taxes rise.

The debate then plays out largely over deficits: do you want larger or smaller ones?

But reduced to this form, the debate is a fallacy, for several reasons.

First, one must define larger or smaller relative to something. Last year’s spending or taxes or deficits? What’s scheduled automatically in the law? The public debate often glosses over these issues. Which is more expansionary when keeping taxes at the same level: an economy whose growth in spending is cut from 6 to 4 percent or one whose growth is increased from 1 to 3 percent?

Second, a country’s ability to run deficits depends on its level of debt. A recent debate over whether at some point higher debt starts to slow economic growth doesn’t change the fact that lenders want to be repaid. People won’t loan to Greece now, but they still find the U.S. Treasury securities a safe haven for their money.

Third, and by far the most important, what timeframe is involved? Is the Congressional Budget Office pro-austerity or pro-stimulus when it concludes that sequestration hurts the economy in the short run, but is better in the long run than doing nothing about deficits? No one on either side suggests that debt can grow forever faster than the economy. Everyone implicitly or explicitly believes that to accommodate recessions when debt grows faster there are times when debt must grow slower.

So where’s the rub? Here you must understand the emotional systems, usually veiled, that lie behind those on both sides trying to force the problem to an either/or solution.

Start with hardline austerity advocates. Many of them don’t just want smaller deficits. They want smaller government—or, at the very least, they want to prevent the government from taking ever larger shares of the economy, even given changing demographics. Essentially, austerity advocates don’t trust their pro-stimulus adversaries, some of whom can almost always find an economy going into a recession, in a recession, coming out of a recession, or attaining a lower-than-average growth rate and, therefore, needing some form of stimulus. Austerity advocates have learned from long experience that once government spending is increased, it’s hard to reduce. So they feel they have to get what deficit reduction they can now that the public’s attention to recent large debt accumulations is creating pressure to act.

Now for many the hardline stimulus advocates, their support for additional temporary government intervention cannot be entirely disentangled from their sympathy for a larger future government. Else why not agree to cut back now on the scheduled acceleration of entitlement programs, particularly fast-growing health and retirement programs? That would bring the long-run budget, at least as currently scheduled, back toward balance. It would simultaneously please many of their austerity opponents and allow for more current stimulus.

The hidden agendas are complicated further by inconsistencies on both sides. Many hardline austerity advocates, at least in the United States, don’t want cuts to apply to defense spending. For their part, many hardline stimulus advocates would be glad to pare growth in tax subsidies.

Regardless, the dichotomy falls apart once one realizes that a solution can involve a slowdown in scheduled growth rates in spending and a higher rate of growth of taxes, accompanied by less short-run deficit reduction and an abandonment of poorly targeted mechanisms such as sequesters.

Consider the buildup of debt during World War II, the last time we saw U.S. levels above where they are today. Debt-to-GDP fell fairly rapidly after the war all the way until the mid-1970s. While the growing economy certainly helped, tax rates that were raised substantially during the war were largely maintained afterward, and spending had essentially no built-in growth (actually huge declines when the troops came home). Just the opposite holds now even with recovery: there are limited tax increases to pay for past accumulations of debt or wartime spending, and spending is scheduled to grow long-term, even after temporary recession-led spending and defense spending on Afghanistan declines.

Both sides—pro-austerity and pro-stimulus—want desperately to control an unknown future, either by not paying our current bills with adequate taxes or by maintaining built-in growth rates in various programs, mainly in health and retirement. The false dichotomy between austerity versus stimulus has fallen by the wayside, and what we see through the veil are two sides in mutual embrace trying to control our future, whatever the cost to the present.


When Policy Meets Statistics: The Reinhart and Rogoff Study on Excessive Debt

Knowing how many of us economists toil away in obscurity on most research, I’m always intrigued by what catches the press’s and public’s attention. Take, for example, the significant attention paid to a 2010 study by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that concluded that countries with debt levels above 90 percent of GDP began showing slower rates of growth. When Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, recently had trouble replicating Reinhart and Rogoff’s results, the debate played out in national news outlet.

Unfortunately, this discussion quickly devolved from substance to politics to arguments ad hominem. Without getting into the extent to which I or others can validate Reinhart and Rogoff’s (R&R’s) original findings, I offer six cautions for anyone witnessing this or a similar statistical debate with significant policy implications: (1) statistics should never be interpreted as showing more than simple but potentially useful correlations; (2) healthy skepticism is required for all social science research, which seldom gets replicated for validity; (3) all empirical economic work is based on history that will not repeat in the exact same form; (4) research can certainly contradict conventional wisdom but not reason; (5) arguments ad hominem, particularly by those with their own agendas, are unhelpful; and (6) be careful with labels and straw men.

  1. Correlation versus causation. It’s long been stressed that statistical tests never prove causation, not simply because they can’t but because researchers make many choices and assumptions, often of statistical convenience. This doesn’t mean statistics are useless. Just accept that any result merely shows that A and B seem to occur together even after trying to account for other influences under a huge range of never-fully-tested assumptions.
  2. Skepticism. A growing body of “research on research” shows that few social science experiments, and even many medical studies, are replicated. Also, positive results get published; negative results usually do not. R&R’s study was replicated mainly because it got an unusual amount of attention.
  3. History. The past never repeats itself exactly—or, as Heraclitus warns, “You could not step twice into the same river.” That historical interpretations are contained and sometimes couched in data analyses doesn’t mitigate this well-known caution.
  4. Reason versus conventional wisdom. The R&R debate mainly revolves around two reasonable notions. One is the simple arithmetic conclusion that debt can’t rise forever relative to national income, along with the related economic conclusion that higher levels of debt can and have been shown in many places to have consequences for investment, interest rates, ability to borrow, and how government revenues are spent. The other is that institutions, times, places, and circumstances matter greatly, and they affect how one should interpret past data, such as those presented by both R&R and their critics.
  5. Ad hominem arguments. R&R published some of their work with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, so some of those who attacked R&R may have considered the authors guilty by association because of Peter George Peterson’s concern about deficits and his contributions to that Institute. Peterson’s own “guilt” on budget issues seems to be that he became rich on Wall Street, although he favors higher taxes on what he calls “fat cats” like himself. Still, while many of those who engage in these attacks themselves fail to represent their own or their institution’s sources of funding, let’s be honest. Much social science research is funded in ways that doesn’t necessarily bias how the research is done, but rather what is researched in the first place. So, unless one fully engages and thoroughly analyzes every study, even the careful academic reader must often try to determine trustworthiness in other ways, such as whether the researchers report results only consistent with some special interest or political party.
  6. Labels and “straw men.” While we all use labels and straw men at times to set up the stories we tell, they at best simplify greatly. In this case, R&R are identified as advocates of “austerity” and their opponents as “Keynesians” advocating stimulus, both of which are nothing more than labels. Most budget analysts I know worry about deficits but vary widely in whether they would engage in more short-term stimulus or in how strongly they believe that a path toward long-term balance even requires austerity. For instance, is reducing some rate of growth of spending, no matter what its level, austerity? Is the Congressional Budget Office an advocate of austerity or Keynesian when it asserts that sequestration hurts the economy in the short run, but has long-run benefits relative to doing nothing about deficits?

The bottom line: use extreme caution no matter which economist you read or believe.

Full disclosure: I have spent most of my career at the Urban Institute or the Treasury Department, brief periods each at the Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute, and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (which differs from the Peterson Institute for International Economics). I also serve or have served on many advisory groups and boards for such organizations as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Comptroller General of the United States. As a consequence, je m’accuse of being among the many economists limited more than I would like by what research is supported by those institutions or their funders.


On Popes and Presidents, Curiae and Cabinets

Our proclivities toward worshipping our leaders might not be genetic, but they can certainly be traced through the ages. We like our kings…for a while. We believe that if we could concentrate power in the hands of someone who understands us, the world, and maybe even the heavens above, someone who can crush the opposing tribe or -ism or evil, someone who can make things “right,” then we, too, will be all right.

I wonder how much this type of thinking sets up our popes and our presidents—our kings of today—for failure. It’s not simply that they are human and fallible, and, therefore, must disappoint our regal expectations. It’s that as chief administrators of vast bureaucracies, they fear delegating to others who, in failing, might threaten the trappings of the office. Popes and presidents must deceive us, and themselves, that they understand what’s necessary to run this bureaucracy, when in reality they comprehend a tiny fraction. So these leaders consolidate power in a few hands who manage their leaders’ aura.

It’s a losing game. In the end, our popes and presidents can only be strengthened in performing their duties once they understand how centralizing power in their curiae and White Houses weakens them.

Consider the similar paths of the Vatican and the White House over different timespans. As the world became far more complicated, and the talents and education of people more widespread and diffuse, these organs have increasingly centralized power into fewer, not more, decisionmakers. Within the Vatican, bishops, along with the people who in early church history used to help select them, must obey curial powerbrokers. Within the White House, Cabinet secretaries, sometimes unrecognized by their own president, must check their every action with White House political advisors and pundits.

If you’re a bishop today, among your chief tasks is to hide your sins and those of the priests you have ordained. The Vatican, which has never liked hearing bad news, has reinforced this tendency with the belief that ordination up the clerical hierarchy changes a person’s very nature; each higher level intercedes with God in ways not possible to those lower down the ontological chain. With that mindset, the public might be scandalized to discover that a cleric is so human that, like the rest of us, there’s nothing he does that someone else couldn’t do better.

We note with horror the depth and breadth of the child abuse cover-up, yet rest assured this is but one of the crimes and scandals that this church among others has concealed. I know personally a case where a priest with mental problems was stealing from his own parish. Marked bills were placed in the collection basket, but when the bishop was presented with this incontrovertible proof, he responded that the parish priest held all power and should be obeyed. Apparently, that priest had been sent from parish to parish each time his problems became more visible. Now, multiply that type of anecdote by the thousands.

If you’re the head of the IRS or the Social Security Administration, the White House judges your success mainly by the bad publicity you avoid, not by the number of taxpayers or beneficiaries you serve well. Heaven forbid that you confess you’re unable to administer policies so they could be reformed. Of course, presidential appointees will always avoid publicly criticizing policies their president is promoting; for better or worse, bureaucracies can’t tolerate inconsistent messaging. Today, however, those limits extend much further. Now the government enforces silence on publishing studies that reveal limitations on policies the White House simply doesn’t care about or want to tackle. Why stir up political opposition?

As the king’s protectors expand and centralize their power, they further weaken the organs of the institutions they supposedly support. White House officials brag that they, not the Treasury officials with more expertise, write tax policy. Vatican officials try to silence philosophers and theologians at Catholic institutions who for some reason believe that knowledge expands and evolves when the Vatican prefers to cast it as written on tablets only to be repeated.

There is a moral here. As education and knowledge are dispersed in advanced societies, so also must decision making. More mistakes will be made, it’s true, when more decisions are made by more people, but institutions will advance more. Both credit and blame will be more dispersed, reducing our dependence upon and criticism of a pope or president, whose human, not divine, task becomes redefined to guide a bureaucracy that helps multiply the best of what we, not he, has to offer.