Friday, April 22, 2011

Dear Senator Obama

Major changes have occurred in the US since the time President Obama took office.  Measures were taken to address the financial crisis and health care.  The financial crisis was addressed with the stimulus bill; bailouts of banks, Fannie and Freddie, and automobile companies; and the financial reform bill.  Health care was addressed by the passage of the health care reform bill.  Whatever one’s views are on the overall impacts of these initiatives, there are few who are not troubled by some of the specifics.  The legislative pieces were messy affairs subject to the influence of heavy lobbying efforts resulting in payoffs to special interests.  Many argue that the stimulus bill was of no benefit at all and only served to increase the national debt.  The bailouts, even if justified, did not adequately compensate the government for the risks that it took.  Meanwhile, energy policy, climate change policy, entitlement reform, and long term deficit reduction have to date not been dealt with in any meaningful way.

Can we as a nation deal with our pressing issues only by, when we are in extremis, throwing our problems into the morass of Congress to devise unwieldy political solutions to what in most cases are in fact technical problems?

Here is a letter that I wish had written and sent to Senator Obama on June 7, 2008.

June 7, 2008

Dear Senator Obama,

Congratulations, now that Hillary just conceded the Democratic nomination to you.  I know that going forward that you will be focused on campaigning for the Presidential election in November.  However, it looks like this is going to be a year in which Democrats will prevail.  I expect that you will handily win the election and also win control of both the House and the Senate and even achieve a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.  Accordingly, I think you should seriously start thinking about how to best address some of the pressing issues that your administration will face.

Your administration will have to address crises in health care, energy policy and our dependence on very high priced foreign oil and the related problems of climate change, the growth in entitlements which threaten the long term financing of government, and tax reforms needed to promote economic growth.

These issues all involve complex technical matters.  I am concerned that simply asking Congress to deal with these issues will result in a drawn-out process in which political intrigue and lobbying by special interests will produce an inferior result.  Conversely, when you come into office with strong majorities in both the House and Senate, you will have a unique historical opportunity to present and get passed landmark initiatives in these areas.  This opportunity will be time-limited as your political capital will diminish over time.  I think you will have about a six month honeymoon period to get legislation you specify passed.  The important thing is to get the right legislation passed.

I suggest that you immediately set up a series of panels to study each of the critical issues.  For each issue (for example health care), I suggest that you appoint outstanding individuals with technical expertise but who are not experts in the specific field.  Of course these panels need to hear the opinions of the experts and study the evidence upon which their opinions are based.  However, in any field experts may be strongly tied to positions that they have staked out and may have soft or hard conflicts of interest based on professional associations and the need to maintain funding sources for their work (including funding by government agencies).  I therefore would suggest for each issue appointing a “jury” of individuals with relevant technical skills but who are outside the field of the specific issue being addressed.  These individuals would examine the evidence and hear the opinions of experts and come up with policy recommendations.  I call this the “fresh look” approach where policy recommendations are made by unbiased technically skilled individuals (who are however not experts in the specific field) on the basis of evidence and tested hypotheses rather than on the basis of political philosophy or doctrine.   Some of the recommendations you may be able to implement without new legislation.  Some of the recommendations may need to be converted into draft legislation which you could then present to Congress and with your prestige and persuasive powers attempt to get enacted with little political meddling.

One more thing, the issues we are facing are all complex.  Even the most informed evaluation of the evidence can come up only with a hypothesis on how best to proceed.  No one can fully predict the outcome of any given policy.  I would suggest therefore whenever possible, each candidate policy should be tested prospectively in demonstration projects prior to being implemented on a nationwide basis.

I hope that this advice will be useful to you and I wish you success in your Presidency.


Richard J. Cohen

P.S.  At the moment the stock market is down about 10% from its recent highs.  While this may not be a cause for alarm right now there are some who are concerned about the stability of our financial system and even the housing market.  Might be worthwhile to set up a panel to address this area as well.

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