The Big Kludge; Clumsy, Goofy, Awkward… but, Good Enough: Tangled-Mess of ‘Kludgeocracy’ in Business, Government…

Get with the ‘kludge’; Yes, kludge… Kludge is word of the decade: Need to sound smarter than smart? Kludge… Need to rip with flair? Kludge… According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary; kludge means; awkward, clumsy… it’s an inferior system, program that is crafted quickly to resolve a pressing problem…

According to Oxford-English Dictionary; kludge means; collection of ill-assorted parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose, which provides a temporarily and clumsy solution for a specific fault, problemA kludge is a work-around, quick-and-dirty solution that is clumsy, inelegant, difficult to extend, hard to maintain, and yet it can be an effective, quick solution to a problem… It’s a rough synonym for the term ‘jury-rig’, and has come to mean– ‘not smart’, ‘ ridiculous’…

However, to many people ‘kludge’ is seen as innovative and is often referred to as a ‘MacGyver’ type solution (after highly inventive TV character of the 1980s), which allows a system to stay-up, running despite its clear need for a better solution. It’s clever trick intended to solve a difficult issue in a quick but not so elegant manner… and many times it works for the wrong reason…

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According to Eric Raymond; the term is indirectly derived from the German ‘klug’ meaning– clever… its general meaning and usage was possibly inspired by the Kluge Company’s ‘paper feeder’– a fiendishly complex assortment of cams, belts and linkages, and devilishly difficult to repair… but oh, so clever! According to J W Granholm; a kludge does not work for amateurs; there is a certain, indefinable, masochistic finesse that must go into true kludge building– an amateur may readily presume that– ‘that’s the way things are done’… But, a professional can easily spot it as a kludge… According to Arturo; probably the most famous visual representation of a ‘kludge’ is found in Goldberg machines, i.e.; Rube Goldberg’s invention that involves complex devices to solve a simple task…

But sometimes the process of ‘tinkering and kludging’ can be a good thing, for example; the terms; ‘change or perish‘ is a business truism, but so is its unhappy corollary; companies ‘change and perish’. The process of change can badly disrupt an organization… According to Eric Abrahamson; companies can alternate major change initiatives with carefully paced periods of smaller, organic change, using processes he calls ‘tinkering and kludging’ (kludging is tinkering on a large-scale), and he says the result is dynamic stability, which allows change without fatal pain… visualize it as a process of continual but relatively small reconfiguration of existing practices and business models rather than the creation of new ones.

As they tinker and kludge, successful companies would be wise to follow four guidelines; don’t reward shameless debt; appoint a ‘chief memory officer’ who works with the company to avoid making the same old mistakes; ‘tinker and kludge’ internally before searching for solutions externally, and hire generalists who tend to be more adept at tinkering and kludging…

As might be expected, the concept of kludge has made the leap from science to public policy, and partly into economics… Today, much of U.S. public policy might be described as clumsy and wasteful, but temporarily effective… To see policy kludges in action, one need look no further than, for example; mind-numbing complexity of health-care system, or the Byzantine system of funding higher education, or the bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from welfare, to immigration, to environmental regulation… According to Paul Krugman; Obamacare is a big kludge; clumsy, ugly structure that more or less deals with a problem, but in an inefficient way…

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In the article Kludgeocracy: The American Way of Policy by Steven M. Teles writes: The issues that will dominate politics for foreseeable future is the complexity of government, rather than its sheer size. Greater attention will be placed on rickety, complicated and self-defeating complexity of public policy across multiple and seemingly unrelated areas of government activity… But, you cannot solve a problem until you can name it: There are names for many areas of politics, e.g.;right vs. left’, ‘big vs. small government’...

But no name for what should be an equally important set of questions that cuts straight through the ideological divisions, namely– complexity vs. simplicity.  And, for lack of a better alternative the name given is ‘kludgeocracy’. The most insidious feature of kludgeocracy is the hidden, indirect, and frequently corrupt distribution of costs. Those costs can be put into three categories– costs borne by individual citizens… costs borne by the government that must implement the complex policies…  costs to the character of the democracy… The price paid by citizens to comply with government complexity is the most obvious downside of kludgeocracy…

Moreover, kludgeocracy is a significant threat to the quality of the democracy. The complexity that makes so much of U.S. public policy vexing, wasteful is also what makes it so easy for organized interests to profit from the state’s largesse. The power of such interests varies in direct proportion to visibility of the issue in question… According to Mark Smith; corporations are most likely to get their way when the political issues are out of the public gaze… That is why business invests so much money in politics– to keep issues off the agenda... The cost of kludgeocracy is considerable, but addressing the problem requires that we understand why U.S. politics turns to kludgey solutions so regularly…

A condition as chronic as kludgeocracy inevitably results from many causes at once, but the key interlocking causes are, for example; the structure of government agencies, public ambivalent, contradicting  expectations of government… and, most disturbing, the emergence of a ‘kludge industry’ that supplies a constant stream of complicated, roundabout policy solutions…

Kludgeocracy is self-generating; it feeds off the system’s appetite for complexity, in the name of markets and innovation, and driven by increasingly strict and often arbitrary limits on government. U. S. has created what public administrators call a ‘hollow state’, in which core functions of government are hired out to private contractors, operating under oversight of increasingly overwhelmed civil servants… The great agenda for the foreseeable future is coming to grips with– kludgeocracy…

In the article High Cost of Rube Goldberg Policy-making by Kevin Drum writes: Corporations regularly rail against the complexity of the tax code, but they’re crying crocodile tears… The U.S. ‘statutory’ corporate tax rate is one of the highest in the world, but the ‘actual’ tax rate that corporations pay is one of the lowest. Why? Corporations have spent decades lobbying for mind-boggling array of– loopholes, exemptions, change definitions…

Likewise, Wall Street complains that the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill is too complex, but they’ve spent the past couple of years trying to make it even more complex. Why? Because complexity is a friend… simple and blunt rules are hard to evade, but complex ones have lots of escape hatches for those clever enough to find them. And make no mistake; the geniuses on Wall Street and the tax accountants at Fortune 500 firms are very clever… So are their lawyers, who will spend the next decade getting agency rulings, and court decisions that lock in place all the loopholes that they discover…

According to Steven Teles; complexity affects policymaking, e. g. ; First, U.S. has a natural affinity for fairness. We want social policies to be fair, which means, (a) making sure not a single deserving person is excluded, (b) making sure that not a single undeserving person gets benefits they shouldn’t. We’re just not willing to accept 95% fairness anymore, and that leads us down a rabbit hole of ever-increasing complexity… Second, social policy-making has become so hard that it can only happen if it’s hidden in the fine print, so to speak… This means accepting a second or third-best option that doesn’t raise too many hackles, rather than a first-best option that might be both better and cheaper, but can never get through legislative process.

So what’s the answer? There are many suggestions, e.g.; policy-makers made to be embarrassed when associated with kludginess… The truth is that more transparency would be good for everyone: Good because it makes the costs of programs obvious, and when taxpayers understand how much programs cost, they’re less excited about expanding them. But it’s also good because it allows for the design of better and more cost-effective programs, and that makes government more efficient. And, a more efficient government with fewer corporate subsidies is one that taxpayers are more likely to support…

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What makes a program or policy qualify as ‘a kludge’? A program or policy qualifies as a kludge if the fundamental policy mechanism is substantially more complicated than the problem it is trying to solve… In general, it’s a ‘kludge’ when it builds upon rather than supersedes, the policies that came before it…

According to Sheryl King; economists are famous for lifting concepts from scientific theory and applying them to issues in their field. In that spirit, I propose adding one more, namely; ‘kludge’… because it goes a long way to explaining sluggish economic growth and poor business productivity… There are at least two ways kludge can suppress private sector economic growth:

When business opts for quick fix rather than complete overhaul, replacement of out-of-date processes… and, when it holds off investing in new and more productive capital equipment... Quick fixes enable a business to achieve a near-term boon to the bottom line and shareholder return, but at expense of sustained business performance. 

According to Steven Teles: I’m not entirely sure that anyone actually does have an incentive to reduce kludginess. I do think that if the costs of kludgeocracy were more visible, there would be more incentive for business and government to propose– anti-kludges. If the compliance costs of various public policies were clearer, the craziness of doing things indirectly might be clearer and politicians might actually worry about being blamed for them…

According to Suzanne Mettler in her thesis; ‘Submerged State’; it’s a kludge in action when the political system buries the actual actions of government under a confusing web of laws… And the greater the number of laws, the more nooks and crannies for the ‘kludge industry’ to embed itself by pulling the fundamental knowledge needed for governing and putting it into the private sector, thus they become nearly indispensable… Hence, it’s not so much about big government, but more about the big ‘kludge’ government…