Asian Autocracy is Not the Solution to Failed Leadership

Yesterday Ezra Klein wrote a short response to a column by David Brooks which deserves a mention. As usual with Klein it’s not what he says so much as what he omits that requires comment.

Daydreaming about the virtues of autocratic government isn’t solely the news beat of Thomas Friedman anymore. Apparently David Brooks also believes the U.S. could learn something about effective government from tyrannies like China or autocratic regimes like Singapore.

What Brooks proposes is more elite-negotiated settlements like the Simpson-Bowles commission, which was set up to find a combination of tax increases and spending cuts both parties could live with and which would eventually lead us toward a balanced budget. Here’s Klein’s response to that idea:

Of course, there already was a Simpson-Bowles-type commission that
overwhelmingly rallied establishment opinion to its side. It was called
the Simpson-Bowles commission. And it failed. So did its descendants
like the Senate’s Gang of Six and the Supercommittee.

Whatever you think of the Simpson-Bowles plan the outcome proved that
these kinds of elite committees aren’t able to browbeat their plans
through Congress. The outcome of Simpson-Bowles is a big part of the
reason some in Washington have begun envying the decisiveness of East
Asian autocracies, not a model for how the US can mimic their

To merely say Simpson-Bowles failed is to gloss over some important details about why it failed. Here’s Erskine Bowles himself explaining what happened back in 2011.

Some of the subsequent failures Klein mentions also fall at President Obama’s feet. Who demanded more revenues after a deal had been reached in principle with Speaker Boehner (because he didn’t want to appear weak)? Whose idea was sequestration and who spent weeks before the deadline trying to scare the country with horror stories about the impact it would have (none of which were true)? Who played games with closing open-air public monuments to veterans as some kind of political symbolism?

There was no real systemic failure at play in the collapse of Simpson-Bowles. There was nothing stopping the President from embracing the plan and running with it as Bowles expected he would do. President Obama could have made that choice. Instead he chose to play politics. The problem wasn’t a failed commission so much as a feckless leader. And a more autocratic political system won’t solve that problem, it will only make it worse.