“One bright area in these dark days of American politics has been a blossoming of bold and interesting progressive policy ideas, such as wealth taxes, postal banking (offering basic financial services to customers who might not otherwise have access to them) and breaking up the giants of the tech industry. In the spirit of fresh starts, progressives should now confront an even more basic challenge: their complexity problem.
In recent decades progressives have not prioritized making policies and programs easy for most Americans to understand, use and benefit from. Fixing this problem will mean overcoming a streak of perfectionism and a certain intellectual defensiveness, but it must be done if progressives are to make government popular again.
The Affordable Care Act is a good example of the complexity problem. Yes, it was an important policy achievement, and yes, many of its problems can be rightly blamed on industry resistance and Republican efforts to dismantle it.
But the act is also exceptionally hard to understand and discouragingly daunting to make use of. An emphasis on “choice” and “transparency” resulted in a law that only a rational-choice theorist could love. The act made health insurance more complicated, not less, which is one reason that such a high percentage of medical bills go to paying administrative costs, and why the Affordable Care Act is much less popular than it could be.
It used to be said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. Today she’s a liberal who tried to pay a babysitter without breaking the law. It is admirable that Democrats try to tackle society’s thorniest problems with the often unwieldy tools of government, but that is not an excuse for programs that are too complex for their own good.
The truth is that good public policy can actually be elegant and simple to understand, even when the social problem that it’s addressing is complex. Social Security, Medicare, bans on indoor smoking, the “do not call” list (when it worked) and public libraries are examples of government solutions that are easy to understand and to benefit from.
Avoidance of complexity and minimizing choices are hallmarks of good design, as we have learned from the technological revolution in user interfaces. The age of impossible-to-use computers and incomprehensible TV remote controls has given way to the sleek and intuitive interfaces offered by pioneers like Steve Jobs of Apple. What progressives most need now is not more brains, but better policy designers.”