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The dazzling mendacity of Vivek Ramaswamy
The Presidential hopeful treats the constitution as a speedbump
Nikki Haley delivered the cleanest shot in the second Republican debate. “Honestly, every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.” It echoed the best line from the first debate, delivered by Chris Christie: “I've had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.” Both barbs were directed at Vivek Ramaswamy, the former hedge fund manager and CEO of an unprofitable biotech firm.
Vivek’s identity is that he is the smartest guy in the room, the President as CEO who can magically shake things up and make government work like his prosperous business? Sound familiar? The echoes with Trump are deliberate. Which is why the attacks by Haley and Christie, which present Ramaswamy as a know-it-all know-nothing, are so damaging to his core political identity.
Vivek’s promises are more specific and the more outlandish than Trump’s, which makes them easier to pull apart. Trump is rarely too bothered about the details, but Ramaswamy is all facts and figure. He spits them out like an annoying debate prep kid. The I’m-smarter-than-you condescension is baked into his policy approach. He has called for poll tests for non-military citizens below the age of 25 (a group that happen to lean heavily toward Democrats). The logic is the basic rights of citizenship must be reserved only for those with high civic knowledge.
The thing is, Vivek is wrong, spectacularly wrong, on how the US government works. He has already failed his own civic test for the job of being President.
Since I study how government works, I will limit my attention to that topic. Here, Vivek’s campaign promises are not just unrealistic, but broadly illegal. The only real puzzle is whether he knows that he is lying. One theory is that his campaign strategy, like his debate strategy, employs the tools of the pick-up artist: draw attention to yourself, engage in outlandish peacocking or negging those around you. Do whatever you can to stand out, since attention is all that matters.
But in some case the claims are so easily rebutted, and make Ramaswamy look so foolish, that I am convinced that once he gets an idea in his head, and has polished it into a soundbite, he will not drop it, no matter how clearly wrong it is.
Promise: Vivek will move 75% of employees out of Washington DC!
Reality: 85% are already outside of DC
Earlier this summer, Vivek made attacking the federal government a centerpiece of his campaign, promising to “dismantle managerial bureaucracy” in his “war on the federal administrative state.” There is a lot here. But one claim jumps out, which is that he would move more than 75% of federal employees outside of Washington DC.
Good news! More than 75% of federal employees are already outside of the Washington DC metro area (which includes parts of Virginia and Maryland). Indeed, more than 85% are. Is Vivek planning to recall those errant 10%?
This fact might feel surprising to you because our political leaders are dedicated to othering federal employees and the government in general. They are far away from us, in swampy Washington DC. This makes it easier to engage in government bashing. But the reality is that government is us. Federal employees are our relatives and neighbors, spread across America. Indeed, the growth of the American frontier is the history of the growth of government, though this is a civic truth we like to downplay.
Its also not clear that moving any additional federal workers outside of DC en masse would save money. For example, Trump moved a Department of Agriculture research unit to Kansas City. Two-thirds of employees quit. Which was the point of the move in the first place, but a costly disaster for the organization in terms of loss of expertise.
If you want to move more good-paying federal jobs outside of DC while minimizing damage to the federal government, there is a solution: remote work. Too bad that Vivek promises to end “pro-lazy” remote work to glean the efficiencies of having employees spend their time sitting in traffic instead.
Promise: Vivek’s zero based budgeting system will save money
Reality: Jimmy Carter’s old budgeting system is doomed to failure
At the second Republican debate, Vivek brought to the national stage an idea he has been trotting out on the stump: Zero based budgeting.
This hot new idea? Jimmy Carter introduced this to the federal government, having done it, sort of, as Governor of Georgia. Jimmy Carter!
ZBB is one of those zombie ideas that refuses to die, despite a clear record of never working anywhere in government. Reagan abandoned it as soon as he became President. Occasionally, states will say they are doing ZBB, but if you look closely they are not (they might ask units to present 10% cuts and call it ZBB). They drop it when it becomes too absurd. I wrote a little about this in my book, The Dynamics of Performance Management pointing to the idiocy of ZBB. Texas literally printed a budget book with rows of zeros where previous allocations had once been: “As the document was distributed, budgeteers quietly ignored it and returned to the actual process of allocating resources by looking at how they had done so in the past.”
ZBB might work in private industry. But doesn’t work in government because it is inconsistent with how the US political system works. First of all, Congress, not the President, decides the budget. There is no single actor who can prioritize spending priorities, which ZBB requires. Thus, budgets are a function of coalition agreements, built up over time. This might look inefficient, but it brings us to the second reason why ZBB can’t work. The political system can manage only so much conflict. Starting the budget afresh reach year massively increases conflict. Incremental budgeting focuses conflict around the change in the budget, not the base, reducing conflict. Our current Congress cannot even manage an incremental budget, routinely failing to pass appropriations bills on time. Do you really trust them to manage to start from zero, every year, and come up with sound outcomes? Third, there are some practical barriers. Many public spending projects run for multiple years, and need stability in funding if they are to be effective. Zeroing our regulatory agencies, for example, removes certainty that market actors need. And about half of federal spending is on automatic pilot as entitlements, meaning they legally cannot be cut without passing unpopular laws changing the entitlement programs.
Maybe Vivek knows all this, maybe not. He also suggests that “the White House, not individual agencies, submit budget requests to Congress.” This is a suggestion for change that actually describes the status quo pretty well. Individual agencies submit budget proposals to the White House, in the form of the Office of Management and Budget, part of the Executive Office of the President, who then reshape it based on the priorities of the President before conveying to Congress. Maybe Vivek would not accept the agency submissions, and just redesign the budget each year based on his own deep knowledge of the federal government. Which Congress would then ignore.
Promise: Vivek will fire 75% of employees
Reality: The President can’t do this
Another headline proposal is that Vivek has promoted is that he will cut 75% of federal employees.
Is this a different 75% than the ones who will be moved out of DC? No one knows.
Can he do this? No.
Vivek claims that he is merely using existing presidential authority, that no prior president has happened to use, to engage in mass layoffs despite individual employee protections against being fired except for cause. Legal experts the New York Times contacted describe these claims as “fantastical” and “totally ignoring the Constitution.”
In other words, classic Vivek.
Vivek is also pretty vague about where these employees would be removed from. The majority of civilian employees work in the DOD, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security. You cannot cut 75% of the workforce while ignoring the biggest employers.
Such a massive purge of federal employees is also a pretty bad idea. In historical terms, the current federal government is not very large. About 0.6% of the US population are civilian federal employees. You have to go back to 1940 to find a lower ratio. Government is spending more than before, but a lot of this money goes to entitlements that require fewer public employees to manage. The growth of the federal personnel has come via the hiring of private employees, who are less visible and less accountable to taxpayers. They significantly outnumber civilian federal employees at this point, but never come up in discussions of cutting the size of government.
For the same reason Vivek cannot fire 75% of federal employees, he also cannot impose 8 year term limits on civil servants, as he has proposed. This is, again, a terrible idea. Government struggles to attract talented employees, so why make the job less attractive? And government depends on specialists who know, in depth, how programs work. Without that, they are more likely to screw up, violate the law, or become dependent on expensive consultants.
Promise: Vivek will shut down federal agencies
Reality: The President can’t do this
Vivek has promised to shut down several federal agencies, such as Department of Education, the F.B.I., the Food and Nutrition Service, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Can he do that? No.
Agencies are created by statute. Eliminating them requires a change in law. And Congress is quite resistant to major overhauls of government. The last one, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 involved a bloody fight, even as it occurred at the height of President Bush’s post 9/11 political popularity.
Never mind, says Vivek, I can just use my Presidential reorganization authority. Now, Presidents used to have significant reorganization power, which Congress, and eventually the Supreme Court, pared back. The last President to use reorganization power was Vivek’s icon, Jimmy Carter.
Vivek’s claim is that Congress merely has to not disapprove of his reorganization proposals (a so-called legislative veto). The Supreme Court explicitly eliminated the legislative veto in 1983 in INS vs. Chada. Vivek says this does not matter because a 1984 reorganization law, which required affirmative votes for reorganization in Congress, has expired, meaning “the 1977 Act's unexpired provisions are still in effect.” If your brain is hurting from the legal chicanery, I don’t blame you. But unconstitutional legislation does not suddenly become constitutional if other legislation has expired. Thats not how this works. Even the Heritage Foundation, a strong supporter of expansive presidential power, has rejected Vivek’s line of reasoning.
Side note: It is funny that Vivek acts like he is the first person who came up with the of shutting down agencies, specifically the Department of Education. Ronald Reagan called for shutting down the Department of Education as soon as it was created, and its been a perennial right wing goal ever since. And indeed, a 19th century version of the Department of Education was eliminated, by racists seeking to ensure that the Department would not monitor and report on the failure of southern states to keep their post civil war commitment to provide education to Black children. What a legacy to aspire to!
Promise: Vivek will change the mission of the Federal Reserve and eliminate 90% of employees
Reality: The President can’t do this
The Federal Reserve is, by design, designed to be unusually independent of federal control over mission and personnel. It is a quasi-governmental institution and self-funding. The President cannot cut its employees. He cannot even remove even the Chair of the Federal Reserve except for cause.
To the extent the fed is responsive to other parts of the federal government, it is to Congress, and not the President. The mission of the fed cannot be changed absent statutory change. By law, the fed must moderate excess unemployment and inflation. Vivek has called for the fed to focus only on dollar stability. Here, he means not consumer prices tied to inflation, but a range of commodities, including gold, silver, nickel and agricultural commodities. This is a variation on Ron Paul and the gold bug movement who call for a return to the gold standard, and indeed, Vivek has proposed Ron or Rand Paul as potential Fed chairs. This, again, would be a disaster.
There are two flavors to Vivek’s mendacity. The first is a) dishonesty about how government works, a narrative about the President as CEO. In this narrative, the constitution is full of convenient loopholes that no-one ever noticed before, and Congress barely exists. Here, Vivek is different by degree, though not type, among presidential candidates who make exaggerated promises about what they can do. But recent history shows that Presidents who ignore Congress tend to be less likely to get things done.
The second theme is indifference to the idea that working in government requires any expertise whatsoever. Fire federal employees! Move them out of DC! Put term limits on their jobs! In other words: make it harder to get good candidates, and erase as much institutional memory as possible. This is at odds with both common sense and research about government performance. Vivek’s ideas would cripple the ability of government to function, which is the point.
There was a time, in the pre-Trump era, when it would have been easy to dismiss Ramaswamy as a mostly harmless collection of soundbites draped in a suit and topped with a smile. But Ramaswamy is a skilled, confident communicator, whose campaign only exists because of a ubiquitous media presence. He is mainlining ever more radical ideas about how to destroy American administrative capacity. He may not hold public office soon, but he is doing real damage now by the lying to the public about how their government works. We have had so much of this.
Within the GOP media echo chamber, Vivek’s claims go mostly unchallenged, even on the Republican debate stage, among a group of fellow Presidential hopefuls who seem to despise him. The fact is that his lies about government are central to his appeal in these circles, which tells us much about how the far right has evolved in America.
Maybe, you think, only the rubes will buy this. Anyone with a basic, working knowledge of how America works, the people who would pass Ramaswamy’s poll test, will see through it. But his message appeals to the billionaire class who have their own reasons for destroying the administrative state, like this gentleman who weighed in during the second Republican debate.
In Michael Lewis’ book, The Fifth Risk, he noted how many of the superstar innovators who work within government came from immigrant families, reflecting a commitment to the country they had joined, and a knowledge about the value of a government that is stable, competent and honest, which often contrasted sharply with the governments they had left behind. By contrast Ramaswamy, the child of immigrants, or Musk, an immigrant himself, are so draped in self-assurance that they are convinced that their success is solely a function of their own skills, with nothing to do with the regulatory environment that the American administrative state has created. The rest of us will end up being stuck with the cost of their narcissism.
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