Punctuated Equilibrium

by Reihan Salam

In Lobbying and Policy Change, a very useful book I hope discuss at greater length, the authors suggest that punctuated equilibrium is a better way to understand the policymaking process than incrementalism:

In this vein one alternative to incrementalism is Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones’s work on punctuated equilibrium. It is not a full-blown theory of policy making, but it goes right to the heart of incrementalism’s broadest, most emphatic claim: that policy making moves in small steps because of inherent constraints in the political process. Baumgartner and Jones first attempted to refute the belief that policy making is dictated by constraints mitigating against large-scale change. They find, for example, that new ways of thinking about a complex problem can sweep through the government with surprising rapidity …

Consider, for example, the debate over health reform. In an insightful blog post published last year, Mark Schmitt, editor of The American Prospect, offered a brief history of the public option:

One key player was Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future. Hickey took UC Berkeley health care expert Jacob Hacker’s idea for “a new public insurance pool modeled after Medicare” and went around to the community of single-payer advocates, making the case that this limited “public option” was the best they could hope for. Ideally, it would someday magically turn into single-payer. And then Hickey went to all the presidential candidates, acknowledging that politically, they couldn’t support single-payer, but that the “public option” would attract a real progressive constituency. 

Hacker, one of the most well-regarded social policy scholars of his generation, first came to prominence as the author of The Road to Nowhere, an analysis of the failure of President Clinton’s health reform effort. Having carefully studied that political moment, he devised an approach that would neutralize many of the constituencies that had been bitterly opposed to Clinton’s Health Security Act. Hacker has written an article on his role in advocating the public option, which (sigh) I hope to revisit. For now, it’s important to keep in mind that Hacker, thanks to Hickey, proved to be a successful policy entrepreneur, who managed to get all of the major Democratic presidential candidates to back his broad architecture for health reform.  

Back to Lobbying and Policy Change:

Such sharp departures from existing policy, or “punctuations,” may follow periods of equilibrium when policy making was moved in the same direction for years. … In contrast to incrementalism, the theory of punctuated equilibrium incorporates both stability and changes far greater in scope than a constant process of incrementalism could suggest. Baumgartner and Jones recognize the continuity, stability, and inertia of the normal circadian rhythm of policy making, but argue that large-scale change is not an anomaly. There is no iron law of equilibrium that restricts policy making to incremental changes once a policy is established. Further, they argue that the tendency to hew close to the status quo during long periods, a conrerstone of the incrementalist model, actually makes it inevitably that more dramatic shifts will occasionally have to occur. [Emphasis added.]

The first year of the Obama presidency represented a “punctuation.” For a brief moment, the Democrats controlled 60 votes in the U.S. Senate, and this created a rare opportunity for dramatic policy change. As Ezra Klein explains, that is part of why the health reform debate took the shape it did, and why it had such prominence. Ezra interviewed political scientist George Edwards on the subject of “the strategic presidency”:

Edwards instead believes in something he calls “the strategic presidency.” “Presidents come in and they think they can create opportunities,” he says. “What really happens is they have to exploit the opportunities that already exist because they can’t persuade.” For Obama, the opportunities were a large Democratic majority that was united on health care but not on cap-and-trade, an economic crisis and associated deficit that seemed better suited to the security and potential deficit reduction possibilities of health-care reform than the energy pricing required by a cap-and-trade bill, and the reality that there was more existing infrastructure and readiness among the Democratic Party’s allies to do health care than cap-and-trade. And so Obama went with health care. [Emphasis added.]

I love counterfactuals as much as the next person. But it helps to understand that the spadework on health reform was done long before the opportunity for health reform presented itself. Though Hacker and Hickey didn’t succeed in creating a public insurance pool modeled on Medicare, many other aspects of their approach, shared by other thinkers on the left, to be sure, were embraced. And the public option remains a rallying cry for some, an idea that may well be resurrected if the right falls to rollback provisions of PPACA that are likely to exacerbate cost growth.

To return to “punctuations,” one way of understanding policy change is that certain groups — lobbyists, grassroots organizations, eccentric billionaires, academics — craft policy agendas and built support for them within a partisan coalition. When the dam breaks, the groups that won the internal argument are in a position to put in place a fairly dramatic set of reforms. But this is far more difficult than it sounds. Status quo bias is powerful, and it’s hard to control the narrative frame through which people will understand a financial crisis, to name but one example.

The concept of punctuated equilibrium is, by the way, one of the inspirations for this blog.