Big ideas aren’t enough

“the idea of eliminating the root causes of Islamic terrorism by causing Muslim-majority countries to become prosperous liberal democracies incorporated into the U.S.-led alliance and trading system was totally sound. But how do you actually do that? In a truly wild fit of utopianism, the Bush administration spent $2 trillion on an invasion of Iraq that not only failed to achieve any of those goals but resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. On domestic policy, maybe if Bush had had a spare $2 trillion he could have made the ownership society work. Or maybe he could have successfully boosted marriage rates. Or transformed K-12 public education. But in reality none of the stuff he did actually worked, either because the ideas were bad or because the math didn’t work or because the financial resources weren’t there. Not because he governed at a time of austerity, but because his biggest spending-side commitment was to a war that didn’t work, and he saddled the country with huge regressive tax cuts.

This is an issue for all kinds of political entrepreneurs. You can’t just come up with a nice-sounding, high-level message. You need the capacity to design ideas that make sense and work in detail. I’ve fretted before that the policy analysis capacity on the left has withered somewhat, but it’s borderline non-existent on the right.”

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