Washington Post Wonkblogger Ezra Klein has a post up titled "How Van Halen explains Obamacare, salmon regulation and scientific grants," and even though the Pasadena crotch-rockers do no such thing, I'm willing to forgive a little headline hyperbole in the service of classing up the sludge of politics with a little Diamond Dave.
Klein's parable has to do with the band's famous rider demanding that there be no brown M&Ms in the dressing room. Turns out—if you believe the unreliable but always entertaining narrator David Lee Roth—this was not the ultimate symbol of '70s rock star entitlement that it was played up to be, but rather an ingenius way for the band to tell whether the venue was paying attention to the most granular of details; a crucial consideration given VH's expensive and complicated lighting and production equipment. "If I came backstage and I saw brown M&M's on the catering table," Roth recently recounted, "it guaranteed the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we had to do a serious line check."
There are any number of policy analogies you can take away from this anecdote. For me it calls to mind the simplifying stunt by another Pasadenan attempting to cut through the fog of bureaucracy: Richard Feynman dipping an O-ring into a glass of ice water in front of Congress after the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up. Klein sees the brown M&Ms myth first as a cautionary tale about media and its consumers: "Tales of someone doing something unbelievably stupid or selfish or irrational are often just stories you don't yet understand."
So President Barack Obama's favorite red-tape gag about overlapping salmon bureaucracies masks a regulatory imperative that is understandably complex, and perennial conservative/libertarian mockery of surfacely bizarro-sounding research grants gratuitously guts some important academic work for a statistically insignificant payoff. So far, so plausible, this "Van Halen Principle."
But Klein then uses the VHP to give Washington what I think is a bit too much benefit of the doubt:
It would be nice if the government's mistakes were typically a product of stupidity, venality or bureaucracy. Then we would need only to remove the idiots, fire the villains and cut the red tape. More often, the outrageous stories we hear are cases of decent people trying to solve tough problems under difficult constraints that we simply haven't taken the time to understand.
I share Klein's weariness at even unjustifiable Mickey-Mouse outrage stories. When invited to comment on the latest $16 muffin scandal I will almost always say things like:
The nation's current and future deficit is driven overwhelmingly by health care, military and retirement spending, each of which involve ever-increasing promises that have proved politically career-threatening to scale back.
That's why politicians prefer instead to talk about $16 muffins and $600 toilet seats—it's the least expensive way to simulate fiscal responsibility. The boy who cries muffin while signing onto every new major entitlement and military adventure is not in any position to deliver lectures about tax-dollar stewardship. And never forget that the spending frenzy is distinctly bipartisan
But the outrageous stories that my ears register rarely involve "decent people trying to solve tough problems," but rather politicians and bureaucrats (however decent they may otherwise be) responding to perverse incentives by extending expensive policies that inflict tangible damage on comparatively powerless individuals. Which tough problem are we even pretending to solve anymore with the Drug War? What is one "decent" thing you can say about domestic sugar subsidies, or farm subsidies overall? Even laws that spring from more observably defensible motives often end up unfairly burdening the little guy while giving a pass to the very mega-corporation that spurred the reform. Government does many things it shouldn't, which makes it more difficult to do the things it should.
So yes, let's use the Van Halen Principle to, as Ezra Klein says (and often does in practice), "work harder to understand why" government "decided to remove the brown M&M's in the first place." But let's also be open to discovering that few if any federal employees are as rad as David Lee Roth.