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Does the country need big thinkers for big problems?

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  June 8, 2011 03:32 PM

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Do people of distinction have a place in today's Washington?

That was the headline on the Globe editorial page yesterday — and the subtext of a debate over the effects of political gridlock on policymaking at the Kennedy School of Government's blog.

The Globe lamented the withdrawal of Nobel laureate and MIT professor Peter Diamond's nomination to the Federal Reserve Board. Diamond has been praised as a brilliant thinker, but he was blocked by Senate Republicans, apparently because his work on labor economics.

The withdrawal raises a larger concern: with an increasingly polarized and gridlocked Senate, can any independent thinker win confirmation to office? "By harpooning Diamond’s nomination behind the scenes," the Globe writes, Diamond's opponents "can only discourage other people with creative ideas and a written track record from seeking influential public posts." Instead, the Obama administration has been nominating more bland, uncontroversial figures like John Bryson, the new nominee for Secretary of Commerce. Even the slim paper trail of the president's last Supreme Court pick, Elena Kagan, seemed like an asset, not a liability.

At the Kennedy school, John Deutch and Joseph Nye both agreed that gridlock poses a problem — but Deutch sees far grimmer implications. Political impasses have made it impossible for the nation to address growing problems — a "breakdown in the country’s ability to craft, adopt and implement consistent and effective policies that address the most serious problems the country faces: the economy, health care, K-12 education, energy and climate."

Nye concedes that the system is frustrating and inefficient, but argues that on the whole it does work (with, he delicately notes, "only one serious breakdown a century and a half ago").

And he makes a related point (and one explored here in the past): it's easy to look jealously on China, for instance, for steamrolling ahead with the kind of big plans that never seem to get off the ground in the U.S. But that's because China is a dictatorship. The system of checks and balances may be paralyzing at times, but that's one of the prices of democracy.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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