Joe Klein: Deliberative poll for budget policy

Joe Klein, Time columnist and “living incarnation of American ‘conventional wisdom’“, proposes to replace Obama’s budget commission with a Fishkin Deliberative Poll. Klein sees the DP as

a magical contraption that could take the process of making tough decisions in a democracy, shake it up, dramatize it and make it both credible and conclusive[,]

and concludes with an odd mixture of platitudes and populism:

I’ll bet the kleroterion would produce results bolder and more credible than anything Obama’s commission will recommend. “People are tired of the elites telling them what to do,” says Fishkin. Perhaps it’s time to turn that process upside down.

(It is not quite clear, however, how Klein’s proposal allows the people to tell the elites what to do, given that he is proposing advisory powers only.)

11 Responses

  1. Karen Renaud and I presented a non advisory deliberative bugeting mechanism to the British Computer Society conference this year. Details at


  2. I’m sympathetic to Klein’s position, although I think the “partisanship” he talks about is almost entirely one-sided. (60 freaking Democrats, and it’s this hard to get anything done? Bush had an easier time getting legislation passed even when the Republicans were a congressional minority.) But as I’ve said before, I’m wary of advisory commissions. It’s too easy to cherry pick the results you want. In this case, that would probably mean coming down hard on Social Security (which is contributing nothing to the current deficit). One good thing about the Chinese experiments is that they seem to have very clear questions and very clear answers. I’m not sure how easy that would be to achieve in this context.


  3. Yoram, you should applaud Klein for this piece and stop beating up Jim Fishkin. Apart from that t wo points:

    1) “The DP results are more “credible” than the electoral alternative.” Fishkin is beginning to accumulate evidence to this effect and it should help us refute Manin’s claim that preference elections were chosen over sortition at the time of the American founding on account of the Natural Right theory of consent. I’m more inclined to attribute it to the practical problems that would be involved implementing sortition in widely-dispersed agricultural districts prior to the age of electronic communication. Lot-drawing ceremonies (obnoxious to Protestant sensibilities) traditionally required the presence of all those concerned. But even though few Virginian farmers would have been well versed in the writings of John Locke, political theorists are generally disposed to privilege the influence of fellow-scribblers over more banal geographical and practical considerations.

    2) If elected representatives are incapable of deciding fiscal policy issues in a responsible manner then what is the point of them? In the UK Brown handed monetary policy over to the Bank of England MPC and the result was ten years of stable interest rates and economic growth. If Brown had created a Fiscal Policy Committee at the same time and then closed down No.11 Downing Street we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now.



  4. PS. Here’s the link to the Time article (you need to join the two lines of the URL,8599,2015481,00.html


  5. Paul –

    Through the link you gave I only found this paper – – which seems to deal only with plebiscites. Do you see this mechanism as being deliberative? In my view the failure of the progressive era reforms in the US to create representative government indicates the weakness of plebiscites as a democratic tool.


  6. Peter –

    I find the Democratic story that it is Republican obstructionism that blocks proper governmental action completely incredible. Glenn Greenwald, for example, has been documenting how on a range of important issue the Democrats, while claiming the Republicans are blocking them from implementing popular policies, are in fact simply pursuing their own elite interests.

    This is exactly the way in which Klein’s column represents the conventional wisdom: it pretends that politics are about Democrats vs. Republicans. In reality, of course, the politics that matter are about elites (Democrats and Republicans and the interests they represent) vs. the average citizen.


  7. Keith –

    Nothing could be a better indication of the effect of Fishkin’s work than the fact that he manages to win Klein as a supporter.

    > In the UK Brown handed monetary policy over to the Bank of England MPC and the result was ten years of stable interest rates and economic growth. If Brown had created a Fiscal Policy Committee at the same time and then closed down No.11 Downing Street we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now.

    The experts are exactly those who got us where we are – extreme concentrated wealth and widespread misery. There is no conflict between the electoral elite and the professional elite – they are working together, holding the same ideas and serving the same interests.


  8. Yoram, my point is simply that competence, advocacy and judgement are separate qualities, so

    1) If we want a competent government then we should appoint competent people — Socrates was right that we should not appoint pilots or flute players by lot (or elect them, for that matter). The executive is only responsible for implementing policy, not deciding it. The remit of the UK Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) was simply to maintain inflation within certain tight bounds; the remit of a (hypothetical) fiscal policy committee (FPC) would be balanced books over the financial cycle — so if the legislature proposed a measure that would affect the fiscal balance one way of the other then the job of the FPC would simply be to point out the consequences to the legislature, who would need to decide how to address any imbalance. Politics and government are analytically distinct.

    2) Ditto for advocacy and judgment — Madison was right that they should not be combined in the “same body of men” as it leads to corruption, just as the Founders claimed that the (English) executive was corrupting the legislature. The e pluribus unum principle, from a constitutional perspective, requires that each element is maintained entirely separate, unlike the mis-mash of the so-called “separation of powers”.

    Until these analytic distinctions are acknowledged we will continue with tiresome exchanges over masses, elites, democrats, republicans, hack journalists, left-liberals, crypto-marxists, madisonian reactionaries etc.



  9. […] of Philosophy at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, read Joe Klein’s recent post supporting Deliberative Polling®, and found it interesting. Following up on Klein’s suggestion regarding the kleroterion, that […]


  10. […] me, the most prominent sortition-related event of the year had been Joe Klein’s blog post suggesting to replace Obama’s budget commission with a Fishkin-style Deliberative Poll. This has […]


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