Ulysses goes to Washington: Political myopia and policy commitment devices

Richard V. Reeves
Reeves headshot
Richard V. Reeves President - American Institute for Boys and Men

April 6, 2015

Political myopia—often in the form of the lightening quick pace of today’s electoral politics—can threaten the effectiveness of public policy, writes Richard Reeves, as such immediacy can replace long-term time horizons necessary to institute real governmental change.

Reeves asserts that one solution to political myopia lies in “the policy commitment device,” a relationship dynamic that commits policymakers to a longer-term perspective. Reeves utilizes the mythology of Ulysses, who ordered his sailors to tie him to the mast, so that he could hear the song of Sirens without steering his ship to the rocks. For a more modern-day understanding, look to how elected politicians have opted to hand the conduct of monetary policy to an independent central bank. And central banks are just one example of these policy commitment devices, intended to insulate certain areas of policy from immediate political pressure.

Reeves argues that a policy commitment device is a deeply political exercise, as politicians must willingly concede some power in the service of a long-term goal, without undermining the basic elements of representative democracy. There is also a danger of over-commitment: of binding policy too tightly to a particular goal or approach, at the cost of lost flexibility and accountability. But there is certainly scope for assessing the value of some of these new policy commitment devices. Finally, five candidates for such policy commitment devices to avoid political myopia are suggested and discussed in the paper:

  1. A national infrastructure bank
  2. an office of opportunity
  3. a federal minimum wage board
  4. a federal nuclear waste corporation;
  5. and a carbon tax.