For Small, Timid Change

Sen. Elizabeth Warren likes to say that we need “big, bold systemic change.” Sen. Bernie Sanders talks about a “political revolution.” Trumpy hard-right folks just want to blow everything to smithereens and see what happens next.

Here at YSDA we champion small, timid puttering around the edges. It’s the way to go. And now someone has written a whole book about it. Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age by Greg Berman and Aubrey Fox will be released in March by Oxford University Press. Berman and Fox previewed their book recently in a piece for the website Persuasion.

They start by writing about what they describe as the most sweeping and successful anti-poverty program in history. Social Security, they argue, was a compromise for a more radical program and it took 15 years to implement completely. But it has been transformative. That’s a case for the power of small, consistent changes over time, but if you’re an antsy person, they go on to write about the paradox of rapid change through incrementalism:

While some gradual improvements, like Social Security, take decades, incrementalism is also, paradoxically, capable of delivering quick results. According to Daniel Herriges of the nonprofit Strong Towns: “Incrementalism entails a bias toward quick action over exhaustive planning: you take the next, easiest action to address the immediate situation you’re facing, and you take it right now. You don’t wait to have the whole road map to your policy goal laid out for you.”

Moreover, incrementalism has the virtue of being democratic. The goal of incremental change is typically to encourage experimentation, to let a thousand flowers bloom, rather than insisting that there is only one true path to change and attempting to exercise centralized control of its implementation.

I used to be a big advocate of comprehensive planning, of trying to think through everything in advance. In fact, I probably had more to do with the writing and passage of Wisconsin’s comprehensive community planning law than anybody else. That’s not bragging because I’m no longer such a big planning guy. I’ve become skeptical of and more humble about the ability of anybody to predict much of anything. Life is full of uncertainty and it seems to me that the best way to navigate that is through a sensibly and rather lightly regulated free market. Like democracy, it’s a terrible system, except for all the alternatives.

It was probably the experience of being mayor that made me a planning apostate. Policy questions kept coming at me and there was never enough time to sift through all the information. Decisions had time lines and it was usually best to do what we could now on limited information then it was to let a problem fester while we studied the bejesus out of it.

I came to appreciate FDR’s formulation: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

FDR, incrementalist.

It may seem odd to quote a man generally regarded as a big government central planner in an argument for gradualism. But, as noted above, perhaps his greatest legacy, Social Security, was a triumph of gradual improvement.

Berman and Fox write that, “Unfortunately, incrementalism has become unfashionable at the precise moment when we need it most.” That’s not quite right. Incrementalism has never been fashionable.  This kind of approach has a disadvantage in the public square. It is the very opposite of exciting, bold and provocative. It is designed to be a buzz kill, to get low ratings, to not go viral. It’s not red meat. It’s a nice pasta salad.

But, ya know what, the pasta salad is better for you anyway. The Berman and Fox book is out next month. I’m looking forward to reading more. I won’t wait for the movie.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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