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Presenting the first-annual Wonky awards

By Ezra Klein,

Welcome to the first-annual Wonkys, where we recognize outstanding achievements -- and disasters -- in policy wonkery. Let’s get to them.

Policymaker of the year: We agonized over this one. There were some stand-out policy proposers this year. A handful of legislators put their all into attempted policymaking, too. But a policymaker, by definition, has to make policy. And Washington didn’t do much of that this year. So the first annual Wonky for policymaking goes to...no one. It’s just been that kind of year.

Policy fail of the year: The euro took this Wonky in a walk. As far back as 2000, economists from Paul Krugman to Milton Friedman were predicting that yoking a bunch of diverse European economies to a single currency could prove to be a bad idea. But this was the year that the structural problems with the euro really made themselves clear. Even large, too-big-to-fail countries like Italy and Spain found themselves caught in a trap, unable to reassure investors of their ability to repay debts, but unable to devalue their currency and grow their way out of their woes. The euro didn’t just turn out to be a bad idea. It turned out to be a bad idea with the potential to bring down the global economy.

Graph of the year: This chart comparing the deficit effects of the actual policies passed under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama was far and away the most popular chart we published in 2011. It got more than 78,000 likes on Facebook -- the 23rd most shared item across the entire social network site. It got hundreds of thousands of views. But all credit for it has to go to the New York Times, which published it alongside this terrific editorial by Theresa Tritch. Here’s the chart:

Best use of graphs of the year: Occupy Wall Street resisted tying itself to a single agenda, but it was more than happy to use graphs. One example: a protest sign with a chart that showing the rapidly rising disparity between the top 1 percent of U.S. households before taxes, as compared to those in each of the lower quintiles. Such displays linked the freeform protests to a voluminous body of economic research, helping the Occupy movement gain more traction and credibility. We even made a slideshow:

<iframe align=”center” src=”http://www.flickr.com/slideShow/index.gne?group_id=&user_id=82975217@N00&set_id=&tags=OWSsigns” frameBorder=”0” width=”500” height=”500” scrolling=”no”></iframe><br/><small>Created with <a href=”http://www.admarket.se” title=”Admarket.se”>Admarket’s</a> <a href=”http://flickrslidr.com” title=”flickrSLiDR”>flickrSLiDR</a>.</small>

Venn Diagram of the year: No contest. It’s the Venn Pie-agram:

Infographic(s) of the year: The Congressional Budget Office got into the game this year with a niceinfographic summing up the federal budget. But this Wonky has to go to the fine folks at Medical Billing and Codes who have, for no evident reason, been putting out terrific infographics on health-care policy, sitting, getting high, plastic surgery, sex, Sesame Street, and much more. See them all here.

Think tank of the year: In a year that was all about budget issues, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities lived up to its name. Whether you were looking for the latest numbers on state budget cuts, a quick analysis of Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposals, or simply an introduction to where your tax dollars go, CBPP lived up to its reputation as the fastest, fairest, and smartest policy think tank in Washington.

Best failed bipartisan committee of the year: The supercommittee is better known, but the Gang of Six takes the Wonky for actually reaching an agreement between legislators of two different parties. Their agreement didn’t pass, of course. But it passes the test for this Wonky: big, bipartisan and, ultimately, doomed.

Worst failed bipartisan committee of the year: Sorry, supercommittee, but you knew this one was going right to you.

Ostentatious bipartisanship of the year: It was a new but decidedly brief spectacle in the political theater that is the United States Congress. At Obama’s State of the Union address in January, many members broke with traditional party-based seating and sat next to (gasp!) a member from the other side of the aisle. This led to some amusing odd couples--Rand Paul and Al Franken, Tom Coburn and Chuck Schumer. It even got the nickname #SOTUprom. But ultimately, the bipartisan good will proved as fleeting as the speech itself.

Obscure demonstration of Senate dysfunction of the year: In early October, Harry Reid unexpectedly went “nuclear”: He used a majority-vote procedure to outlaw a rare and mostly meaningless delaying tactic Mitch McConnell was using to force an early vote on the American Jobs Act bill. It changed nothing of importance in the Senate, and Obama’s bill was filibustered to death anyway. But it showed, at the least, that Senate rules can be changed -- and that they probably need to be.

Central bank of the year: Sweden’s Riksbank. It’s hard to avoid noticing that Sweden has dodged the economic woes that are ailing most of the world. Part of the credit here goes to deputy governor Lars Svensson, who spearheaded Sweden’s extremely aggressive monetary policy. In 2009, the Riksbank -- Sweden’s central bank -- was the first bank to experiment with a negative interest rate. And it had assets on its balance sheet equal to a stunning 25 percent of GDP, a sign of how much cash it was injecting into the economy, compared with just 15 percent for the Federal Reserve. The bold moves worked: Sweden has been growing at a decent clip.

Central bank dissenter of the year: Charles Evans. While some on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors are worried that the central bank is doing too much and risking inflation, Evans has argued that the Fed isn’t doing enough to boost the economy. The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Evans is one of the few bankers who seems to recognize that 9 percent unemployment should, as he put it, set policymakers’ hair on fire as much as a slight uptick in inflation usually does.

Central bank harassers of the year: Though Rep. Ron Paul is the Federal Reserve’s loudest critic, it’s Bloomberg News that may, unexpectedly, have been the biggest thorn in Ben Bernanke’s side. Through a FOIA request, the news agency found out how individual banks took advantage of cheap lending from the Fed during the height of the financial crisis, ultimately reaping some $13 billion in profit from the loans. The new details sparked a huge tide of criticism against the Fed’s lack of transparency.

Regulation of the year: In November, the White House rolled out rules for Accountable Care Organizations, an attempt to bring down the cost of health care--and overhaul how we pay for medicine in the process. The idea is to encourage groups of providers to band together into “accountable care organizations” and accept a flat fee for all care related to a particular patient or condition. If they work, it would mean the end of fee-for-service medicine in America. If they don’t, it’s back to the drawing board.

Obscure yet important regulatory agency of the year: CCIIO. Kudos to the Wonkblog readers who recognize the acronym for The Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, housed within the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The name might not roll off the tongue, or even make many headlines, but CCIIO is the nerve-center for implementing the health reform law. Its job is nothing less than getting states and health insurers ready to cover 32 million Americans with health insurance--and CCIIO takes the Wonky for a monumental task ahead of it.

Sleeper policy issue of the year: Come on down, student loans! 2011 marked the year that student loans overtook credit cards as the biggest source of American debt. The class of debt was also a major mover behind the Occupy Wall Street protests. And despite some significant steps by the White House to relieve student debt burdens, the amount students borrow to finance their education looks set to keep growing.

Most ambitious use of bullet points: The trend among Republican presidential candidates was to devise a policy platform that could fit on a bumper sticker (or, in Herman Cain’s case, a small post-it note). Not Romney. In September, the former management consultant rolled out a 59-point economic plan. It also answers the age-old question: Could Mitt Romney write so many bullet points that even Mitt Romney couldn’t recite them? At one GOP debate, when Herman Cain asked him if he could name all 59 points, Romney just laughed in response. Still, he gets the Wonky.

Worst online hosting of economic data: The Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the beginning of every month, economic reports rush to the BLS Web site to check out the latest jobs data. And, seemingly every month… the Web site crashes. Maybe it’s a sign of the widespread interest in America’s economic woes. More likely, it’s a sign that the BLS needs better servers -- or to create some new jobs in its IT department.

Economic model we won’t be following: Rick Perry put Texas’ economic growth and jobs record at the center of his campaign for president, helping to fuel his early rise in the polls. But a closer look showed that it would be exceedingly difficult to replicate Texas’ gains on a national level. The state’s boom was, at least in part, the result of heavy migration from other states, illegal immigration, federal stimulus dollars, light regulations on density, heavy regulations on housing, and big oil and gas reserves. What’s more, it came along with record poverty levels, one of the nation’s worst health-care records, and, well, Rick Perry, whose campaign underperformed his state’s economy by quite a lot.

Most worthwhile Canadian initiative: Robust banking regulations. While American and European financial systems teetered on the brink of collapse in 2008, Canadian banks survived the year relatively unscathed. Why? A National Bureau of Economic Research paper this year that Canada has its banking regulations to thank. The country “set up a concentrated banking system that controlled mortgage lending and investment banking under the watchful eye of a single, strong regulator.” Not too shabby, Northern neighbor.

Least worthwhile Canadian initiative: The Alberta tar sands. On the surface, getting oil from tar sands up in Canada has a lot to recommend it. The United States needs oil, after all, and better Canada than Saudi Arabia. There’s just one small hitch with the tar sands: production of that oil is considerably dirtier than that of regular oil, and there’s enough carbon stashed away in Alberta to seriously destabilize the climate.

Most amusing policy idea of the year: This one goes to Herman Cain and his “9-9-9” tax plan. The proposal threw out the entire federal tax code and replaced it with a system that appealed to flat-tax fiends, VAT geeks, and anti-Washington populists alike. Upon closer examination, however, it became clear that 9-9-9 stacked two sales taxes atop each other, acted like a 27 percent consumption tax on all income, and would mean a huge tax increase on poorer Americans. It also happened to be the default tax plan in the video game Sim City 4. Oh, and it led to this hilarious graph:

Most Worthwhile Yet Hopeless Policy Crusade of the Year: Urban Policy, without doubt. The issue has a a smart and influential crowd of crusaders that includes Ryan Avent, Matt Yglesias, Dave Alpert and Edward Glaeser among its ranks. You should be reading what they’re writing about the huge role zoning decisions play in your everyday life, the way geography influences economic growth, and the evils of height restrictions and free parking. It’s smart stuff that, unfortunately, runs into big obstacles in moving from policy to actual practice.

Most amusing policy/pop culture controversy: It might not seem like this year’s Muppets movie contained any pressing policy lessons, but Fox Business felt otherwise. The movie, after all, features an oil tycoon as a villain—he wants to drill beneath the Muppet studio—and Fox’s talking heads felt that this plotline was tatamount to “indoctrination” of kids into “hating corporate America”—and perhaps a little, oh yes, “communist.” Good thing Kermit didn’t reveal his views on quantitative easing.

Most influential-yet-obscure economic blogger: Scott Sumner. Be honest, how many people had even heard of Nominal GDP level targeting before this year? No one. But as the economy stagnated, and policymakers seemed increasingly incapable of mitigating the pain, many analysts started reading Sumner’s blog with interest. So far, the Federal Reserve has rejected his idea for NGDP target—under which the Fed would essentially target a combination of real output plus inflation rather than focus on curbing inflation alone—but the notion has attracted support from everyone from Paul Krugman to Tyler Cowen to Goldman Sachs. And much of that has to do with Sumner’s near-monomaniacal focus on the topic.

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