Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Got A Problem?

     Certain things about the workings of government have been well-known “open secrets” for decades. Persons who dare to broach them publicly are usually tacitly ignored by the major media, under the sotto voce rules about what subjects are and are not for open discussion. When a case that gives the game away is accidentally disclosed to public eyes, the foofaurauw can be deafening: both from ordinary Americans’ expressions of outrage and the frantic cries of talking heads attempting to deflect attention from it.

     There are reasons for all this, of course. This morning, Mark “Mad Dog” Sherman cites an article filled with cases of interest:

     Every human decision brings with it unintended consequences. Often, they are inconsequential, even funny. When Airbus, for example, wanted to make its planes quieter to improve the flying experience for travelers, it made its A380 so quiet that passengers could hear, with far too much clarity, what was happening in the plane’s bathrooms. Other times unintended consequences have far-reaching, dramatic effects. The US health care system is a case in point. It emerged in its present form in no small part because of two governmental decisions.

     Please read it all. My surmise is that the government agencies involved in the cases cited at the FEE article were less concerned with the consequences of their decrees than with the immediate public reaction to them. Politicians, after all, are the world’s supreme exponents of the art of claiming credit while averting blame. And being seen to be “doing something” is often what they most desire, especially with an election pending.

     For a darkly humorous yet ultimately grim assessment of this effect and others that flow from it, we have some observations from How Washington Really Works by Charles Peters, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly:

     The Library of Congress recently studied federal agencies' compliance with the Sunshine Act of 1976, which was supposed to open government to the public. The study found that of a group of 1,003 government meetings listed in the Federal Register, 627 were either partially or completely closed to the public. One closed meeting was held by the Federal Reserve Board to consider the design of its furniture; it was closed on the grounds that "matters of a sensitive financial nature were being considered by the Board."

     The military is a master of this kind of subversion. When the navy was ordered to conserve fuel during the energy crisis of the early seventies, it reported that it had reduced its ships sailing time by 20 percent. What it actually did was redefine sailing time to exclude a ship's journey from the port to the fleet at sea.

     What is this if not make-believe? Laws are passed, orders are given, compliance seems to occur, but nothing changes. Bureaucrats don't like real change, only the appearance of change. That is why they are so fond of reorganization. Reorganization gives them something to do: redrawing charts, knocking down office walls--but nothing outside the agency, such as poverty or hunger or disease, is affected in the slightest. What does happen is that new jobs are created, almost always with higher grade classifications, which of course means higher salaries for the reorganizers.

     The reason bureaucrats like internal reorganization better than external action is easy to understand. Suppose you work in an antipoverty agency and you do your job so well that poverty is eradicated. Or suppose you work in the Department of Energy and the energy problem disappears. What will happen to you? The bureaucrat can figure that out. If he takes real action, if he's truly effective, he'll be out of work--he won't survive. If, on the other hand, his action is make-believe, poverty will not disappear, the energy problem will not be solved, and his job will be safe--he will survive. Now you understand the fundamental Washington equation:

Make-believe = Survival

     Truer words were never written. And know this: Peters considers himself a liberal. He sincerely believes that government can solve problems.


     The late Cyril Northcote Parkinson – yes, he of the famous Law — was ahead of the curve on the consistent internal dynamics of all bureaucracies:

     [W]e must picture a civil servant, called A, who finds himself overworked. Whether this overwork is real or imaginary is immaterial, but we should observe, in passing, that A’s sensation (or illusion) might easily result from his own decreasing energy: a normal symptom of middle age. For this real or imaginary overwork there are, broadly speaking, three possible remedies. He may resign; he may ask to halve the work with a colleague called B; he may demand the assistance of two subordinates, to be called C and D. there is probably no instance, however in history of A choosing any but the third alternative. By resignation he would lose his pension rights. By having B appointed, on his own level in the hierarchy, he would merely bring in a rival for promotion to W’s vacancy when W, at long last, retires. So A would rather have C and D, junior men, below him. They will add to his consequence and, by dividing the work into two categories, as between C and D, he will have the merit of being the only man who comprehends them both. [Emphasis added by FWP.]

     There’s an “of course!” feeling to this passage. It’s what bureaucrats do and have always done. But wait: why doesn’t A ever settle for one subordinate? Parkinson is ready with the explanation:

     It is essential to realise at this point that C and D are, as it were, inseparable. To appoint C alone would have been impossible. Why? Because C, if by himself, would divide the work with A and so assume almost the equal status that has been refused in the first instance to B; the status the more emphasised if C is A’s only possible successor. Subordinates must thus number two or more, each being thus kept in fear of the other’s promotion.

     And from there the dynamic extends itself:

     When C complains in turn of being overworked (as he certainly will) A will, with the concurrence of C, advise the appointment of two assistants to help C. But he can then avert internal friction only by advising the appointment of two more assistants to help D, whose position is much the same. With this recruitment of E, F, G, and H the promotion of A is now practically certain.

     Magnificent. An analysis for the ages, worthy of intellectual immortality. Yet virtually everyone with a public voice who deigned to notice it, early on, chortled and said, “Yes, very droll, but he’s not really serious, is he?”

     Parkinson was quite serious – and irrefutably correct.


     Add Parkinson to Peters and you have a steel-engraving depiction of the dynamics of government bureaucracies, especially those whose hirelings are protected from discipline from above or adverse feedback from the public. The only solution is the complete elimination of such a bureaucracy and the renunciation of its mission as an appropriate task for government. If the latter step is impossible for some reason – e.g., the five armed forces depend on the procurement bureaucracy that takes up the greater part of the Department of Defense; we can’t have those grubby soldiers, sailors, and airmen specifying and negotiating for their own gear and weapons, can we? – then however thorough the cleanout of “deadwood” bureaucrats, the dynamic will reassert itself among the “saplings” that replace them.

     And of course, the “problems” assigned to these bureaucracies will remain “unsolved.” You don’t expect bureaucrats to work to put themselves out of business, do you?

1 comment:

Dystopic said...

I see more or less the same dynamics within large corporate bureaucracies, too. When you see a big company like, say, Sears fall apart, there's almost always some element of this behavior inflating costs and preventing real work from getting done.