Monday, April 2, 2012

In Defense of the Vast Unelected Bureaucracy and the Ineffective Politicians Too

I'm going to start out with an assumption.

People do not agree on everything.

Let's add to that another assumption.

People may disagree about important things in which the cost of being incorrect is very big. Imagine red wire vs. blue wire. Are you going to compromise when being wrong is deadly?

Thankfully, politicians are not bomb-disposal technicians.  And thankfully, their decisions aren't such immediate life-or-death actions.  In their position, you can get feedback.  Cut the red wire and the timer keeps going.  Oh, let's cut the green wire instead.  We rejected the blue wire as unconstitutional, but that's for another day.

Unfortunately, politicians aren't often big on experimenting.  There are a few reasons for this.  Selfishly, they might not have time.  An economic or social experiment can take months, years, even decades to yield results.  Also selfishly, they don't want to sign on to failures, perceived failures, successful but unpopular actions, or even imperfect fixes.  These things make it harder to get re-elected.  Less selfishly, have fun interpreting the results of the experimental legislation without disagreeing and ending up back at square one.

You're not helping, and by you, I mean the public.  You're a pain in the ass for anyone trying to accomplish anything.  Do you realize that?  You probably think you have "principles" or "values" or you "defend the Constitution", but eventually what it comes down to is that you're best modeled as a random opinion generator with no bearing on reality or precedent, with the sole exception of Hitler, toward whom everything inevitably points.

 Imagine your job.  Actually, forget that; imagine you're an engineer and you're designing a bridge.  What do you do?  Generally speaking, you'd get the measurements on the span you need to cross, the soil aspects, where bedrock is, how wide a bridge you need, and so on.  Eventually you'll find yourself with a giant pile of numbers to work with and have some objective values, such as costs of various designs, expected lifetime, and so on.  Of course an architect comes in to say that it's all ugly and the hip new thing is building entirely out of glass, but don't worry; he'll put his name on anything as long as you give him a PR guy to help him spin it into something supposedly beautiful.

Now imagine if anyone in a fifty mile radius of the bridge can come in and whine about the design.  Even worse, despite knowing nothing at all about bridge design, they insist on having an opinion and are very convinced that cast iron is the way to go.  Even even worse, if they get enough other people to complain about this issue that they know nothing about, they can get you fired.  In fact, if the bridge design takes more than two years, they have a designated time for trying to fire you and replace you with someone else, someone who is very convinced that suspension bridges should feature as much cast iron as possible.

Inevitably, that engineer is going to spend a lot of time just trying to stay in his job, so he can design the bridge.  Maybe he's selfishly clinging to power.  Maybe he knows that the cast iron suspension bridge guy is a danger to the safety of the bridge-using public.  Maybe he's a normal human being and has both selfish and selfless goals.  Yes, by the analogy I am suggesting that politicians are humans and can simultaneously be concerned with keeping their jobs and serving the public.  They can be smooth-talking, grid-locking, fili-bustering, politi-cians, and none of that makes them horrible people: it makes them people in a horrible situation.

Meanwhile you're mad about out-of-control spending and a ballooning debt while praising your pet Congressman for bringing jobs and keeping taxes low.  My point is that you are the true monster.

You're probably either mad or wondering about that bureaucracy.  Well here we go.

You know that engineer?  Thankfully, he's not a politician.  He's not even an elected official.  He might have been appointed by one.  More likely he was hired by the rest of the bureaucracy.  In other words, he is to a large degree, insulated from monsters like you.  Is that undemocratic?  Certainly.  But democracy, unlike alcohol, is not the cause of, or solution to, all of life's problems.  Sometimes what we need are people hunched in corners with too-small desks and nary a hint of sunlight to blind them, with a ravenous appetite for paperwork.  Yes, the bureaucrat, the enemy of accomplishment.  Or is he?

Imagine the engineer again, without the two-year time limit, without the angry cast-iron purists at his door, imagine him as a bureaucrat.  He is told to design a bridge to meet specifications and he does so.  Maybe it takes him three years to get it right.  Maybe thirty.  It doesn't matter so much to him what happens to the shifting winds of the politics in the bright offices above him.  He might be slower than they want, but at least he keeps going.

I'm not suggesting that the bureaucrat is perfect.  But he is necessary.  After the politicians have been wrung out a few dozen times, someone needs to keep things going.  Someone must check that social security checks go to the correct people and that taxes are paid.  Someone must check that the factory next door isn't emitting sulfur dioxide, or at least not too much, too close to the school, because once upon a time a politician heard that children being poisoned by breathing was a bad thing and now a bureaucrat worries about that forever after.

Maybe now you're angry even if you weren't before.  Don't I know that bureaucrats just slow everything down?  Well of course they do!  Imagine if everything happened when we thought of it, unconstrained by any process of double-checking whether the hydrogen fluoride gas would be adequately contained in the event of an accident.  Of course you think you have adequate controls, but as someone living downwind, I might have some concerns.  The bureaucrat enforcing the No Hydrogen Fluoride Gas in Homes Act is my check on your confidence.  Me?  No, I'm not the check.  Remember, I'm part of the public, so I'm just an ignorant pain in the ass.  The bureaucrat, he's an expert.  It's why he was hired, for his knowledge of toxic acid gas cloud dispersion and containment.

To wrap it all up, think about this: once upon a time a politician thought that maybe we should have some better way to kill Nazis, so he sent money to the Defense Department.  A gaggle of bureaucrats sat around some tables, staring at the briefcase of money, wondering what to do with it.  Someone suggesting a money bomb, in which it would be dropped on Berlin and by some theories, cause severe economic disruption.  Someone else suggested that it be used to build more of those things that zap when you touch them.  Eventually, after much negotiating, they sent a ton of money to the electronics labs.  There, a bunch of nerds designed all sorts of cool stuff like giant vats of mercury which could record sound or any other information, which was useful for designing better radar systems, which helped us kill Nazis.  And then we all celebrated and ruled the cool parts of the world for a few decades.

My point is that without the politicians and the bureaucrats and the nerds working for them, we'd not have the internet.  No company is going to invest in returns 50 years down the road.  No one would invest in that company.  So it is government with it's political games and deadlock and bureaucracy, which invests in the ideas and technologies and basic science that pays off 50 years later in a big way.  Then they hand it off to the free market and everyone gets insanely rich.  Or at least some people.  The rest of us get the ability to order anything online and get it in half an hour to three days.

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