Another e-mail exchange with Katherine Otto, another resulting blog post.  

Here in the US, we complain about Government.  Big government vs. limited government, government overreach, government oversight…  What is the right size, what is the right role…  A recent Vox article pointed out that all this anger that we’re hearing about, the justification for the left’s support of Bernie Sanders and the right’s support of Donald Trump, isn’t anger stemming from economic pain, but anger at politics.  So let’s unpack the things that make up the government and talk for a minute about what we are complaining about when we complain about government.  

First, there are two components of Government: the Branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) and the Bureaucracy.  For those of us for whom civics lessons are in the far distant past, the Executive Branch of government is the President.  The Legislative Branch is Congress, and the Judicial Branch is the Supreme Court.  The Branches of government are primarily political in nature – populated by politicians (defined as people who campaign to get elected to office) and people who are appointed by politicians.  

And then there is the Bureaucracy…  The thousands of men and women who write policy, order supplies, count beans, interpret Congressional or Presidential mandate, hire people, push papers around, order IT services, etc.  The Bureaucracy is, in most ways, at the mercy of the Branches.  Congress makes laws, allocates spending, sets priorities, and tells the Bureaucracy what to do.  For example, Congress writes the No Child Left Behind Act and the bureaucrats at the Department of Education start taking a complex law and unpacking it into guidance, policy, and programs that meet the intent of the law.  More or less.  Further, each of the departments in the Federal Government is likely headed up by a political appointee, someone who is only there for 4 years or the whim of the President, and doesn’t necessarily know, understand, or respect the organization they are suddenly in charge of.  

There may be no legitimate defense of the Branches, or at least the people who populate the branches.  It seems that we don’t send our best and brightest to legislate, we send our most craven and narcissistic.  That is by design.  First, we pick the bastards.  We don’t go for the politician who tells us that we can’t have it all, or that religion really doesn’t belong in our government, or that the founding fathers weren’t fundamentalists, or that everything costs something, or that taxes are a small price to pay for being an American with all the protections and privileges that affords.  Those aren’t the people we hire, by and large.  We send the ones who tell us what we want to hear and confirm our biases.  And then they get there and they gerrymander the system so that they can cherry-pick their voters to stay in the halls of power.

Similarly, the Bureaucracy is less than perfect.  No one makes decisions because they are afraid of failure, which means a choice place on the front page of the Washington Post and the unenviable experience of testifying before Congress.  The outrage machine combined with a crippling dose of risk aversion means that there are policies layered upon policies.  The Bureaucracy creaks under the weight of over 200 years of someone’s dumbass mistake or corruption turned into a policy to prevent *that* from ever happening again, except people can always be relied upon to come up with some fresh way of being stupid.  So another layer of policy goes on top of the previous policies until it is a wonder that anything gets accomplished.  

Everyone ends up frustrated.  

Except.  Always the except.  This Government, warts and all, has to serve each citizen equally.  Which sometimes turns into pissing off each citizen equally.  Whatever gets done by Government tends to get done slowly.  Yes, this keeps us from dazzling progress, but it also protects us from good ideas that sound good in theory and work out disastrously in practice.  The Bureaucracy measures six times, sharpens the saw, measures another three times for good measure, calls a committee, conducts a study, measures again, and then *maybe* progresses to a cut.  Maybe.  

Is that a bad thing?  I don’t know.  It is certainly a frustrating thing for many people.  But is it *bad* that we can’t conceive of one answer and only one answer and go after it singlemindedly to accomplish an end in a time span that can be measured in days instead of years?  I don’t think so.  Because you’d have to trust that the people calling for that plan know what they’re doing and have adequately prepared for third- and fourth-order effects.  You’d have to trust that the decision-makers, our legislators, were operating off of evidence instead of ideology.  You’d want to make sure you weren’t one of the people on the minority side of the issue.  And you for damn sure wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a rough patch or a slice of bad luck.  


3 thoughts on “Government

  1. Our social order is less like a billiard table and more like a fractal iteration.

    First order effects are not easy to predict. Third and forth order effects may not be predictable by human comprehension at all. Certainly not by mankind as a whole.

    So we push on. I don’t know what will happen, not even one second into the future.


  2. Thanks for the acknowledgement. You seem to be trying to make sense of an impossibly complicated system, and I commend your efforts. I’ve started looking into the levels of bureaucracy that, in my opinion, have tied the US psyche (and the economy) up in knots.

    First, there are 403 federal agencies. Many of these have sub-agencies, and many are duplicated at the state level. The Department of Transportation is duplicated by the Georgia DOT, for instance. The EPA. The FBI.

    All of these agencies and sub agencies are “personned” by bureaucrats, who have cushy government jobs with guaranteed health care and pensions, better than anything in the private sector. It is almost impossible to fire a government employee. They produce nothing of value, but they are paid by taxes. Their jobs consist of telling other people what to do (that is, implementing Congress’ laws), and they have enormous discretionary powers as to how they implement those laws. The result is that the mucky-mucks at the top are friendly with mucky-mucks in the corporations and mucky-mucks in Congress to favor legislation that benefits corporations and squeezes individuals and small businesses.

    Agencies like the FDA have a long history of targeting small businesses, trying them in the media, and essentially bankrupting them without ever having to prove their claims. Think of all the food scares we’ve had over the past few years. The spinach scare, peanut scare, pet foods scare, cantaloupe scare, egg scare, to name a few. The turkey scare right before Thanksgiving, calculated (according to me) to raise prices and destroy competition. The cantaloupe scare occurred just at harvest season.

    I’m particularly familiar with the peanut scare, which occurred just after Jimmy Carter’s book, “Palestine, Peace not Apartheid,” came out. Fourteen Jews walked off his advisory panel, and within a few months, the peanut scare occurred, based on flimsy evidence that was never verified. Peanut Corporation of America was forced to recall all its peanut products, except that somehow, Walmart’s peanut products were exempt.

    Peanut Corporation of America was a distributor for many of the peanut growers in Southwest Georgia, probably including Jimmy Carter. Now, CEO of this family-owned business, Stewart Parnell, is in jail with a virtual life sentence, and his company is bankrupt.

    My contention is that had the FDA or the USDA been doing their jobs, they would have caught any contamination before anyone got sick. Instead, the FDA benefited from fines and other ex post facto bureaucratic perks, and the targeted business went bankrupt.

    No one will ever convince me that this was not an economic hit by the powerful Israeli lobby group to retaliate against Carter for his book. And this is a good example of how powerful lobby groups work Congress, the bureaucracies, and the laws to their advantage.


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