Monday, September 03, 2012

Perhaps 223 is long enough

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, bureaucracy, polemics

My father used to say that institutional change had to follow the "Moses Principle": Forty years in the wilderness, until the entire generation dies out. He was thinking of paradigms of running a business. When someone comes along with a new idea, it can take a generation for it to take root and take over.

But nations are not like businesses. It can take hundreds of years to turn the course of a nation, should it survive so long. We really ought to take warning from the ossification of China for hundreds of years until the Communist revolution. And without the American revolution, England would have continued its own ossification and, most likely, have been eliminated from the world stage long before the Nineteenth Century.

The career of the United States' federal government has led to its own ossification, as it has become subject to an unbreakable bureaucracy, every bit as stagnant and deadly as the one that gripped China for four centuries. I complained in an earlier post that the federal payroll has grown so large, that reducing "government spending" in any meaningful way would put one or two millions out of work. I had no idea; my figures were off by a factor of at least two, in a most unfortunate direction!

I find in Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, by Edward Luce, that the size of the federal payroll is limited by statute to 2 million, irrespective of the military, but that our leaders have gotten around this by hiring contractors, which now number nearly 11 million! Add in the military, and the total number of federal personnel exceeds 14 million. That is coming up on 5% of the total U.S. population, and is more than 10% of the working population.

You'd think, with so many people doing the government's business, that a lot of work would get done. In reality, their productivity is a fraction of the productivity of the average business enterprise. The primary business of a bureaucrat is to avoid responsibility. Somehow, it has come about that dozens of committees, regulatory bodies, and agencies get involved in the siting, design and construction of a single bridge. There is chapter after chapter in Start Thinking that illustrates this principle with examples from every area in which the government is involved (and that is nearly everything!). I think it safe to say that the web of multiple responsibilities guarantees that no single person is ever responsible for any particular decision. Thus, no matter what a Presidential candidate may say about "reforming" Washington, the system of today's federal government is a Gordian knot, now the size of a battleship, and there is no sword sufficient for a latter-day Alexander to slice it open.

Mr. Luce's premise is that this and other ills are not directly the "fault" of the government. We keep voting for the people that run this circus. What we have not done is demand a say in the bureaucracy. Nor can we, with the current system in place. A generation ago, a commission reported, "If any nation were to attempt to impose upon America the current system of education, it would be considered an act of war." In spite of "No child left behind" and "Race to the top", it has gotten worse. At the time, the U.S. education system was ranked eighth; now it is twentieth, and falling. Amazingly, just yesterday I met a family from Shanghai, who moved here so their children, middle-schoolers, could "have the benefit of an American education." What were they smoking? They lived here ten years ago, but I don't think they realize how much has changed in just that short decade. From what I can determine, it is now nearly two years since Chinese primary education surpassed America, and in math and science, China is now number one in the world.

I happen to live in a favored location, along the Eastern seaboard, where there is good support for maintaining infrastructure. This is mainly so that congresspersons can more readily travel back to their districts, from New York to South Carolina. If the nation's capital were in Omaha, I wonder what the highway and train systems of Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas would be like? (I understand the Vice President still takes the train home to Delaware frequently; now with half a dozen Secret Service bodyguards. The Wilmington station has now been named for him.)

Elsewhere in the country, parts of the Interstate Highway System are crumbling, and the side roads are worse. And trains? Forget it. A few years ago my brother and his family reserved a sleeper for the 3-day ride from Ohio to California for a family reunion. The ride was so bruising, that my sister-in-law, who is terribly afraid to fly, insisted that they cancel the return reservation and fly home. Much of the trip, the train went no more than 35 mph due to poor track conditions, and even at that speed, the train shook terribly.

In the memorable chapter "Maybe We Can't: Why Money Continues to Rule Washington", the author details how the entrenched system defeated every intention of President Obama, and of George W. Bush before him, to make any improvements. In a sense, going to war is about the only thing a President can do nowadays. Even the famed (and vilified) "Obamacare" bill wound up containing very little of what Obama originally proposed, and nearly everything that the insurance lobby wanted. It is strange: The Republicans are finally getting around to revealing that the "Affordable Care Act" guts Medicare to the tune of more than $700 billion, but they have neglected to point out that nearly all of that will go straight into insurance premiums!

P.S. I am a registered Republican, so I am allowed to vote in primary elections. You can bet that I do not vote straight ticket. Sadly, my wife and I may be the only ones on our block who bother to find out what candidates really stand for and what initiatives really are proposing.

My mother once said that the 50% voting rate in America was a sign that the people were satisfied; at the time nearly 100% of the Russians voted, but could only vote "Yes" or not vote at all. In America, those who voted were mainly those who want a change plus a number who don't want a change and want to counter the opposition. That principle worked well in 1955. It doesn't any more. We are like the proverbial frog in the slowly-heated cauldron, that doesn't try to jump out until the water is warm enough to loosen its muscles so much it can't jump, so it gets boiled. We have been gradually jollied into the present situation over two generations, by my reckoning. It won't be an easy road back.

Mr. Luce doesn't claim to have a prescription for change. The closest he comes is to quote lobbyist Mark Garten, "America will ultimately stand or fall by the health of its middle class." At the moment, the middle class is squarely in the sights of an ossified bureaucracy. This is not a Liberal-Conservative problem. It is a "Damn right I'm going to cover my ass so I can't be held to blame for my decisions" problem that afflicts nearly all of those 14 million federal employees and contractors. There is no simple prescription. Thomas Jefferson wrote, in words that ought to have been included in the Constitution, but were not:
"…to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
How long will it take until the American people decide that the "evils" are no longer "sufferable"? Our union has lasted 236 years, and the federal government 223 years. For the union to continue, the present system may need to be abolished and replaced. Churchill said, "Americans always do the right thing, after exhausting all alternatives." It seems we are just about out of alternatives. Mr. Luce writes that we actually need a new Constitutional Convention, but "That can't happen." I pray that it can happen.

In his own review of this book, David Gergen of CNN wrote, "Warning: this book could be a danger to your peace of mind." I am certainly happy to have finished reading it. I hope I can return to better sleep as the shock wears off.

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