Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Land of the Blind

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Early on the morning of December 7, 1941, a wave of 90 Japanese bombers crossed the northwest point of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Once back over the Pacific Ocean, the planes wheeled south and attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack provoked the American entry into World War II and fundamentally changed the American way of life in ways that resound today.

President Franklin Roosevelt led the country's mobilization for world war, a mobilization enabled by a vastly expanded federal government. The new bureaucracy drafted and trained manpower and directed the development of an industrial capacity that helped overwhelm the Axis alliance. When the country demobilized after the war, the bureaucracy remained as a formerly isolationist nation took its place as the leader of the so-called Free World.

In his pioneering studies of bureaucracy, the Germain sociologist Max Weber noted the efficiency of bureaucratization but warned of a dehumanizing tendency that he called the "polar night of icy darkness." Today, a combination of municipal, county (or parish), state, and federal bureaucracies administer the day-t0-day governing of the United States. In fact, all large institutions, be they public or private, rely on a bureaucratic structure for daily operations; they have not come up with a better way, and accept the price of the polar night in the interests of efficiency.

And, all things considered, federal government bureaucracies effectively discharge the duties they are designed to perform. Without a bureaucracy, you wouldn't be able to receive and send mail at reasonable price for six days a week. A bureaucracy not only collects FICA taxes and collaborates with the postal service to distribute monthly Social Security checks to over 51,000,000 Americans, it does so with very low overhead. Bureaucracies administer gold standard programs in scientific and disease research, and provide federal grants on the basis of exceptionally rigorous standards. They preserve a system of pristine national parks and conserve important parts of American history on such battlefields as Gettysburg and Antietam. The list goes on and is quite lengthy.

The largest federal bureaucracy is, of course, the Department of Defense, which employs over 2,000,000 men and women, including 700,000 civilians and 550,000 soldiers on active duty with the United States Army. Not including the civilians, the Army requires roughly seven support personnel for each infantryman on combat duty. The resulting force is likely unbeatable on the field of conventional battle, and the Army's bureaucratic structure contributes to that.

But today's wars are not conventional, and the military's difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan are well-documented. The nature of modern war also highlights another salient feature of bureaucracies: They are self-perpetuating and do not respond readily to sudden change. Thus, it's no surprise that Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has expressed frustration with the dozen or so federal agencies delegated to deal with the BP/Halliburton catastrophe, specifically accusing them of lacking a sense of urgency.

Governor Jindal might as well want a cat to bark or a dog to meow.

What bureaucracies can do well, they often do well. One thing they don't do well, though, is respond to emergencies. Like the cat that can't bark, it's not in the nature of the beast: As Weber pointed out, the requirements of long-term daily administrative efficiency introduce the element of indifference. While this doesn't mean that bureaucracies can't adapt to a sudden change in circumstance, it invariably does mean that adaptation takes time, pressure, and trial and error. In this respect, Governor Jindal does the right thing by taking his frustrations public, although he would have more credibility if he weren't so strident in demanding an end to the deep water drilling moratorium and if his complaints weren't attempts to draw attention away from his own shortcomings.

For anyone demanding to know why it has taken so long for the federal government to get on its feet re addressing the catastrophe, the regrettable but correct response is that it hasn't taken long at all given the natural bureaucratic constraints that inhibit response to a disaster that has no precedent in American waters. The government has no built-in capacity to respond to a major oil spill, and it's not hard to understand why.

First, the responsibility for stopping a spill and cleaning up the wreckage in its wake legally lies with the oil company, which in this context eliminates the incentive for the federal government to develop its own capabilities. Second, imagine the reaction to the politician who said, "Wait a minute. We can't count on a oil company to do this. We should appropriate the necessary funds to develop and ensure a response strategy."

Conservatives would deride such a proposal as wasting taxpayer dollars to plan for an eventuality that would never come. The proposal, they'd claim, would put unnecessary constraints on business and cost jobs. (They're never worried about jobs until something inconvenient for business comes along.) Deep water drilling is safe, they'd further claim, and the Greenspanians among them would assert that free market principles dictate that Big Oil would never act against its own interests by doing anything unsafe. (They actually believe this nonsense.)

Sympathetic liberals would consider the extent of the fight and remember that, to most voters, the prospect of a spill is beyond remote, the Exxon Valdez accident having occurred multiple eons ago and Big Oil's ongoing rape of Nigeria (a tragedy in endless acts) a non-event because Nigeria doesn't exist in any meaningful way. They'd reluctantly conclude that they had more immediate and appetizing fish to fry, and take a pass.

The longer the worst doesn't happen, the more large organizations act as if it won't and can't. They become slack and cut corners. They take safety risks in the interests of meeting schedules and maximizing profit. Like compulsive gamblers, they make bad bet after bad bet until it blows up in their face and ruins the lives of everyone around them. That's why we need vigorous, alert, and well-funded government regulators who keep an industry honest, as opposed to partnering with the industry to represent it in the government bureaucracy.

So there we have it: A continuously hemorrhaging calamity with no good way to take it on other than through persistence and trial and error. To paraphrase A Christmas Carol's Jacob Marley, the Gulf of Mexico wears the chains we forged, chains built link by link and yard by yard. It is a heavy and ponderous chain...

Cunnel Haley Barbour asks ""Spill? What spill?" in this admiring New York Times profile, and warns that the liberals are out to get us. Maybe I missed something, but it looks to me like out-control megacorporations are out to get us. You know: The same ones that Barbour wants to drill, baby, drill in the Gulf now, baby, now. In the article, Barbour takes advantage of his visibility to boost Mississippi tourism at the expense of Louisiana's misery. How the Times confuses this with crisis management and presidential timber eludes me...

I have all the respect in the world for General Russell Honore. But hasn't it occurred to him that if this were as easy as "find the oil and kill it," the job would have been done by now?...

James Carroll of the Boston Globe has a subtler take in his comparison of the oil spill with the flagging missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are, he writes, no less than a test of the American character. Call me a cynic, but if he's correct, I'm betting on the oil...


Barry Knister said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barry Knister said...

I especially like your explanation for why bureaucracies are unable to contend with disasters. And I like the clarity and rationality you bring to the whole issue of why those who talk about shrinking government to the size of a kiddy pool are simply wrong.
Thanks. It's too bad those who need most to read this are not likely to do so.

K. said...

Thanks, Barry, on both counts. Americans hate government until they want it, and want government to act slowly until they want it to act fast. And are stunned and surprised to the point of nonacceptance when they can't have it both ways.

If Bobby Jindal were Secretary of the Interior and this had happened off the coast of California, he'd think he was responding with alacrity and would be sick and tired of Arnold Schwarzenegger being in his face all the time.

tnlib said...

Excellent but I really can't add to Barry's comment that would enhance anything. Isn't Jindal the guy who didn't want a handout from the government and is now criticizing them for not responding fast enough?

Cowtown Pattie said...

To paraphrase A Christmas Carol's Jacob Marley, the Gulf of Mexico wears the chains we forged, chains built link by link and yard by yard. It is a heavy and ponderous chain...

Brilliant, Dude!