Don’t Blame Bureaucrats

Regarding our recent discussion about the purported “flexibility” of private business vs. “government bureaucrats” — there really is a problem with inflexibility in government, but the infamous “bureaucrats” are not the cause.

In the current Atlantic, James Fallows writes about “How America Can Rise Again.” It’s supposed to be cheerful, I think, but it isn’t. This comes near the end:

The late economist Mancur Olson laid out the consequences of institutional aging in his 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative “earmarks,” and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to cut off. No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state. In 1994, Jonathan Rauch updated Olson’s analysis and called this enfeebling pattern “demosclerosis,” in a book of that name. He defined the problem as “government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt,” a process “like hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years.”

We are now 200-plus years past Jefferson’s wish for permanent revolution and nearly 30 past Olson’s warning, with that much more buildup of systemic plaque—and of structural distortions, too. When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry.

Well, yeah. That’s about as concise a description of our basic problem as I’ve seen anywhere. But do we dare revise the Constitution and change the makeup of the Senate? Until very recently I’ve been opposed to any mucking around with the Constitution, but maybe we should be discussing it — not just Senate reform, but Senate revision.

The whole article is worth reading. The problem with it is that Fallows keeps coming up with reasons why America really isn’t going to hell in a handbasket, but I don’t find his assurances very reassuring.

17 thoughts on “Don’t Blame Bureaucrats

  1. There are big changes that are problematic, but simpler changes that are less bold, easily understood, and to which a lot of people agree. Getting rid of the electoral college is one of the simpler ones. Those who benefit from the present arrangement would fight it, but it is a change that is simple and well understood.

    I think the Wyoming vs California scenario is ridiculous, but what’s needed are alternative propositions to remedy this antique. I’m not a political scientist, and so I’m not aware of the alternatives or how they compare.

    I’m not at all adverse to mucking around with the Constitution. I think it’s worshipped too much like a religious document – a reverence that is encouraged by those who benefit from the current arrangement, and which is contrary to how at least Thomas Jefferson saw it – a revolution every 30 years and all that.

    Obviously as we have seen this week – with far-reaching permission granted to corporations to spend as much money as they want on elections – granted by a charmingly literal interpretation of the First Amendment – a document that was written in the days of quill pens, candlelight illumination, and horseback transportation might need a review by now.

  2. A constitutional convention. Be careful what you wish for. There is no telling what the corporate masters mught come up with.

  3. To amend the Constitution requires approval of two-thirds of both the House and the Senate and approval of three-fourts of the states. In other words, either the small states would have to vote against their own interests in large numbers or it would take an armed insurrection and a totally new government. Likewise the electoral college. Likewise campaign finance reform – usually!

    It’s possible after the cluster-flock that the 2010 election will be (if my prediction is correct) most of the new crowd will be anti-establishment – and a majority in Congress may perceive (when they come out of shock) that being pro-corprorate is a huge liability. The Democrats are bagging more corporate money now than the Republicans, so don’t be surprised if the GOP discovers it’s a sin. Maybe the one theme that the left and right will unite behind in an attempt to out-integrity the other side is campaign finace reform. I’m not saying it’s likely in 2011, just more possible than we have seen in decades.

  4. Chief — I agree, a constitutional convention is scary. But then, if we go the other route, there’s no way that two-thirds of the Senate would agree to radically change the Senate. So we may be stuck.

  5. Give the opposition party a fresh start, for free, and you’ve bought yourself all manner of trouble. That’s really the only transformative development Obama has presided over so far. The corporatism on display in Washington is itself a symptom of a broader social illness ….a democracy that is pitched precariously on the tipping point of oligarchy. In an oligarchy, the only way to get change is to convince the oligarchs that it is in their interest–and increasingly, that’s the only kind of change we can get.

  6. We’ve had two expressions here of why people are leery of doing a big revision of the Constitution. If you want something from current affairs on the same subject, take California. Please.

    There’s very widespread agreement that the state’s constitution is a complete mess. (Junior-high civics fact: The people of the state once exercised their right to force a new constitutional convention by popular vote. But the state officials somehow had never got around to organizing one. When I heard that, the vote was already some 15-20 years in the past. That was in 1954. So far as I know, they still haven’t called the one that was legally required in the 1930s.) Clearly, in its catastrophic fiscal condition with no prospect of an improvement, the need for revision is urgent.

    So, the papers have polled the good citizens of the state concerning what the changes should be. Two results had very clear majority support:

    . Don’t mess with Jarvis-Gann, which limits property taxes so that they’ll be applied as unevenly as possible, in near-feudal fashion.

    . Don’t mess with the requirement for a very large supermajority to pass a budget.

    If people really want the complete incapability of having a budget more than they want a state government, I can’t work up enthusiasm for turning them loose on fixing things.

    Maybe we can bring back miscegenation laws, who knows?

  7. A Constitutional change is desperately needed to give the people in the District of Columbia the same rights as the rest of us. They truly have taxation without representation. DC should have two senators and a representative with voting privileges just like the rest of America. However, because Republicans believe it would mean more Democrats, it doesn’t get done. This is a wrong that needs righting ASAP.

    However, in a dream version of changing the Constitution, I do think Florida and California deserve special treatment in the vein of excommunication, or whatever. Florida is deserving for giving us George W. Bush and California is deserving for giving us Richard Nixon AND Ronald Reagan.

  8. Maha,

    I have not bought this book yet, but have read about 20 pages on line.
    Idiot America: How Stupidity Became A Virtue” by Charles P. Pierce.
    It does not directly apply to the subject at hand, but this is a problem so severe & grave that some out-of-the-box thinking is needed. We need a statesman with gravitas to come up with a plan to make the U.S. governable.

  9. Most bureaucracies tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern:

    From creation in response to perceived need
    to expanding the bureaucracy to better address that need.
    to expanding the bureaucracy to better serve its own needs,
    to protecting the status quo,
    to stagnation.
    Unfortunately, once a bureaucracy becomes its own reason for existence, its damn near impossible to change it from within. Much as I wish our politicians would step up and do the right things for our country, I have little hope they will or even can do so. If significant change is to take place, it most likely will have to come from outside the castle walls.

    And I fervently hope I’m wrong about that.

  10. Muldoon,

    Your description of bureaucracies also describes any other organization of humans, from political parties to corporations and from the UN to the Boy Scouts. Once they have a critical mass, they are remarkably resistant to change.

    The federal bureaucracy can be reformed. This was proven under Clinton, when dramatic changes were made to significant portions of it. The methods aren’t magical: exposure, congressional investigation, appointment of competent management, and, above all, persistence.

    Try getting the Boy Scouts to change, on the other hand, …

  11. The idea of intensely changing the Constitution is a good one. One of the interesting books I’ve come across is from an environmental lawyer who became frustrated with the constant reviews and processes of environmental laws (anyone ever worked within NEPA?) – the book is Wild Law: Protecting Biological and Cultural Diversity by Cormac Cullinan. He proposes a new Constitutional Amendment to protect our environment.

    The only issue I have with the broad ideas of changing our constitution is the lawyers. Our constitution’s brilliance was its brevity – today lawyers from all over the political spectrum would turn a fresh constitution into a 2000 page pile of nonsense.

  12. CAUP,

    The number of pages in the current Statutes of the United State occupies at least 23,000 pages. Then, there are more than 145,000 pages of regulations from agencies, all having the force of law.

    A reduction to 2000 pages would put most of the lawyers out of business. Then they’d probably all run for Congress to build the laws back up again.

    • I reject the idea that lots of pages necessarily adds up to evil or that most regulations are just there to keep lawyers happy.

  13. Yeah, a bite here, a bite there, will draw blood. And, eventually, we may all bleed to death. Theoretically.
    But what the SCOTUS just did is throw chum in shark infested waters where we’re all swimming.
    You die a lot faster in a feeding frenzy, than on nibble at a time.

  14. “demosclerosis” is a great word to describe this country’s form of government. We’ve exported the American Presidential system to about 30 countries, which when put into play has had disastrous results. Most of the countries have since dumped the thing and converted to some form of the parliamentary system, proving that they don’t suffer from demosclerosis.

    The Constitution is a piece of crap in 2010. It wasn’t even much in 1787, as the framers well knew and said and hoped that it would be short-lived. However, other than the biblical stature its (unjustly acquired) it’s also proved extremely useful to those who prefer and profit from a plutocracy, which is what it created and what we’ve devolved into. And since the same reign supreme these days, the chances of throwing the document in the nearest dumpster is next to none.

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