14 July 2013

Bureaucratic Dictatorship

My father always said that America was a Bureaucratic Dictatorship. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant. In retrospect the observation contains some merit on an empirical level, though I think the problem is actually more profound.

From his standpoint as a businessman and citizen, it seemed that at every level our government through its regulatory bodies and agencies was slowly expanding and grabbing control of virtually every facet of society. These bureaucracies are self-perpetuating and expansionist.

Anyone who has worked in government or interacted with it much won’t have too hard of a time grasping this fact.

I learned many lessons in the military and one (which I’ve shared before) had to do with the nature of the bureaucracy. When I arrived my unit in Italy contained all of 43 people. We were a detachment from a base in Germany. So technically we were part of their command and logistics structure. However we apparently had our own budget. When I first arrived the base was in the process of building up but was still somewhat of a backwater. The Cold War had just ended and US strategy was shifting to Southern Europe and the Middle East. The massive conglomerations of bases in Germany were no longer necessary. In terms of strategy they served as the ‘tripwire’ deterrent vis-à-vis the Soviet Army and in particular the threat of Soviet tanks. The Soviet threat real or perceived had evaporated.

In the 1990’s the new emphasis was going to be the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East. Now under Obama we’re ‘pivoting’ again and the new strategic thrust will be toward the Asia/Pacific region. This of course means a lot of contracts, new bases, construction etc… The Military-Industrial Complex may naturally lean toward the militaristic wing of the Republican Party, but they’re happy enough with a Clinton or Obama who does their bidding. There will be some losers as bases close and the spending shifts to new locations. But the Defense Contractors…they always do quite well.

Anyway, my unit at first struggled in terms of funding. Our equipment was subpar, and at times we struggled in terms of manpower. Then the shift happened which I think was underway but was certainly accelerated by the Bosnia intervention in 1995. The Srebrenica massacre had just happened and as some of you might recall the American pilot (Scott O’Grady) was shot down over Bosnia.[i]

After these events our base was tagged as a key buildup point. They started throwing money at us and I remember at the near conclusion of the fiscal year we had a big meeting. Apparently there was about $70 to $80,000 left over from our budget that needed to be spent. The number one rule of every bureaucracy is that you never leave surplus funds and you never request the same budget for the subsequent year. You always spend every penny and you always ask for more. You might get cut, but you are guaranteed to be cut if you don’t spend it all and ask for more.

This way the bureaucracies never really shrink. Unless restrained they will continue to grow. Seeking justification they will always seek to expand their role and powers. Some bureaucracies completely take on a life of their own and will actually lobby for laws that will aid their growth.

If you spend any amount of time in those circles you will also find various levels of the bureaucracy spending a great deal of time and manpower working on funding grants or in other cases working on data collections and reports…to do what they’re tasked to do? No, they’ll put in long hours appealing to the next tier in the bureaucratic hierarchy in order to justify their existence or the extension of more funding.

Headquarters had increased our manpower, given us new equipment and we improved and expanded our facilities and we still had money left over. So what to do? In the end they decided to purchase gym equipment. Of course we had no place to put it. It was all crammed into an unused break room and was packed in so tight you almost couldn’t use it anyway. And basically no one did. The base already had a pretty fancy gym with much better equipment, more of it, and far more room. Ours just sat and literally collected dust. The treadmill did get some use. When bored some of the airmen would go in and take turns jumping onto it at full speed, projecting objects into the wall etc…

It wasn't really about getting a place to exercise. In bureaucratic-budgetary terms it was a justified use of funds and vindicated our bottom line.

I had always heard about bureaucratic waste but that was the first time I saw it firsthand. And then it occurred to me…this was one tiny insignificant unit at a backwater base. Multiply this instance by ten thousand and maybe you would begin to get an idea of how the government functions and how things are wasted.

Many people would point to instances just like this and say this is an inherent problem with government. Actually that would be incorrect. It’s a cultural problem within the government bureaucracy. The bureaucracy itself generates a certain type of culture. It can be reformed or changed. I’m not saying it would be easy to do that, or that it’s going to happen, but it’s not impossible.

It’s always easier to spend other people’s money. The private sector is not that different if you have your eyes open. I see it every day in the construction sector. And anyone who works in consulting or doing contract work can tell you endless stories of client’s money being wasted. I deal with inspection companies and architectural firms and all of them (if you look) have little rackets going wherein the customer is being taken advantage of. Just recently the property owner I’m working for brought was having a meltdown. He brought in invoices from the architect, wanting me to look at them and help make sense of their billing. I had to admit based off what I was seeing and what I had experienced in working with the architect…it was pretty sketchy. They charge high rates and often you're paying a lot of money for some pretty silly stuff. But it's not just architects and attorneys. It's happening everywhere.

The government is more brazen because they can be. Most of the time they can act with impunity. It’s the nature of power. I see it when I deal with the local building departments, and other city bureaucracies. Sometimes dealing with small town versions of this can be helpful. You get to know people and at times that can help cut through red tape and formalities. At others times it can be nothing less than maddening. There’s nothing worse than a small town bureaucrat who thinks they’re somebody.

Why do we have this maddening bureaucratic system? Did it birth itself? While my father’s observations were on one level correct. In another sense this identification of American power…the Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy fails to identify the real nature of the problem. It’s but a symptom.

One could certainly attack this from many angles and come up with a multitude of reasons and problems but I would focus on four.

1.   The democratic principle that seeks to decentralize power.

2.   Regional government (as opposed to local and Federal)

3.   Tort litigation

4.   And, commitment to private enterprise

I would argue these commitments while not all necessarily bad in and of themselves, have together unintentionally generated a systemic flaw, a poison or cancer which can exist within society for a long time but eventually renders it dysfunctional and self-destructive.

What I’ve presented here could quickly turn into a large book and it would be one that I would be happy to write, but I’m afraid I have neither the time nor the resources to do this, so a summary will have to suffice at present.

These four issues I’ve raised are so broad, in fact the overall issue concerning the corrupting nature of bureaucracy is so broad that any attempt to address this question is almost by necessity a reductionistic enterprise. In no way can I even begin to touch on every angle or consideration. But I do think these four factors (broadly speaking) have worked together to society’s detriment.

Other related articles:

 Social Parasites

Money's Ethos and Essence

The Economics of Empire

The Cancer of Militarism

Shining a Little Light on Some Common Tax Deceptions

Profits and Social Stability

[i] ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ was loosely based on that event. O’Grady later graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary and has been pretty involved in Republican politics. They do love their Christian military heroes.

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