Sunday, October 07, 2018

On Bureaucrats and the Government

One of the big differences I have found between Chinese and Taiwanese on the one hand, and Americans on the other, is that Chinese generally look to the government to solve problems, while many, perhaps most, Americans, seem to believe that the government can do nothing right. Of course we have ignoramuses like those who tell congressmen to keep the government's hands off Medicare, but that is only an extreme form of the idea that the government can do nothing right and should "leave us alone." This is an interesting libertarian, almost anarchist position that has deep resonance in the US, especially, of course, in the Republican Party, but not only there. As Mariana Mazzucato points out (see her Freakonomics interview here), that ignores the role of the government in funding most medical research, as well as creating the Internet, and GPS. Elon Musk is widely hailed as an entrepreneur, but few note that he has received $5 billion in government money for his various ventures.

The real scandal is so-called "entrepreneurs" who try to personally profit from government spending. For example, the owner of AccuWeather has been trying to prevent the National Weather Service from releasing weather information to the public. He says his company should not have to compete with the government. Sounds reasonable, except that AccuWeather does not do any data-gathering on its own: it uses government data! It actually wants to profit by repackaging government data. Thankfully, decades of efforts on his part have so far failed. But now, Trump has nominated him to head the National Weather Service, but even in these times, that has been too much for the Senate to stomach, so his appointment has been stuck in the senate, at least so far. But his case does illustrate the danger of corruption with government spending. This corruption would be less likely if we actually valued the governments' services.

It is not only in Asia that people value the services they get from the government. NPR's Planet Money did two stories on Denmark in 2010 in which they were incredulous that Danes did not mind paying relatively high tax rates; the second program was even titled "Please Tax Me", to along with The Awesomest Economy. Basically, the Danes felt they were getting a good deal: free education, good healthcare system, low crime. Yes, tax rates were high, but they were satisfied with what they got in return. In the US, on the other hand, it is common to treat all taxes as theft; there is even a Wiki page on "tax as theft" in addition to libertarian pages that make the argument (such as this one).

Michael Lewis is one of my favorite writers, and he has a new book on risk. It is called The Fifth Risk because when he interviewed people on what risks they were worried about, he said most could name three or four, but not five, and it is the risks we cannot imagine that are the most dangerous, because we will not be prepared. He shows that the Trump administration, by leaving hundreds of positions in government empty, and by naming unqualified and uninterested or conflicted people in charge of various departments and agencies, makes risks much greater than they were. He was interviewed in NPR's Fresh Air last week.

But at the end of the interview, Terri Gross gave him an open-ended question, asking if his understanding of the bureaucracy had changed in any way from his reporting. He became very animated as he replied:
Oh, my God. So I didn't know what I was going to find when I started knocking on the door of the Energy Department or the Agriculture Department or the Commerce Department. And I turned out having exactly the same experience that political people have when they're appointed to these jobs running these places and have these - some preconception but vague preconception of what the bureaucrats are like.
I expected to be briefed and be - you know, be kind of informed by these people. I did not expect to be inspired by them. The kind of person who is still working in our government despite all the abuse the government takes is a mission-driven person. They're not paid well. They're there 'cause they're interested in the task. The people in the National Weather Service are people who have had a passion for the weather since they were little kids.
 The people in the Department of Energy are scientists who've had a passion for their particular science since they were little kids. Essentially it's - essentially what they are - all these people are firefighters in spirit. And there's something really moving about groups of people who are doing what they're doing not for money but for mission. They have a purpose in life. And it just jumps off the page. I mean, it jumped - it's jumped into my mind dealing with them. And so I came away from it thinking, wow, I can't believe we as a society have treated this slice of our society - these kinds of people, who are really the best among us, as badly as we have.
And, yeah, the structure's screwed up. That's what's screwed up. It's not the people who screwed up. It's screwed up that it takes 106 days on average to hire someone new in the federal government, or that you don't know your budget when you're planning, or that you make a slightest mistake and you become public enemy No. 1. But you do something really great, and no one pays any attention. All that's really screwed up, but that's not their fault. That's our fault. And that's what sort of needs to be fixed because in a way what we're doing is wasting the greatest spirits in our society.
One can't help but wonder whether young people will continue to seek government jobs, or whether the growing wage inequalities and huge salaries earned in finance, plus the constant berating civil servants suffer, will lead many young graduates to choose other careers and thus undermine this hidden strength of American society. In Taiwan, many people still value and respect government jobs. In the US, on the other hand, they are accused of being "swamp creatures." It is difficult to address this problem if Americans do not even realize, or admit, how important the government is for the functioning of a modern civilized society.

1 comment:

JB said...

A further comment on bureacrats. Paul Volker said in a NY Times article by Andrew Ross Sorkin:

“The central issue is we’re developing into a plutocracy,” he told me. “We’ve got an enormous number of enormously rich people that have convinced themselves that they’re rich because they’re smart and constructive. And they don’t like government, and they don’t like to pay taxes.”

Washington, when he arrived, “was a city filled with bureaucrats,” he said. “It didn’t make them bad.” At the time, civil servants — like his father, the township manager of Teaneck, N.J. — were respected. “I grew up in a world in which good government was a good term,” he said.