The (Invisible) Empire Strikes Back

You hear a lot about federal employees who comprise the so-called “Deep State” these days.  They apparently don’t like the new President or his policies, and they’re concerned about what he’s going to do to their jobs.

top-secretSo, at least some of those federal employees apparently are doing what any honest, “merit-hired,” politically neutral “civil servants” would do — they’re figuring out ways to undercut the new Administration’s agenda, “slow walk” proposals, and otherwise thwart policy changes.  Politico calls it “the revenge of the bureaucrats,” and notes that the principal weapons of the “Deep State” are carefully aimed leaks, efforts to have the inspector generals of agencies investigate political appointees, and using “the tools of bureaucracy to slow or sandbag policy proposals.”  Is it any coincidence that, since the new Administration took office, leaks seem to have come fast and furious?

This is an interesting issue, because there’s a fine line between the right of federal bureaucrats to exercise their First Amendment rights and the need to have workers who will blow the whistle on misconduct, on the one hand, and the actions of politicized employees who simply don’t agree with the direction the new Administration is taking and want to try to use their special positions to stop it, on the other.  It may be a fine line, but it should be a clear line, with the former being acceptable but the latter not.  Federal employees aren’t elected, and their views of what is the best course aren’t entitled to more weight than, say, the people who voted and elected the new Administration in the first place.  Career bureaucrats shouldn’t be permitted to use passive-aggressive methods to block policy changes just because they disagree with them.

The “Deep State” employees might think they’re clever in playing a backroom game of leaks and bureaucratic maneuvers, but it’s a dangerous game for them, too — if people get the sense that the federal workforce is hopelessly politicized, it’s going to continue the long decline in public trust in government, and ultimately people who might otherwise protect the federal employees from cuts won’t do so.  The whole notion of civil service is that the federal workforce shouldn’t be political, and instead should be comprised of knowledgeable, experienced career employees ready to implement the policies of whichever Administration may take office.  If the workers themselves demonstrate that they are politicized, what’s the point of the civil service in the first place?

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Bald-Faced Waste

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a bureaucrat at the National Institutes of Health charged with making decisions about spending the NIH budget.

One of your subordinates comes to you with a proposal for the NIH to spend $22,500, over two fiscal years, to fund the 9th World Congress for Hair Research.  The subordinate notes that the theme of this year’s World Congress, sponsored by the North American Hair Research Society — which will be held at the “luxurious InterContinental Miami” hotel in Miami, Florida — is Reflect, Rejuvenate, and Regenerate.  He says the Congress will bring together “hair biologists, dermatologists, cosmetic scientists and hair transplantation surgeons” to “present new research, share experiences, and discuss new directions for the advancement of knowledge in hair growth, hair and scalp disease, and clinical care” and is sponsored by the likes of Women’s Rogaine, Procter & Gamble, HairMax, Theradome, L’Oreal, Aveda, and the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery.

baldheadsDo you: (a) tell the subordinate that his proposal is a very funny joke, and share a good laugh at the outlandish idea of federal tax dollars being used to help put on a “luxurious” conference about baldness and hair restoration surgery, (b) gently but firmly tell the subordinate that baldness and hair implant surgery aren’t the kind of serious health concerns that require the attention or support of the National Institutes of Health, or (c) rubber-stamp the proposal because it’s only for $22,500 out of the multi-million dollar NIH budget and note that the session about “Robotic Hair Transplants” looks like it should be interesting.

If you picked (c), you have a future as a federal bureaucrat.

In the grand scheme of trillion-dollar federal budget and trillion-dollar deficits, a $22,500 payment toward the 9th World Congress for Hair Research — which is going on now, thanks in part to your tax dollars — is just a drop of Rogaine in the bucket.  This is about principle, however.  Either the people who make decisions about how federal tax dollars are spent are zealous guardians of the public fisc, or they aren’t.  And while some men and women may fret about losing their hair, there simply is no justification for federal support for a hair-care conference that already is amply supported by large corporate sponsors peddling hair-care products and hair restoration and regeneration treatments and techniques.

Kudos to Senator Rand Paul — whose tousled coiffure is at the other end of the hair spectrum — for calling attention to this little example of spending silliness.  You can see the NIH information about the funding for the 9th World Congress here and here, and the Congress website is here.

Our reckless federal spending has fallen off the political radar screen, both because we’ve become hardened to enormous federal budget deficits and because other issues have come to the forefront.  At some point, though, our federal government’s inability to control its budget and to resist obviously unnecessary spending will have terrible consequences.  And that’s the bald-faced truth.

At The Auto Title Division

Recently Kish and I had to go to the offices of the Auto Title Division of the Franklin County Clerk of Courts.

IMG_5481The very words invoke a kind of soul-sucking, intuitive dread.  You expect to be mired in some terrible, Kafkaesque nightmare, where blank-eyed citizens stumble through endless lines and passive-aggressive bureaucrats wield forms and regulations and filing requirements like weapons.  And when Kish and I got to the offices on a shabby stretch of Alum Creek Drive before the 8 a.m. opening and found about a dozen people already on line, and looked through the window and saw row after row of hard plastic chairs, my expectations and spirits drooped even lower.

But I’m here to confess that it wasn’t that bad.  In fact, I came away with a dawning appreciation for the employees of the Auto Title Division and the challenges they face in their jobs.

Once the doors opened we moved from our outside line to an inside line and then had to wait a few minutes while the clerks got their cash drawers ready.  As I looked around, wincing at the ever-present, high-pitched whirring sound made by an old spindle-paper printer, I realized that many of the signs and instructions were in another language, targeted at Columbus’ large population of Somali immigrants.  I started to think about how difficult it would be to have a job that requires you to deal with every person who walks through the door.  People who don’t speak the language.  People who are down on their luck, or have just experienced some unwanted change in their personal circumstances, or are frustrated that they need to make a trip to an office rather than taking care of things on-line.  They are all coming to a place where they would rather not be, because no one wants to go to the Auto Title Division.  It’s obviously an unwelcome hassle.  I’m sure each employee has to deal with multiple unhappy people each day — which wouldn’t exactly make you want to leap out of bed and whistle on your way to work.

But the line moved, and soon we were talking to a perfectly pleasant, professional, helpful young woman who looked up the record information about our car and explained what we needed to do — which required us, of course, to make a call, get another form from a third party, and then come back again later.  But the need for another trip wasn’t caused by her screw-up, but rather by an oversight by another clerk working in another bureaucracy.

Really, it wasn’t that bad.

A Little Bit More On The IRS And Politics

When my friend the Biking Brewer recommends something to read, I take notice — and not just because he is accomplished at creating fine malt beverages and has a discriminating sense of Belgian ales.

The BB sent along a link to this article from Salon, entitled When the IRS targeted liberals, that seeks to add a little context to the current story about the IRS actions with respect to conservative groups.  President Obama has called the IRS actions “outrageous” and he’s right about that — but the Salon article usefully points out that the IRS has been embroiled in political issues before.

The key point here is not which groups are being targeted by the IRS, or who is the President at the time the targeting occurs, but rather the fact that IRS employees think they have the right to target specific groups at all.  Our federal government has become so colossal in size, and so removed from interaction with average citizens, that many government employees think they can do just about whatever they damn well please because they are from the government and, well, they just know better than we do.

This isn’t a political issue — or , at least, it shouldn’t be.  When agencies like the IRS can become politicized, no one at any point on the political spectrum is safe.  The question is how to change the culture of these bureaucratic leviathans, where employees have jobs for life and have little accountability to anyone who isn’t their direct line supervisor.  Shrinking the size of the bureaucracies, and establishing performance standards that don’t give every employee a lifetime job, would be a good place to start.

The Swimming Swine Stiffs Of Shanghai

Imagine strolling along one of China’s rivers and then seeing and smelling, with disgust, a dead pig floating past.  Then imagine glancing upriver and seeing hundreds of swollen swine bobbing in the water.

That was the scene along the Huangpu — now pronounced Huang-Pee-YEW! — River in Shanghai.  With improbable precision, authorities say 5,916 deceased pigs have been pulled from the river. Some unlucky bureaucrat evidently was tasked with providing a comprehensive count of the carcasses.

The Huangpu River provides a major source of drinking water for Shanghai and its 23 million residents.  Because hogs aren’t the cleanest residents of the planet even when they are alive, and because death inevitably produces gases, fluids, and other fruits of decomposition that no rational person would want to consume, the citizens of Shanghai have expressed alarm about drinking water tainted by the cadavers.  Chinese authorities have assured them that the Huangpu water quality is safe, but the citizens are skeptical.  I’m betting that the same bean-counting bureaucrat who determined that 5,916 pigs were involved will soon find a 11,943 percent increase in the consumption of bottled water by our Chinese friends.

Curiously, the source of the thousands of perished pigs, and their cause of death, hasn’t been determined.  I’m just a city boy, and I know the Chinese interior is big, but 5,916 pigs sounds like a lot to me.  You’d think the same precise carcass-counters in the Chinese government could readily detect the disappearance of a vast herd of hogs.  And wouldn’t you want to know where the pigs came from, and how they died, before you determined that the water in which the swollen ex-swine were bobbing was safe for humans to drink?

Apparently, not in China — where first you count.

Incompetence, Squared

Think of every can-you-top-this story of bureaucratic incompetence that you have ever heard — and I read a story today that almost certainly beats it.

It happened in Cleveland, and it happened to a little boy getting ready to start kindergarten.  A letter from the Cleveland public school system told him to show up at an address four miles from his home on a particular date for the first day of school.  When he appeared at the designated time and location, he learned that it was the wrong day — in fact, school didn’t start until a week later.  What’s more, the school that formerly was found at the location wasn’t there any more — it had been demolished two years ago, leaving the little boy looking forlornly at a construction site.  And to top it all off, a telephone number provided in the letter for boy’s parents to call in case of a problem didn’t work.  The little boy was one of a number of students who received the same, inexcusable treatment.

The man who is CEO (CEO?) of the Cleveland public schools called the little boy’s family to apologize.  That’s to his credit, but he now should be spending his time trying to figure out how such a ludicrous combination of errors could possibly have occurred.  How could a notice letter have included the wrong date, the wrong address, a non-existent school, and a non-functional telephone number?  Doesn’t anyone in the Cleveland school system proofread important correspondence?  What does that tell you about their careful attention to their jobs?

Government types often wonder why so many people are so skeptical of government bureaucracies, their competence, and their responsiveness.  This story is one powerful reason.

Patton Put-On

You have to hand it to federal employees — they may be mindless bureaucratic drones in their jobs, but when it comes to spending tax dollars, they’ve got more creativity than Pablo Picasso.

The latest evidence of this phenomenon comes from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which ponied up $5 million for two week-long training sessions for human resources personnel at the World Center Marriott in Orlando, Florida — apparently the world’s largest convention hotel.  The $5 million included $52,000 spent to create a parody of the opening scene of the film Patton, as well as $84,000 for promotional items like highlighters and hand sanitizers.  (A story about the contents of the video, with a link to the video itself, is here.)  In all, 1,800 people attended the conferences, at a cost of $2,734 per person.

The VA has an important function, of course, but spending $5 million so HR personnel can be trained at a glitzy conference center — as opposed to spending the funds to better help veterans with their health care, job training and placement, and social reintegration needs — doesn’t seem like a wise use of tax dollars.

Credit should be given to the House of Representatives committee that is investigating this incident, as well as the possibility that the VA officials deciding where to hold the conference may have received improper gifts.  Congress has an important role to play in examining federal funding and shining a spotlight on waste.  The current oversight work recalls the watchdog efforts of prior legislators, such as former Democratic Senator William Proxmire and his “Golden Fleece” awards given to agencies that engaged in frivolous spending.  Ferreting out and ending wasteful federal spending shouldn’t be a partisan issue.