In Thrall To The Administrative State

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who appears frequently on cable TV news shows, has an thought-provoking article in the Washington Post that captures some of my concerns about the incessant growth of the administrative agencies of the federal government and what it means for American citizens.  It’s an important issue that is well worth pondering.

In my view, there are two key points that should be part of our thinking about this issue.  One is laziness, and the other is accountability.

Part of the reason why the administrative agencies have grown so vast is that the President and the Congress have been, and continue to be, lazy.  (And, just so no one thinks this is an attack on the current President and Congress, let me be clear — this is something that has occurred, without significant interruption, since the 1960s, under Presidents of both parties and Congresses controlled by both parties.)  Presidents and members of Congress don’t want to roll up their sleeves and grapple with the details of how a particular federal law should be implemented or applied, so they write legislation in broad strokes and then yield huge amounts of discretionary authority to the administrative agency that is charged with writing the specific rules and then supervising enforcement of the law.

The justification for that approach is that administrative agencies are “subject matter experts” that can make finely honed decisions about how the law should be applied, what forms should be submitted, what fees should be charged, and what punishments should be imposed in the event of non-compliance.  That justification sounds good — but what makes us believe that the agencies really have such expertise, or that they exercise it in a dispassionate, apolitical way?  And, even more fundamentally, why shouldn’t we demand that Congress develop such subject-matter expertise?  Before Congress writes a law that may have an enormous impact on a particular segment of the economy, is it so unreasonable to expect that the members of Congress on the committee that writes the legislation actually have some reasonably detailed understanding of what they are doing?  I would be happy to see members of Congress spend less time on fundraising and cable TV appearances and more time on actually mastering the details.

IMG_1112The accountability issue is equally important.  Well-educated, reasonably attentive Americans know the names of the President, the leaders of Congress, their Representatives and Senators, and the major members of the Cabinet.  But who, at any given point in time, can name the head of the IRS or the FDA or the FTC?  When an issue arises with an agency like the IRS and not only the President, but also the leadership of the IRS, take the position that they had no idea what was being done, we have reached a critical point of non-accountability.  That kind of shrug of responsibility is not acceptable, because in a representative government our elected officials must know, and be accountable for, the actions of the agencies they are charged with supervising.  If they don’t, we must demand that they develop some mechanism to keep track of, and direct, the regulatory actions.  Part of that mechanism has to involve shrinking the bureaucracies and removing some of their power and discretion — because obviously it is easier to supervise and direct a smaller agency with rigidly defined authority than a sprawling entity that is given broad, poorly defined authority.

If we don’t get the growth of the regulatory state under control, we may move into a truly Orwellian scenario, where citizens can be trapped in a bureaucratic maze with no hope and no recourse.  If the President and members of Congress are viewed as powerless to do anything about it, we may see still further erosion in the number of Americans who care enough to vote in elections.  I don’t think you have to be a Constitutionalist — or for that matter a Democrat or Republican — to conclude that we don’t want, and cannot tolerate, that kind of government.

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That Failed Drive-Thru Dry Cleaner Concept

Recently Kish asked me to stop by the dry cleaners to pick up some clothing.  “Just go to the drive-thru window,” she added helpfully.

Eh?  A drive-thru dry cleaners?  Intrigued, I drove to the side of the dry cleaner shop, where there was an open door rather than a drive-thru window.  I summoned the clerk, gave her our name, and then watched for minutes as she moved the moving hanger line around for several loops, looking for our clothing.  It was vaguely embarrassing to see into the rear of the store as she searched, like looking through an open door into a stranger’s kitchen and seeing them eating at their table.  After she found our clothing, the clerk came back over to the open door and handed me the hangers.

At that point I realized that the drive-thru concept really didn’t work.  Unlike a bag of burgers or a Coke, clothes on hangers aren’t easily passed through the driver’s side window.  You have to wrangle the hangers through, dragging the clothes against the side of the car.  And once they are inside, what do you do?  Leave them bunched up in your lap?  Toss them into the passenger seat?  From a sitting position in the driver’s seat, only a contortionist could reach around and hang them on the hooks above the back seat windows.  So, I had to open the door, clumsily get out with the clothes — which, of course, defeats the entire purpose of a drive-thru — and hang them properly.  The lady watched my fumbling performance, probably chuckling inwardly at a show she’s seen over and over again.

Are Americans really so lazy that we demand that a drive-thru option be available for every imaginable consumer business?  Here are two simple rules that should be applied to determine whether a drive-thru concept is well-suited to the business.  First, does the business sell a product that can be delivered comfortably through a driver’s side window?  Second, can a reasonably coordinated driver do something with the product without ruining it?

I’m hoping these two simple rules prevent doomed yet irritating business ideas like drive-thru haircuts, drive-thru tailors, and drive-thru wedding cake bakeries.

Into The Scary i-Real World Of The Future

If you like motor vehicles (and what red-blooded American doesn’t?) you probably take a greedy peek now and then at the concept cars the automakers unveil at the annual auto shows.

The Beijing auto show just ended — that’s right, Detroit, the Beijing auto show — and it featured the standard weird cars and high-heeling wearing models.  One of the concepts, Toyota’s i-Real electric vehicle, offered a chilling vision of what the decades to come might be like.

The vehicle itself is innocent enough.  It’s called an “electric personal vehicle,” and it’s like a cross between a wheelchair and a La-Z-Boy.  Controlled by two joysticks, it can reach a speed of 20 m.p.h.  It looks indecently comfortable and fun to tool around in, to boot.

Everyone who looks at the i-Real knows people who would love to have one and use it all day long.  They’d wake up in the morning, collapse into the i-Real, and zip off to the bathroom, then use it to get to the kitchen for a snack, then lounge in the i-Real all day, watching TV.  It’s like the plot of WALL-E has become reality!

Finally, a vehicle that appeals directly to the innate laziness of countless tubby modern Americans.  How can it not be fabulously successful?

Time to buy stock in Toyota.

“Easy Feet” And The Decline Of American Civilization

If I were of a more inventive mindset, I would try to think a device — any device — that would allow the porcine members of the American public to avoid any potentially unnecessary bending or moving.  I’m convinced that there is an insatiable market for such products, whether they are like “The Clapper” and allow you to turn off light switches without the hassle of getting out of bed, or motorized chairs that, according to a current TV ad, apparently can take the mobility impaired to the very rim of the Grand Canyon.

The latest evidence is a product called “Easy Feet” that allows you to clean your feet in the shower without any of that treacherous bending that otherwise would be required.  You’ve probably seen the commercials, which show a device that looks like a plastic sandal with bristles like a toothbrush and a built-in pumice stone.  You lather it up, stick your foot inside and move it back and forth, and voila!  You’ve managed to avoid having to wash your feet the old-fashioned way.  Thank God!  The link above describes the product as a safety enhancement:  bending to reach your feet in the shower can be “dangerous,” slipping and losing your balance could “lead to serious injuries,” and bending is “uncomfortable” and “awkward.”

If Americans have become so fat, lazy, and helplessly uncoordinated that we cannot even safely wash our feet in the shower without the assistance of commercial products, is it any wonder that America is losing its preeminent place in the world?  What’s next?  “Easy wipe”?