Matthew Yglesias defends bureaucrats. Unfortunately, neither he nor the guy he quotes from The Washington Monthly understand how bureaucracy works. Here’s the quote from The Washington Monthly:
In other words, if Congress and the White House agree to substantial cuts in the federal workforce but don’t also agree to eliminate programs and reduce services, the end result could be more spending and deficits, not less. Strange as it may sound, to get a grip on costs, we should in many cases be hiring many more bureaucrats—and paying more to get better ones—not cutting their numbers and freezing their pay. Because in many parts of government, the bureaucracy has already crossed that dangerous threshold beyond which further cuts can only mean greater risk of a breakdown. Indeed, much of the runaway spending we’ve seen over the past decade is the result of our having crossed that line years ago—the last time there was a Democrat in the White House, a divided government, and calls for slashing the federal workforce in the air.
The emphasis is Mr Yglesias’. Here some of Yglesias’ quotes:
When congress mandates reduced staffing levels but doesn’t otherwise change what the federal government is supposed to do, there’s no way to get the job done but to rely more on contractors. . . .
He runs down examples of how understaffing has wound up leading to runaway contract costs and huge overruns. But he also runs down examples of a more insidious phenomenon—understaffed regulatory agencies being unable to properly enforce existing environmental and financial regulations.
This issue is real – some agencies are significantly under-staffed. Unfortunately, the modern structure of government makes it impossible to solve this problem without creating bigger problems. In short, a bureaucratic job never goes away. I’ve complained before that bureaucrats can’t be fired. But my point here is more broad – once a bureaucratic job exists, it’s virtually impossible to eliminate that job. The job may transform but it’s not going to disappear.
For example, one guy in a group that I often work with was detailed to another agency for three years. No one was doing his job for three years. He came back a couple months ago. No one thinks it’s weird that his job still exists. In a rational setting, the fact that no one was doing a job for three years would be taken as a sign that the job was unnecessary. Not so in government.
The USDA still exists. Wikipedia tells us that it works to "end hunger in the United States and abroad." Indeed. It also processes the government’s payroll.
Thus the relevant question is not whether its more expensive to hire additional bureaucrats or additional contractors in 2011. The relevant question is whether it’s worth creating new perpetual bureaucratic positions. In general, I believe that it’s very unlikely that creating new perpetual jobs will be the cheap option in the long run.