Bureaucrats never die

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.

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7 Responses to Bureaucrats never die

  1. anon says:

    You might find chapter 10 of dickens’ little dorrit (on the circumlocution office) amusing. For a contemporaneous scholarly assessment, have a look at the Northcote-Trevelyan report.

  2. Handle says:

    The switched-positions irony of this species of assertion was evident during the whole Obamacare “debate”.

    You may recall some discussion about the law’s requirement of mandatory minimum “Medical Loss Ratios” which require regulated utilities private health insurance companies to dedicate a certain percentage of their premium revenues to health-care expenditures as opposed to “Administration”.

    The Socialists Progressives claimed spuriously that among the “justifications” for the MLR rule was the enormous gap between the MLR’s of the private sector and those bastions of efficiency in the federal government’s health care providing agencies.

    That gap could only be explained by the inherent wastefulness of business competition – what with their pointless and uneconomical striving for market-share and whatnot – something that could be remedied immediately through rational central planning. (One would have seen many similar argument during the early Progressive era and through the Great Depression, and you’d think a century of evidence would be enough to squash the error, but alas.)

    The Conservatives countered that, in fact, people are hardly all wingless angels and that, upon investigation, one would discover that a large fraction of all those pointless bureaucrat administrators in the private sector were employed in tasks trying their best to root out fraud, waste, and abuse. Medicare and Medicaid, contrariwise, devoted sparse resources to the problem, (preferring to assume the issue of “waste” out of existence, for example), and so their purported administrative “efficiency” comes at the cost of huge medical-expenditure inefficiency and a widely known problem of corruption and profligacy.

    So, when it came to the private-sector, the Progressives were calling for the heads of all those excess corporate bureaucrats, but when it comes to the public sector these noble saints are all that stand between us and expensive ineffectiveness. And mutandis mutatis for the Conservative position.

    This is a good example of tribal-intellectual hypocrisy. The general argument itself is not inherently false, and it’s not entirely implausible that it only properly applies to the folks favored by your own side, and so one is able to use it at one’s convenience instead of asserting it as a universal principle that is equally available to the enemy.

  3. Steve Johnson says:

    “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…”

    How exactly is that supposed to work?

    In the private sector managers hire the best people they can given the constraint of the limit on how much they can pay (gross oversimplification). Is there any evidence that the bureaucracy exercises selectivity when hiring? Do they even hire the best people who apply for jobs at the current rates of pay? Doesn’t the fact that the USG manages to overfill its diversity quota in every single agency (even NASA, the least “diverse” overfills its diversity quota by 50%) imply that their goal in hiring isn’t competence but something else? If you’re not hiring with competence as your filter, you won’t get more competent employees by paying more, you’ll get better paid employees.

  4. rightsaidfred says:

    I’m familiar with the USDA and it makes your points in several ways. Farm income will probably hit historic highs this year, but you can bank that farm subsidies will continue, probably with an increase.

    Somehow the USDA is in charge of National Forests, instead of the Interior Dept. I imagine somewhere in the past a bureaucratic battle was fought and Interior lost. I’m also involved deeply with Interior and one word sums it up: dysfunctional. “They have done so little with so much for so long they are now qualified to do nothing with everything.”

  5. Hi, Foseti. I am planning running for President in 2012 and (putting my position papers together) I am basically wondering, does not the President have the right to abolish any job, or even any entire office/department? (Does this need Congressional approval?) Would that not be a way to thin the bureaucracy? Even if Congress desires that something be done in area X, could the President not say, “Why don’t you take this into the legislative branch, if you truly want it done, as monitoring concern X is not really a legitimate executive function in my view. But arresting someone that violates your laws is, so you contact DOJ if that needs doing. I remain your humble servant, & etc.” This would force Congress to either acquiesce in the cut or get their hands dirty themselves. (ie actually writing the laws that the executive branch is supposed to enforce)

    If you are paranoid about replying by email, have Devin Finbarr do it (feel free to give it to him). I have questions for him too!

    By the way, you are now the ‘go-to guy’ for questions on real bureaucratic life. I have seen your name dropped around the blogosphere whenever the secret life of bureaucracy is mentioned!

  6. SB says:

    @Steve johnson – I think you may have a rosie-eyed view of the private sector. In many large companies the limit that bites is not dollars, but headcount. The middle manager is not told ‘hire the team you want, for $2m’ but ‘you can have 10 people, at market rates’. They are incentivised, other things, being equal, to have the most expensive ‘best’ team they can.

    And then to keep them busy. If you can’t keep your team busy it doesn’t reflect well on you, so certainly there are jobs that never die.

    I am not sure Foseti is describing Govt at all, I think he is describing large institutions.

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