December 3, 2011
"I’m convinced that, if NASA were a GSE [government-sponsored enterprise], we probably would be on Mars today."

Newt Gingrich, extolling now-hated mortgage giant Freddie Mac in April 2007. 

h/t: Mother Jones

November 30, 2011
The Rick Perry Style of Management

Work for the federal government? Don’t agree with Rick Perry’s plans? No problem: he’ll just reassign you to a truly unpleasant place.

Click the headline for the video.

h/t: AM

August 31, 2011
No, libertarians and tea partiers: the US is not on the verge of becoming a police state

Recently, I’ve been getting a fair number of what might be called “evil bureaucrat” posts from libertarian blogs I follow. In these posts, someone—more often than not a police officer—behaves in some officious and offensive way and abuses their power to the ill of the community. The implication is then drawn (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly), that such actions and abuses are typical of state officials, and so long as public officers behave like this, the state should be limited in its powers and authorities.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with these posts. Democracy in fact requires citizens to be vigilant in ensuring that public officials do not abuse their powers: if citizens don’t hold government accountable for its acts, who will?

Moreover, these libertarian-minded posts are utterly correct in that state officials do sometimes abuse their power, and so as a consequence society simply cannot trust that “government will just do the right thing.” Indeed, speaking as one who severely criticized the state for taking us to war in Iraq, I deeply recognize that the state doesn’t always “do the right thing.”

That said, I find these posts annoying. It seems to me that they are premised on the false notion that the plural of anecdote is data. That is, they are premised on the assumption that so long as abuse of power can occur, all exercise of state power is dangerous and must be constrained.

Unfortunately, this is the worst kind of slippery slope argument. It moves from “wow, this is a problem,” to “wow, since bad stuff happens we are one step away from living in a hellish police state” in one move. But this is silly: that something might happen does not mean that it is likely to happen. For example, it is possible that a cop can be a jerk (or a jerk can be a cop, which is also true sometimes) without society teetering on the edge away from authoritarianism. It is possible for a society to have corruption in it (and it does) without all state action being corrupt.

For me, the dilemma of state power is summarized in one image: George Wallace’s infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” seeking to prevent the University of Alabama from being integrated in 1963. (Most of you only know this from Forrest Gump, but I’ve posted a real picture of the scene here.)

Stand in the Schoolhouse Door

Wallace was eventually removed from the doorway at the urging and effort of the National Guard. The thing is, as Governor of Alabama, George Wallace was the commander in chief of the Alabama National Guard—the very people who moved him from the schoolhouse door. His authority was superseded by John Kennedy’s Constitutional right to nationalize the Alabama National Guard, thereby making the Al. National Guard a federal force. Thus Wallace’s segregationist stand was ended by a military force made up of people who mostly shared his political values (the Alabama Guard’s troops), but who followed their constitutional duty to accept the orders of the President of the United States when ordered to do so.

The test of a democratic society is not whether all of its officials behave as they ought to all of the time. The test of a democratic society is what it does when its officials screw up. Often, the answer is: not enough. But often enough, the answer is: we send in the National Guard to make us live up to the ideals we claim to believe in.

July 6, 2011
Belly Bomb BS

Wow … less than a week after being raked over the coals for aggressive pat downs of very elderly women and very young children, the Department of Homeland Security announces that terrorists may now be able to implant bombs in their bodies, necessitating ever more intense pat downs and security screenings.

Ah.

And al Qaeda could be working with Saddam Hussein to plot  …

September 20, 2010
On the limits of bureaucracies

A small story today.

I was in Chicago last week for a meeting. This is not unusual for me: I meet monthly at universities and colleges around the state, and as most of them are in or near Chicago, we go there. A lot.

This time, because my schedule permitted, I decided to take the train up. It’s only about 2 1/2 hours (when it’s on time), and you can’t get into the center of Chicago any quicker—or cheaper—than that from where I live.

My fare was all of the $35 round trip. For comparison’s sake, had I driven, the university would have compensated me at $.50/mile, or about $135 round trip. The university also would have paid my parking, which would have been a minimum of $35 overnight. So, the net cost to the university would have been at least $170 plus hotel. From a certain point of view, then, I saved the university a minimum of $135 by taking the train. Plus being more ecologically sound, etc. Heck, I even walked from my house to the train station!

The thing is, my university has a negotiated rate with AMTRAK: $12 each way, for $24 round trip. No exceptions. However, to get this rate I was going to have to travel at less favorable times. So I paid for the trips I wanted rather than the trips the university would pay.

Now I knew this going in. I knew that I was paying $11 more than the university would reimburse. And I am fortunate enough in my life that $11 is not that big a deal. I’ll survive just fine without being compensated for that $11.

But one of the things in life that drives me mad is organizational systems that are seemingly designed, and thus extremely likely, to encourage perverse outcomes. Thus I will not be compensated $11 because I violated the university’s travel policy, but had I gone ahead and driven, the same office would have unquestioningly paid me $170. Per policy, I did not save them $135, I cost them $11. The conclusion is obvious: do the more expensive thing and be rewarded. Perverse.

Now I am not a bureaucracy basher. Most of the time bureaucracies work great, and we don’t notice them. You don’t think about all the bureaucracies that have to work properly to make your lights come on when you flip the switch, for example. You just notice when the lights don’t come on. Likewise, it’s flat amazing that aluminum tubes can be hurled through the sky at 35,000 feet at 600 mph for 14 1/2 hours (from LA) and arrive at Melbourne, Australia pretty much on schedule—but no one is going to think of the bureaucracies that underlie this miracle unless things go horribly wrong. Such is life in a bureaucracy: no one notices the good, but everyone sees the bad.

But little things like the question of how to compensate travel speak to the broader question of why many people are skeptical that “government bureaucracies” can make life better. They do, most of the time. But they have limits. For if nothing else is true, I am certain about the following fact: no  argument I offer will change the fact that the university travel office will think I wasted 11 of its dollars, rather than saving it 135. It’s in the rules.