The Comforting Insulation of Bureaucracy

During the 2012 primaries, Republican candidate Rick Perry famously had an “oops” moment when he couldn’t remember that the Department of Energy, DOE, was one of three agencies he planned to close as president. In a move clearly aimed at thumbing a nose or raising a particular finger at the concept of government agencies in general, the man who claimed that he “alone” could fix what so many of his supporters think is ailing the country named the now-former governor to lead the department he once forgot but knew was unnecessary. It played to a sub-segment of the right-wing base who do not understand the inner workings of government but who, nonetheless, see nothing good in it. It led many liberals, many of whom also cannot comprehend such intricacies, to wail about the indiscretion and malice involved. It began, as did other similar finger-waving appointments, much hand-wringing among those who respect good governance. I’m here to alleviate some of those fears but also to break some bad news to those who cheer such divisive and irresponsible nominations.

When some were incredulous over Rick Perry’s nomination, I told them not to worry. I said that Gov. Perry was about to be taken behind vault doors and briefed at very high classification levels about all the things DOE does that no one knows about. I said he would emerge a changed man. During his confirmation hearing now-Secretary Perry said this, “My past statements…do not reflect my current thinking. In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.” I believe him, but if other secretaries are not as open-minded, there is still hope.

When you work in government as a person of action, as I have done, bureaucracy can be infuriating. Its ability to throw up roadblocks to perceived progress is maddening. Civil servants, most of whom are patriots just trying to do their jobs right, are long-term employees who recognize and understand the transient nature of either elected officials or, in my case, military officers. As in any human endeavor, there is security in the status quo. Change is difficult to engineer and even more difficult to execute. Government agencies are rife with regulations and processes that ensure their actions comply with law and protect the interests of the American taxpayer. They are not known for their agility or ability to innovate. When I was a cadet we used to say of one of our sister academies that it harbored “over two hundred years of tradition unhampered by progress.” That is what government bureaucracy feels like when you are attempting change. Yet now, those human and institutional impediments are a buffer against the onslaught of the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as presidential advisor—and false news purveyor—Steve Bannon recently put it.

That “administrative state” maintains clean water, safe food, access to markets, nuclear surety, consumer protections, breathable air, vehicle safety, energy access, and thousands of things that are important to all Americans. Some cabinet members, like Secretary Perry, will confront their long-standing but wholly unsupportable views on the agencies they now lead. Others, and Mr. Bannon, may well find their desire for destruction eventually ground to dust by the very bureaucracy they despise. If so, it will be by the will and principle of those lesser-known but far more deserving servants who have calmly gone about their duty during multiple administrations, be they conservative, liberal, or whatever this one is. Take comfort in that.


Perspective in Art and Politics

In art perspective is important. It is used to draw the eye into a painting or to position an observer on just the line intended by the sculptor. Writers use characters’ differing views to show the reader all may not be as it seems. Art touches the deepest parts of our humanity when we can follow the journey the artist guides us on, when we understand from whence the story comes and where it might lead. When art fails, it is most often because there is a fracture between perspective and perception. It is for this reason I cannot appreciate a Picasso. I cannot understand where the great man is centered, and I am profoundly ignorant of where he intends to lead.

Perspective is important in politics too. It is becoming more so, because we are now faced with a chief executive who revels in chaos, who believes all press is good (though all in the press are bad), and is undaunted in an ability to deal in falsehoods. Without perspective, it is too easy to be caught up in an attack on a federal judge, the intentional omission of recognition of Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day, or the confirmation of a Secretary of Education so lacking qualification or even understanding of the system she now directs that she received more “no” votes than all previous nominees to her position combined. Without perspective one could be driven mad by the audacity of the Senate Majority Leader to ignore his Constitutional vow and a nominee of the duly elected President of the United States. In politics, as in art, it is important to understand where a politician is coming from, because it tells you everything about where he intends to go.

It is in this view that we must assess the president’s pick to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court. Democrats are rightly incensed at the treatment of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to fill that seat. The idea that Senate Republicans wanted to “give the people a voice” was disingenuous in the extreme. Twenty-one percent of the president’s term remained when Republicans denied the people their rightful say. The people had spoken. Twice. They chose the man who nominated Merrick Garland, and then—for a third time—more of them chose Secretary Clinton than her opponent. Yet none of that addresses the issue now at hand.

Only a sense of perspective can save Democrats from a grave error with the potential to fundamentally alter the stature of one of the greatest deliberative bodies the world has ever known. The nomination of Neil Gorsuch is one that must be viewed in relation to other nominees this president might have chosen, not in relation to the choice the last one made. It is fantasy to consider what might have been without the necessary mechanism of the Electoral College. The despicable actions of the last Senate and its majority stand on their own demerits. What is left for Democrats now is to go about the work they are sworn to do and give Judge Gorsuch a thorough and fair vetting. What is left is for them to model for the nation how Senators ought to behave. In so doing they will demonstrate perspective and communicate a journey far more justly led. In so doing they will show us, like great art, one conceivable path to our better selves.

America(ns) First?

Remember the good old days of U.S. car manufacturing in the late 1970s and 1980s? No? I don’t either. Those were perhaps the worst years for quality, value, and innovation in the industry’s history. Those years produced the boxy and very bad Chrysler K-car and, in the words of one automotive writer, a Ford Thunderbird that resembled “a living room on wheels.” It was bench seats, crushed velvet, floorboard dip switches, and a great expanse of American steel without much form or function. The “big 3” were complacent behemoths cranking out inferior products and charging more than they were worth. It was all done under the protection of the U.S. government’s enforced import restrictions.

The new president said he will tariff European cars at 35% if they are not built in the U.S. A tariff is meant to discourage industries from actions nations find objectionable. The unintended, but wholly predictable, consequences are that tariffs limit both the supply of goods and competition among firms. When supply shifts in response, prices rise. Where competition is lacking, there is no forcing function on quality improvement or innovation. Neither of the latter can affect prices, so consumers always end up paying more for inferior products. That is exactly what happened to the U.S. auto industry the last time the government tried to limit Americans’ choices of cars.

In the early eighties, Japan and the U.S. agreed to limit Japanese-made vehicle imports. The “voluntary export restraint,” or VER, had far-reaching effects. A Brookings Institution study by Robert Crandall found that in 1985, American-made cars cost $750-$1000 more than prior to and primarily because of the agreement. The study also found that profits by 1985 were 33-45% higher “despite sharply lower domestic sales” and were 40% higher than they were in 1974-76 when domestic output was similar (Crandall, 1987). Consumers paid more with no gain in quality, while superior products were kept from market, and domestic companies made significantly greater profits.

As the VER was expiring companies became wary. Japanese car companies did begin standing up factories in the U.S.—the desired effect of import restrictions—but U.S. companies feared competition on their own soil. A NY Times article noted some fears were alleviated by a belief that ultra-compact cars would not affect “big 3” sales, that they would not directly compete with U.S.-made cars (Holusha, NY Times, March 1st, 1985). In fact, Japanese companies upended the U.S. industry. After multiple bankruptcies, the competition set the U.S. auto industry on the road to continuous improvement and innovation and created a domestic product that competes well against carmakers around the world. It was not supply restrictions that drove that improvement; in fact, VER only delayed it.

Japanese cars were introduced in the U.S. in 1958. Had U.S. industry reacted then by competing directly—by energizing the strength of U.S. engineering and labor—instead of turning to protectionism, the consumer would never have had to suffer a “living room on wheels” that only lined the pockets of executives who felt no incentive to improve. History may not repeat itself, but it does play out in harmonics. If President Trump follows through with his protectionist threats, we can all look forward to paying more and getting less across every sector of the economy. That has never been a recipe for economic greatness.