This is gonna be a long one, folks. You might want to get some popcorn or a Coke or something. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
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Okay, you’re back. Here we go.
Every time I read a story that involves the U.S. government bureaucracy, it reinforces my belief that the federal government has simply gotten too big to be controlled.
In a corporation, each level reports to another level above it. The hierarchy starts with the workers at the bottom. Above them are the supervisors, then managers, vice-presidents, the president, the board of directors, and finally the stockholders.
Each level is responsible for the effective and efficient operation of the level below it, and the people at each level know that if they don’t do the job, the level above will replace them with someone they believe will.
Up to a point it works pretty well, but it can be demonstrated that as corporations get bigger they become more inefficient, and harder to monitor and control. Over the years I’ve come to believe there’s a point—sort of a corporate “Peter Principle” point—where a corporation becomes unmanageable.
Lee Iacocca encountered that situation when he became Chairman of the Board of the Chrysler Corporation back in the ‘Seventies. Chrysler was a huge corporation, and it had 84 people with the title of “vice-president”—each with a big office, a secretary, a personal staff, a company-furnished car, and company-paid memberships in several golf and country clubs.
It also had more than 500 people with the title of “manager of <whatever>.”
His first act was to review the performance of all those people. Within a year he had fired or early-retired more than half of them. Those who remained got the message, and worked harder and more efficiently. As a result, Chrysler’s operations became more profitable. They stopped losing money and pulled back from the verge of bankruptcy.
The same inefficiencies exist in all the biggest corporations, from ExxonMobil to Microsoft to Bank of America. Instead of a unified corporate body in which each component functions in whatever way benefits the whole organism, it becomes a collection of isolated power centers.
Each of those power centers treats the others as if they were competitors, and in a sense they are. The corporation has become a zero-sum entity. Something that benefits one group causes another group or groups to lose something–budget, influence, number of employees, whatever. Therefore, each power center not only tries to get as much as it can for itself—it tries to keep the other power centers from getting more than it does, even if it harms the corporate organism.
Since the federal government is many times larger than the largest corporation, it seems inevitable that their inefficiencies are many times worse than that of even the largest corporation.
We now know, for example, that the terrorist attack of 9/11 could have been anticipated and prevented. All the intelligence was there. The problem was that bits and pieces of the information were scattered among a dozen or more individual agencies—the FBI, CIA, NSA, DIS, and many others. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. Everybody had a piece of the picture, but no one was willing to share their piece with anyone else for fear the other agency, not them, would get the credit for putting the puzzle together.
I recently read Space, James Michener’s history of the U.S. space program. Like all of Michener’s books, it’s a fictionalized story but based on events that really happened. He recounted several incidents of both government agencies and civilian contractors protecting their piece of the pie while the overall program suffered.
For example, at the end of WW2 the U.S. was able to capture and bring to America the top scientists from Germany’s V-1 and V-2 rocket-bomb program—Wernher von Braun, his assistant Dieter Kolff, and 108 others. Russia arrived at Peenemunde late and got only the second-rate talent, the ones the U.S. didn’t want.
Despite that fact, Russia was the first to put satellites into orbit. They orbited Sputnik I, Sputnik II, and the first man, Yuri Gagarin—all before the U.S. succeeded in orbiting our first satellite. If our scientists were better than Russia’s, how could that have happened?
There were two reasons. First, in the early post-WW2 days, the U.S. military was in charge of rocket research. It seemed logical at the time. Germany had used rockets to deliver bombs, so rocketry was thought of as another means of waging war. As had happened with airplanes, though, none of the U.S. military services were willing to let another service control the rocket program. Consequently, the Army, Navy, and Air Force each had a research program, and each one refused to share anything with the others. Each wheel had to be invented three times, in three different laboratories.
To further complicate things, the big aircraft companies that had built tens of thousands of aircraft during WW2, saw the rocket as a competitor to their aircraft. They convinced President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, that rockets would never be able to deliver bombs as accurately or in the quantities their aircraft could.
So in 1956 Wilson ordered a complete shutdown of the rocket research program. It stayed shut down until after Sputnik I was orbited in 1957 and Russia was trumpeting to the entire world that here, finally, was incontrovertible proof that communism was superior to capitalism.
At that point, President Eisenhower issued an Executive Order that the U.S. rocket research program was be restarted—but it would no longer be the province of the military services or the Department of Defense. It would be administered by a civilian agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
The NACA had been around since 1915, with the mandate to promote the development and use of aircraft. Now President Eisenhower ordered that the NACA would be renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and given full responsibility for the research and development of the U.S. rocketry program.
It was to be a completely civilian effort, with oversight by the Congress, not the military services or the Department of Defense. Thus was NASA born.
But the same sort of internecine conflict occurred time after time, at every stage and every level of the program. There was even an issue of “civil rights.” Late in the Mercury program, the senator who was chairman of the committee responsible for the oversight of NASA was visited by a delegation from the NAACP, who demanded to know why there were no black—”colored” was the word being used back then—no colored astronauts, and no colored people in Mission Control during a mission.
The senator relayed the question to the NASA administrators, who explained that the requirements for both jobs were advanced degrees in engineering or one of the sciences, and extensive experience in some specific field of the space program, like rocket motors or astral navigation. The NASA administrators told the NAACP representatives that they had specifically tried to qualify women, Jews, and coloreds, but had never found anyone who met even the minimum qualifications.
A group of NASA administrators even spent several months working with the top five historically-colored universities in the U.S., asking the universities to give them someone who met their qualifications at least minimally. The universities were unable to furnish anyone.
But when the senator reported that to the NAACP officials, the officials said, “You don’t understand. The next time the TV shows Mission Control during a mission, we expect to see four colored men in the group. We don’t care if they’re doing anything or not. If they’re not there we’ll start telling the American people that NASA is spending billions of tax dollars on the space program but shutting out the colored population.” So NASA hired four colored men and sat them at consoles during missions–looking at the screens and typing on the keyboards, but doing nothing.
These stories, and others like them, have caused me to ponder what sort of governmental organization would be manageable.
When George Washington became our first President in 1792, the world was much simpler than it is today. There were only thirteen states. The economy was mainly agrarian. A trip to Europe required two months on a sailing ship, and there was little reason to go there. The nations of Europe and Asia had their own problems to deal with. Unless they saw some prospect of financial profit from what was then called the New World, they were content to leave the newly-created United States of America to itself.
Terms like “foreign relations” and “foreign policy” had no meaning in the closing years of the Eighteenth Century.
Here in the opening years of the Twenty-first Century, none of that is true. Things have changed so much, gotten so complicated, that I would argue that Thomas Jefferson, in my opinion the most intelligent President the nation has ever had, would be overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the office of President.
I believe a look at Presidents of the past hundred years will bear that belief out. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, was a foreign-policy genius—but his domestic and economic policies were a disaster for the nation. The Great Depression should have ended by 1935. Instead, it was exacerbated by the policies of the “New Deal” and was still going on when the U.S. entered WW2 in 1942.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was largely responsible for our modern domestic infrastructure, with its Interstate Highway System and paved roads connecting every city, town, and village.
He had the good sense not to meddle with the post-war economic boom that the U.S. enjoyed.
But despite his experience as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during WW2, he had absolutely no feel for peacetime international politics. The Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev dominated Eisenhower every time they met.
What I’m trying to justify (if it’s not obvious already) is that I believe here in the world of the Twenty-first Century we need three Presidents—a President for Domestic Affairs, a President for Foreign Affairs, and a President for Economic Affairs. A Presidential Committee, if you will.
I don’t believe such an arrangement would complicate the election process. In fact, I think it might simplify it. If we look at any slate of wanna-be Presidential candidates—the present group of Democratic Socialists excepted—we see that most of them excelled in one of these fields. A rare few excelled in two fields. But almost none excelled in all three. It should be simple enough for each potential candidate to campaign for their specialty during the primaries, and for each political party to select three candidates at their convention.
The only caveat should be that the Presidential Committee had to be elected as a group, i.e., all from one political party. It wouldn’t work to have two Republicans and a Democrat. Even worse would be to have one Republican, one Democrat, and one from a splinter party, like the Green Party.
The Constitutional checks and balances between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch shouldn’t be affected, either. The signature of all three Presidents would be required to turn a bill into a law. A refusal by any of them to sign would constitute a veto.
Revising the office of President could be accomplished without much problem. It would require an amendment to Article II of the Constitution, but that could be proposed by the Convention of States I called for in Commentary No. 49.
Reorganizing the departments of the Executive Branch would be another matter entirely. There are presently fifteen Executive Branch departments. Each one would need to be assigned to one of the Presidents. In most cases, the assignment would be obvious. The Department of the Interior would be under the President for Domestic Affairs. The Department of the Treasury would be under the President for Economic Affairs. And so on.
Many of my readers have heard the word “entitlement” so often in relation to the federal government that they think it’s always been a governmental policy. Only students of political history know that the word didn’t exist in the government lexicon before 1965.
Prior to 1965, each department of the federal government had a fixed budget. If a department’s budget was, let’s say, a billion dollars, it had to operate for the entire fiscal year, October 1 to September 30, on that billion dollars. The administrators of that department had to plan and monitor carefully. If they came to the middle of September and didn’t have enough money left to cover the payroll for the last two weeks of the fiscal year, they had to furlough some employees of the department for that two weeks.
Then, in 1965, liberal President Lyndon Johnson decreed that American citizens were entitled to the services of their government, whatever those services might be—welfare checks, farm subsidies, salaries, whatever. Therefore, budgets were only a guideline. If a department’s budget was a billion dollars, it should make every effort to operate on that amount of money—but if it had to spend more to give the citizens the services they were entitled to, the department was obligated to do so.
In the pre-1965 days, the government departments acted like businesses. They tried to plan their hiring, expenses, and other disbursements so they stayed within their budget.
Many departments ended their fiscal years with budget money unspent. Administrators who managed to do that were given bonuses and promotions. They were rewarded for being good managers, and good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.
Those of you who have never worked for a government contractor (I’ve worked for two of them) probably aren’t aware of it, but since 1965, every government department makes sure to spend every penny of its budget—plus a little. If a department’s budget is a billion dollars, it will spend the billion, plus a few million more. That gives it a reason to ask for more money in the next budget.
Every department has learned the bitter lesson that if it spends less than its budget it’s not congratulated for its good management and good stewardship—its budget is cut the next year, on the assumption that it can get along on less money. Remember what I said about the power centers and the zero-sum entities? The federal government is a zero-sum entity, and each department is a power center, trying to get more of the available resources than anyone else, even if it hurts the organization.
As I said, the federal fiscal year begins every October first. So in August, every department does a thorough audit of its budget. If it anticipates it will have money unspent when the new fiscal year starts, in September the top officials of that department will find some reason to go to Hawaii…or the Caribbean…or Europe for a week or two. Naturally, being high-ranking government officials, they will fly first class…and stay in hotel suites…and eat in five-star restaurants…their meals accompanied by $250 bottles of wine. And by September 30 their department will be slightly over-budget.
No, I’m not kidding. I’m not exaggerating, either. As I write this in early September, I promise you it’s going on right now.
I have a generalized idea how this problem might be solved. My idea is to go back to the pre-1965 rules. Give each department a budget for the fiscal year, with the understanding that that budget will be all the department gets for the year. Like a person working for a fixed salary, the department will have to plan its expenditures so that its budget covers all reasonably-anticipated expenses.
The budget problem could be eased by eliminating duplication and fragmentation in federal programs. In 2014 the Government Accountability Office, the non-partisan (really) government agency that oversees how the government spends taxpayer money, published a report that listed no less than 188 instances of duplicated government effort.
Remember the Army, Navy, and Air Force rocket research labs that refused to share information with each other? Here are some examples that are still current:
- The government has ten different agencies that run programs concerning AIDS in minority communities. Instead of all the efforts being combined in one office, there’s a separate agency for each minority group—blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, lesbians, etc.
- The government has eleven different agencies that are doing research on autism.
- The government has eight different agencies searching for military people who are prisoners of war or missing in action.
- The government has eight different satellite control centers administering ten government satellite programs.
That’s just four. There are 184 more. What do you suppose that is costing the taxpayers?
The only changes I would propose to the Legislative and Judicial Branches are the ones I proposed in Commentary No. 49—term limits, line-item veto, a balanced federal budget, and more.
I’m not an unrealistic person. I don’t expect any of these suggestions will come to pass. What I’m doing as much as anything is planting the idea that maybe the nation could benefit from some changes. Our government was fairly simple in 1792. Today it’s evolved into a monstrosity that seems to have a life of its own. Maybe we need to change that.