Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

19 October 2019

Bureaucracy Can Be Good for You

For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

What makes a nation great? What makes its people happy?

If you’ve been raised and fed on decades of propaganda from Fox and the GOP, you can be excused if one good answer eludes you. A modern bureaucracy can make a nation great and its people happy.

The reasons are fundamental to our human condition and our social evolution. They are also fundamental to human history, especially the history of China. Let’s analyze.

Except for great geniuses like Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein, we humans are rather stupid. Everything we do well, we do collectively, together. All our knowledge, expertise and our growing ability to control the physical and natural world around us and improve our lives are parts of a grand joint work.

Think someone like Donald Trump could personally make you happy and improve your life? Think again. Would you have him program your computer? fly your airplane? run a nuclear power plant? teach your kids Mandarin? try to cure a loved one’s cancer? excise your infected appendix? even pull a tooth?

No single person, let alone Trump, can do all these things. But we can do them all collectively because we humans specialize and diversify. As small and limited as our biological brains are, each is sufficient—with the aid of a lifetime of study and specialization—to let us do all these things well, if only collectively. Together our small brains will continue to enable us to do more and more—at the cost of greater and more minute specialization—as we save our planet from climate catastrophe and spread our wings toward the stars.

Xi Jinping is infinitely smarter and wiser than Donald Trump. As least he’s smart enough not to have sullied the seventieth anniversary of his Chinese Communist Party with a second Tiananmen-Square-type bloodbath in Hong Kong. But he hasn’t been smart enough to find a better way to integrate the Uighurs into Han Chinese society than to round a million of them up in concentration camps.

Maybe a good bureaucracy, partly populated by highly educated and well-meaning Uighurs themselves, could have done a better job. But Xi didn’t take that road. He didn’t because he, like Donald Trump, thinks he can do everything, or at least control everything, just as Mao tried so disastrously to control all of his newly unified China with his simplistic little Red Book.

Xi’s Chinese ancestors knew better. Almost a millennium ago, Chinese civilization was unquestionably the most advanced and happiest on Earth. Then its emperors had a secret recipe for good government: their Mandarin bureaucracy.

The Mandarins were highly educated specialists in government. In order to reach their positions, they had to take rigorous tests of their learning and knowledge. They governed based on individual wisdom and expertise, under general principles set by the Emperor and his advisers. As they ruled, they applied their deep knowledge and expertise to differing local problems and conditions. They were the world’s first highly educated government bureaucrats trained to avoid corruption and make the people happy.

Today we as a species have so much more knowledge to learn and apply. We have nearly a millennium of additional historical experience and four hundred years (since Galileo) of observational and experimental science. We have cars, airplanes, computers, CAT scanners, electric power, the Internet and nuclear weapons. All these things require years of education and training to understand, build and use, let alone to organize and govern well.

So our human need for specialization and specialized expertise has exploded since Mandarin China’s golden age. So has the need for intelligent, well-educated, dedicated and non-corrupt bureaucrats to govern our diverse and complex society for the people’s benefit.

In the old days of China, a good bureaucracy was largely an issue of federalism: bringing the Emperor’s rule down to ordinary people under differing local customs and conditions, often even different languages. The Chinese had a saying to match: “Heaven is very high, and the Emperor is far away.”

In today’s far more complex world, travel and communication are infinitely quicker and more reliable. So the new emperor, Xi, is never too far away to rule directly.

But the day-to-day functioning of society is infinitely more complex than in China’s ancient Emperors’ times. So the main function of today’s bureaucracy, even in China, is not federalism. It’s bringing specialized and independent professional expertise to government, including economics, other sciences, and high technology.

In order to get things to work well in our complex scientific and technological society, you have to know stuff. Knowing stuff and applying that knowledge to the people and their government is the function of bureaucrats.

I know, I know. Bureaucrats in countries like Mexico and Malaysia have terrible reputations. Some societies don’t pay their bureaucrats enough, so the bureaucrats have to demand and take bribes in order to live. Their corruption undermines their esprit d’ corps and kills their professionalism. So their bureaucracy becomes a parasite on society, rather than an engine of expertise and applied, specialized knowledge.

Our bureaucracy in the United States is not like that. (At least it’s not like that yet, although Trump seems to be trying hard to make it so.) Nor are bureaucracies in many other OECD countries like that, including those in Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Japan.

The secrets of these good bureaucracies are decent pay (to avoid corruption), public respect for expertise and competence, and professional independence within their narrow fields of expertise. Together these secrets give any bureaucracy the power to do good and make people happy by applying real knowledge and know-how to problems of real life outside politics.

What motivates bureaucrats in these countries is not money. Instead, it’s the opportunity and the ability to do social good by applying years of study and education, plus practical experience, to improving fellow human beings’ lives.

If you don’t believe there are people for whom those goals are powerful lifelong motivators, then you’ve never met a good soldier, priest, nun, doctor, medical researcher, scientist, or entertainer. Sometimes monetary riches arise accidentally out of pursuing noble goals, but they are not the primary motivation for the people who pursue them.

Specialization and specialized expertise of course are also common in the private sector, our corporate world. They are, in fact, among the chief justifications for having corporations at all. But as we Americans now know all too well, the principal goal of corporate behavior is making money.

Just ask Mark Zuckerberg about moving fast and breaking things. The monster he created, Facebook, has done that extraordinarily well, allowing the Russians to break our democracy.

With corporations like Facebook battering the foundations of democracy, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a large corps of highly educated and specialized professionals dedicated to improving the status of society and its people and not focused on making money in the process. That, in a nutshell, is the role of a good bureaucracy in modern society.

The wonder of it all is how the nonsense of relentless GOP propaganda has kept the American people from understanding these basic facts. Incessant propaganda has even gotten them to forget their own personal experience and believe pernicious lies.

Yet tens of millions, including me, rely on the federal bureaucracy every month to send their Social Security payments by check or direct deposit, and, though Medicare, to pay their medical expenses when they get sick or injured. When capitalists neglect the environment and pollute our air, water, streams, lakes and even the ground we walk on, we rely on government bureaucrats to detect, monitor and ameliorate the pollution. Every day, hundreds of millions of commuters rely on bureaucrats who design, supervise and maintain the roads they drive on and the complex electrical, electronic and mechanical systems that control both ground and air traffic and keep it safe, including at railroad crossings and airports. Everyone who takes a pill or over-the-counter medicine relies on the FDA to keep it safe, pure and effective and complains (rightly so!) when the FDA fails in this mission, as it did in the recent Zantac scandal.

But the bureaucrats who do all this work get no respect. They have the expertise and knowledge to keep all our complex society running smoothly, and they do the work required for that purpose selflessly every day. What drives them is not profit or greed, but a quaint notion of expert public service. And yet we let our media and a major political party condemn them relentlessly, mercilessly, and mindlessly, day after day after day.

The culmination of this social and cultural abomination is the administration of Donald Trump. He has filled the top (political) leadership of our bureaucracy with expertise-free, incompetent ideologues for the purpose of corrupting, undermining and ultimately destroying it. His and his party’s goal is to let our corporate oligarchs, allegedly including him, do what they want, regardless of its effect on the public welfare. So he’s quite deliberately destroying our good bureaucracy from within, in part by appointing “leaders” whose entire career had been lobbying against the bureaucracy they now control.

Make no mistake about it. The bashing and destruction of our good bureaucracy from within may have reached its apex (so far!) with Trump and his crony bureaucracy. But it’s been a GOP work in progress for two generations. Ever since Ronald Reagan declared government “the problem, not the solution,” a principal goal of the GOP has been to diminish and destroy bureaucratic government so that the corporate oligarchy that funds the GOP can take over.

There is absolutely no subtlety in this GOP push for private-sector supremacy. From the beginning, it has been a power struggle, plain and simple. The wonder is how well the GOP and its propaganda organs have pulled the wool over the public’s eyes.

The oligarchs want more power and so want the bureaucrats to have less. It’s that simple. So they try to convince voters that government is incompetent, bumbling, and misdirected, whether toward “socialism” or otherwise. Yet neither the oligarchs nor their corporate vehicles are set up to clean up our air, water, lakes, streams and land, to keep our workplaces safe, or to monitor the safety and purity of the drugs and food they produce for profit. Wouldn’t that be like letting the fox guard the henhouse?

So if you like the bureaucrats who send you your Social Security and Medicare payments (and your sustenance when you are unemployed), if you like the folks who keep your air, water, land and workplaces safe, and the pills you swallow safe and effective, and who design your roads, highways, bridges, aqueducts and sewage systems so they work well and don’t collapse, and who keep the planes you fly in safe and in the air (unlike the 737 Max), you have no choice but to resist a corporate takeover of our bureaucracy.

Of all the candidates currently running for president, there is only one who understands the need to resist in her bones: Elizabeth Warren. She understands best in the fields of banking, finance and financial regulation, where she has worked for years as something of an independent expert herself. But she gets the idea in general, deep down in her middle-class roots.

That’s only one of many reasons why we need to elect Warren president. From the days of Mandarin China most of a millennium ago, a good, independent, expert, well-educated bureaucracy has been the best-kept secret of an advanced, stable and happy society.

For most of the last century, the United States has, without knowing it, built and maintained the world’s best, most expert and best-educated bureaucracy, dedicated entirely to public service—a worthy successor to China’s ancient Mandarins. (For a brief glimpse at some public faces of this good bureaucracy, click here).

Now the corporate oligarchs want to diminish or destroy that bureaucracy and replace government for public service with government for private profit, thereby reinforcing the oligarchy. We cannot let that happen. Ancient China’s Mandarins would know exactly why.

From Rome to Flint: Flush Toilets, Lead, and Human Hygiene.

There are two things about ancient Rome that anyone who doubts the value of bureaucracy should know. First, Rome had flush toilets, the better part of two millennia before the English supposedly invented them. Second, although now no one can know for sure, what probably destroyed the Roman Empire was lead in its drinking water, just as in Flint, Michigan, today.

You can see Rome’s flush toilets in the ruins of Ephesus, now in modern Turkey and a destination of many cruise ships. They didn’t have individual privacy stalls, and they didn’t offer toilet paper. They also didn’t exactly “flush:” their water flowed constantly to wash away the waste, even when no one was using them. Little channels of more gently flowing water also allowed people to clean their rears with water after defecating.

By modern standards, these ancient flush toilets were primitive, but they did the job. Human anuses have never been so clean and healthy until today, nearly two millennia later, when you can buy a Bidet that you can install yourself for about $50 at Lowe’s or Home Depot.

As for the lead in Rome’s water, it was selective. It poisoned only the elite, not the common people. The elite, including rich merchants and the emperors, had poisoned water brought right to their homes, through pipes made of lead. The common folk got their water from shared public fountains fed by concrete pipes and aqueducts.

Rome’s water was slightly acidic. So lead leached out of the pipes that ran to the elite’s homes and slowly poisoned them. Ordinary Romans, who drank water that ran through concrete aqueducts, remained in full health and strength of mind. They watched helplessly as their leaders and “betters” degenerated into madmen like Nero and Caligula from lead poisoning. Most probably, it was that poisoning, not the Huns or Visigoths, that ended Rome’s millennium-long run as the greatest pre-Renaissance Western civilization.

What’s the connection to bureaucracy, you ask? Bureaucracy is what gives human civilization its institutional memory and the expertise to avoid catastrophes like poisoning its elite with lead in drinking water. Bureaucracy is what keeps civilization healthy, with or without a profit motive.

Ancient Rome had no bureaucracy and no science. (Modern observational and experimental science began with Galileo, early in the 1600s.) So it had no way of spreading the benefits of flush toilets or sewers throughout its empire, and no way of knowing how important they are to public health. Humanity had to wait until 1854 for the English epidemiologist John Snow to discover the source of a terrible outbreak cholera in London and so to motivate the development of the first modern citywide sewer system to keep drinking water safe from human waste.

The terrible lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan, is a modern cautionary tale. It derived from the failure of bureaucracy, not its absence. Authorities now are trying to correct their errors. For reasons of race and a lack of environmental justice, the process is moving damnably slowly. But at least it’s starting to work. A century of relentless poisoning will not be Flint’s fate, as was ancient Rome’s.

There’s not much profit in flush toilets, sewers, or safe drinking water. They’ll never attract the cupidity of Wall Street and the so-called “masters of the Universe.” But human civilization could not exist without them, let alone on the massive scale of cities like Tokyo, Mexico City, Beijing, Chicago or New York today. It’s our slow, supposedly sleepy, human bureaucracy that keeps toilets and clean water running and safe and allows our great cities to exist.

So when you hear mindless Republican operatives whispering in your ear that bureaucracy is counterproductive and evil, think of them as the Devil. Just like the Dark Lord, they are pushing you to forsake the science, social organization and governmental diligence that allows our great civilizations to exist at all.

Think of the nay-sayers as putting their own private profit (or that of the oligarchs who buy them) above the public good and your family’s health and hygiene. That’s precisely what they are doing.

Permalink to this post


Post a Comment

<< Home