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This piece by Brad DeLong helps illuminate his world view. After giving a litany of Katrina-related institutional failures at the local, state, and Federal level, he concludes


we should be surprised. Fema is a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is designed to keep functioning even when it is headed by a man who was suddenly told by his private-sector bosses to find a new job and whose only qualification is that he is the friend of a friend of the president.

In other words, government at all levels would function perfectly, except that George Bush is President.

With all due respect to DeLong, his views of the bureaucratic process and the role of administration strike me as stunningly childish. He describes a bureaucracy as a well-tuned engine ready to respond to the Presidential throttle. Only someone who has little or no experience working within a large, interdependent organization (a university is large, but professors are fairly autonomous) could have such a naive picture.

If I had DeLong's simplistic view of organizational behavior, then I probably would share his instincts to enlarge the public sector. Instead, as an empirical matter I believe that we will never any organization, public or private, that operates along the well-tuned engine model.

In fact, the private sector has mechanisms in place to winnow out the worst-tuned bureaucratic engines. Such mechanisms operate less effectively in government.

DeLong and I will tend to disagree on issues as long as he believes that the natural state of government programs is high effectiveness and as long as I believe that their natural state is SNAFU.

UPDATE: Thomas Lipscomb might be describing the DeLong view when he writes,


Those who dream of the perfectibility of human institutions through increasingly, compulsorily collective government will always attack the highest levels of government when it does fail. Republicans and Democrats alike have created huge institutions like the Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and now Homeland Security, built on dreams that can never meet the excessive demands placed upon them.


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory



TRACKBACKS (2 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/353
The author at The Club for Growth Blog in a related article titled Monday's Daily News writes:
    Low Inflation Is in the Money - Larry Kudlow, NRO Private Sector Saviors - Herman Cain, American Spectator Flat-Tax Economies Are Growing 2x As Fast - TBO R.I. Mayor Defies GOP in Senate Bid - Washington Times Hey, Big Spender... [Tracked on September 12, 2005 9:07 AM]
The author at The Club for Growth Blog in a related article titled Monday's Daily News writes:
    Low Inflation Is in the Money - Larry Kudlow, NRO Private Sector Saviors - Herman Cain, American Spectator Flat-Tax Economies Are Growing 2x As Fast - TBO R.I. Mayor Defies GOP in Senate Bid - Washington Times Hey, Big Spender... [Tracked on September 13, 2005 3:29 PM]
COMMENTS (35 to date)
Matt McIntosh writes:

Yeah, that line you quote made my jaw drop too. That's the first time I've ever seen anyone use the word "bureaucracy" in a non-negative sense. I have to wonder what planet he lives on. Must be an interesting place, this world where bureaucracies are efficient. But doesn't look anything like the one I live in.

With all due respect to DeLong, his views of the bureaucratic process and the role of administration strike me as stunningly childish

That's not the only thing about which he is stunningly childish. His SOP of deleting comments that disagree with his views from his COMMENTS SECTION, being another example.

Matt McIntosh writes:

I've watched him in action and can corroborate Patrick's allegation on that one. He tolerates all kinds of stupid statements from the wackier leftists that hover around his comments (stuff he's smart enough to know is bullcrap), but anyone who seriously challenges him from the right ends up getting swathes of their posts deleted, and sometimes being banned. Which is his prerogative, but you wonder why he even bothers keeping the comments open at all.

Matt McIntosh writes:

Actually now that I think about it that's not entirely true: he has occaisionally deleted comments by wacky leftists, but usually only when they're being extremely annoying. And of course to be fair, he's far from alone in thinking that "troll"="someone who strongly disagrees with me."

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Excuse me for interrupting the party, but "functioning" is not the same as "functioning perfectly." Nor is it the same as being a "well-tuned engine."

The point DeLong was making, I think, is that government bureaucracies are often headed by political appointees, yet should have a core of professional managers who can operate them reasonably and keep the politician from making too big a mess.

monkyboy writes:

Who knew that teaching "statistics and economics" could lead to a such deep understanding into the nature of the bureaucratic process?

I guess companies like Toyota and Microsoft are wildly over-valued beacuse they are run by a bureaucracy and could never deliver water to dying people in five days even after getting three days to prepare...

ted writes:

monkeyboy is an apt. The observation that DeLong asserts is unfounded. Let's also wait for more facts. We will find that FEMA's errors as touted will fall sharply and those of others will rise. We will likely retain foolish reaquriements like sensitivity training.

Victor writes:

Bernard -- FEMA was surely *functioning*. It was involved with recovery and rescue, food drops, etc. If you want to draw the standard low, then the rest of DeLong's criticisms seem misplaced, IMO.

But, of course, the two criticism I know something about do seem misplaced. The Red Cross being kept out of New Orleans story is clearly about the Lousiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. I guess you can criticize "bureaucracy" in general for that, but as a FEMA criticism, it's a bit weird, no?

The James Witt quote that ships should have been pre-positioned so they could pump water out of New Orleans is a cool idea, and maybe that should have been done in this case if they thought the levies would stay intact, and only "topped". In this case, however, the levies were *breached*, making the entire exercise academic until they got closed.

Broussard's comments are the ones I'm most interested in, but I don't know much about those.

But all of this is aside from Kling's point, which is perhaps the best response. If you have faith in bureaucracy, you tend to feel let down at the moment. If you don't have faith, then although the response was tragic, you don't have the same sense of lost possibilities. And that difference in perspective is fundamental and huge.

John Whitehead writes:

I second the comment above: "keep functioning" is a bit different from "keep functioning efficiently."

Um, I find it stunningly childish to put words in others mouths, eh?

FEMA's bureaucracy has a multitude of professional emergency managers who know when and how to respond in a crisis, even a really big one like Katrina. FEMA might not be as efficient as a profit maximizing firm, such as GM, Ford, USAirways, or Delta, but it is not filled with a bunch of dolts. The dolts seem to be the appointees in this case.

Also, part of the inefficiency in this case seems to be the most recent enlargement of the public sector, The Department of Homeland Security. Placing FEMA inside this one added another layer of decision making, power struggles, etc.

monkyboy writes:

Hehe, John, I'd hardly call America's last 2 automakers "profit maximizing." Like most American companies these days, they exist to enrich the managers who run them.

I expect we will see some brilliant spin from Rove over the next few weeks, but the fact that Americans sat for 5 days without water cannot be changed. It looks like the press and the public can't be bought off with the trinkets and beads of god n' guns this time...

Assistant Village Idiot writes:

Deleting the disagreeing posts. I thought it was just me going mad...

"Bureaucracy" is not an either/or, good/evil dichotomy. Any level of organization can be called bureaucracy. As bureaucracy increases, it promotes more caution and less action. There are certainly situations in which we would like people to use more caution.

But it gets out of hand. Each mistake anywhere in the system leads to a new rule or new layer of oversight, to prevent that particular mistake happening again. Eventually, a large organization succeeds in protecting itself against an enormous number of possible mistakes, failing to measure the opportunity cost of discouraging independent action.

T.R. Elliott writes:

I'm confused. I've worked in a variety of large technical organizations. In that experience, I've observed, from working side by side with them, government bureaucracies--civil servants performing military R&D--and military employees in a variety of fuctions, up to and including running an organization like DARPA.

"Bureacracy" is a somewhat loaded term. I've got a better word: organization. Employees. People.

With that out of the way, let's consider the organizations I've worked in. Sometimes we had a competent organization, or parts of the organization, that were lead by incompetents. As long as the incompetents stayed out of the way, we were ok. Then I've been lead by totally capable leaders who had dysfunctional organizations. These dysfunctional organizations became functional.

Finally, I observed incompetent people destroy functioning organizations.

My point? Simple: FEMA was a working organization that, at the highest level, seems to have been operated by an incompetent who achieved the goal of breaking that functioning organization.

Happens all the time. In the public and private sector. Particularly when, at the top, we a bubble boy president who is almost totally incompetent other than a rather pathetic form of PR, mouthing talking points and probably thinking in talking points. Combing that with the drown-the-govt mentality of these people and what do you expect? All they bring us is their incompetence and their arrogance.

Given that FEMA head Brown had not credentials, almost no appreciable accomplishments, and he was working in a bubble-boy we-make-reality environment, it's quite sensible that BushCo has screwed this one up.

Look:

Iraq: Screwed up. Pathetic. The execution was horrible.

Govt finances: Screwed up. Pathetic.

The only question is: why would those who write this blog think otherwise?

PS: Oh yeah, BushCo has brought us all those wonderful alliteratives: Reformed with Results. Compassionate Conservatives. Communities of Character. With all the time required to engineer and wordsmith these fantastic conjunction of falsehoods, how could they possibly focus on something like running govt.

monkyboy writes:

Good points, T.R. I think the people who back Bush didn't expect it to actually impact them.

The people who support defecit spending are more than happy to dump trillions of dollars of debt onto their children, a form of fiscal child abuse.

The people who support the war could care less if a bunch of Iraqis and poor Americans die in the desert.

Note that the Katrina coverage focuses on New Orleans, a small Democratic bubble in the otherwise Republican south. The devastation and poor relief effort to the "red" part of the south is downplayed and the Republican officials are already hinting that they will get priority for rebuilding funds...the shots of poor blacks dying of thirst is probably gaining the Republicans votes.

ivan writes:

Thinking that the government is a smooth working machine as long as the "right" people are in power is indeed a very naïve worldview. Are we having here the state version of the market fundamentalists?

spencer writes:

The best test of what is working in New Orleans may be to simply observe what a great job the US military -- the largest bureaucracy in the world -- is doing once the incompetent leader George Bush finally got off his duff and authorized them to act. Remember, under the constitution the army, or national guard units from other states
could not go to LA until the President autorized it.

Do you believe that the ARMY, the world's largest bureacracy is now doing a bad job in New Orleans?

spencer writes:

Not to change the subject, but did you read the op/ed by Nicholas Eutberstadt of the AEI in todays's New York Times.

You should, he agrees with you.

But for a week we have been watching the poor in New orleans suffer. We know many of them died simply because they could not afford a car so they could not leave the city.

But Eberstadt assures us that these poor people we have been seeing on TV do not exist.

Rather,they are just a bad statistic.

That sure makes me feel better.

Should I cancel my donation to the Katrian relief organizations?

JAG writes:

Like some of the above, DeLong banned me for (what I thought was) a relatively innocuous counterpoint I made to one of his economic conclusions.

While this is his right I couldn't help but think that this behavior is so typical of the left: they are all for "tolerance", free speech and "diversity" but should you disagree with their superior wisdom these "virtues" go completely out the window. They act like children; "shut up, go away!"

Needless to say I stopped reading him. Its pointless to consider the thoughts of someone so weak and pathetic that they cannot abid even allowing contrary opinions much less take the time to refute them.

JAV writes:

I thought the following story was illuminating.
http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/15369.html

Kling: In other words, government at all levels would function perfectly, except that George Bush is President.

That certainly seems to be the thrust of DeLong's argument. I don't totally agree with DeLong there. However, under Lee Witt the bureacracy seemed to have functioned well!! I would also argue that George Bush made a big mistake in appointing Brown, who was not suitable for this job(he got fired from his previous job!!). I'm sure there are republicans who are just as qualified as Lee Witt was. Bush did not care enough about FEMA to do a good job there.

I also feel that the employees do a better job if their bosses take an interest in what they are trying to do. The article shows that Clinton took that kind of an interest which by all indications Bush did not.

Paul N writes:

All this complaining about FEMA, govt, etc. strikes me as 20/20 hindsight. It's extremely easy to blame someone for something, to fire the man-in-charge, but you're not really accomplishing anything by doing so.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I would say the Netherlands and Japan are expamples of nations where public bureaucracies have been quite effective and efficient in dealing with natural disasters. Might not a reason why US public bureaucracies are becoming more inefficient over time is the ongoing discouragement of people from working in them because they are supposedly unproductive?

Timothy writes:

As the ever-insightful Meagan McArdle points out: the devestated area is the size of Great Britian. Sort of puts things in perspective.

Chris Bolts writes:

After I heard his tirade on Marketplace a few days, I knew not to take Brad DeLong seriously.

Anyway, this entire thing was a mess, from the poor evacuation by the mayor of New Orleans to the ineptitude of the governor of Louisiana, to the aloofness of Bush and the mismanagement of FEMA. I tell you what though. Ask those "poor black folks" standing around in Houston, TX waiting for a $2000 debit if they know anything about "bureaucracy".

The best test of what is working in New Orleans may be to simply observe what a great job the US military -- the largest bureaucracy in the world -- is doing once the incompetent leader George Bush finally got off his duff and authorized them to act.

This is factually inaccurate. FEMA had all kinds of military assets in place and functioning quickly. Click on my name to read them.

There is frankly no evidence available to conclude that Brown's FEMA did a poor job. The normal condition for an area hit by a hurricane is property damage and human suffering, so merely pointing to such is irrelevant. One has to compare human activity to something other than perfection, and recognize that there are opportunity costs to consider. Which DeLong clearly doesn't understand (if he isn't actively deceiving his readers)

Remember, under the constitution the army, or national guard units from other states could not go to LA until the President autorized it.

This isn't true. There are several multi-state compacts that allow sharing of National Guard units. Gov. Blanco had something like 125,000 people available to her. And, federal troops are controlled by a late 19th century statute--Posse Commitatus, iirc--not the Constitution.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Victor,

The sole point I wished to make in my comment was that Arnold seriously distorted the meaning of DeLong's post for ideological reasons.

marv don writes:

Why are we all assuming that FEMA is the most perfect government organization to respond to an emergency?

After 9/ll FEMA was helpful but more as an adjunct, a follow on, to the response mustered by the city and,to a lesser extent, state agencies of New York.

Does the ineptitude of Louisiana's city/state planning and execution mean that we all must submit to the federalizing of disasters?

most perfect government organization

Now there's an oxymoron!

David Thomson writes:

“The point DeLong was making, I think, is that government bureaucracies are often headed by political appointees, yet should have a core of professional managers who can operate them reasonably and keep the politician from making too big a mess.”

I’m sorry but your explanation leaves much to be desired. Brad DeLong simply fails to realize the importance of the principle of Subsidiarity. How do I know this to be true? That’s easy question to answer: he’s a Democrat! No further evidence is required. Democrats inherently exaggerate the usefulness of large government. Conservatives like myself clearly understand that power should be localized as much as possible. Allow me to be blunt. Republicans are not perfect---but Democrats are stark raving lunatics. There is no way that anyone who is even slightly rational can remain a Democrat. This is the political party of economic illiterates.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Oh, I should not waste everybody's time on this, but this last post (David Thomson) certainly ranks as the sort of thing people should avoid posting, even on libertarian/conservative lists.

So, the Dems are more statist than the Repubs in economic matters (although the size of the fed government has soared far more under Bush than it did under Clinton). However, the Repubs are far more statist in terms of dealing with the personal behavior of individuals.

Clearly a thorough-going classical liberal should prefer the Libertarian Party. However, it has nearly zero chance of obtaining power, except at some very local levels of government in the US, at least in the near future.

So, it is not at all obvious what "rational" political party commitments should be. (Of course Mr. Thomson identifies himself as a "conservative," who, as Hayek noted long ago, are not so averse to government control over peoples' lives; so he may not personally experience any such a contradiction in his own views and affiliations.)

ted writes:

monkeyboy - you are smug but have yet to make a point regarding Kling's observation. I would suggest that you focus on what was said rather than on the motives of others. If we try to see what is actually happening, we may learn something.

David Thomson writes:

“However, the Repubs are far more statist in terms of dealing with the personal behavior of individuals.”

We can debate the cultural values stuff on another day. I restricted my comments solely to the Democratic Party’s positions on economics. The free traders once associated with Bill Clinton have been marginalized. The Democrats are now only a step away from totally capitulating to the siren call of outright Socialism.

Republicans often do act hypocritically and leave much to be desired. Nonetheless, when it comes to a viable political party that can actually win elections---it is the only game in town. You have to forgive me, but I’m not into masochism. The Libertarian Party is only for doctrinaire purists who thoroughly enjoy getting their butts kicked in each and every contest for votes!

Brian writes:

"The people who support the war could care less if a bunch of Iraqis and poor Americans die in the desert.

Note that the Katrina coverage focuses on New Orleans, a small Democratic bubble in the otherwise Republican south. The devastation and poor relief effort to the "red" part of the south is downplayed and the Republican officials are already hinting that they will get priority for rebuilding funds...the shots of poor blacks dying of thirst is probably gaining the Republicans votes."

That is such a silly statement, considering the blatant racial propaganda spewing forth from all quatrers of the Jackass party. The so-called blue bubble in the red south includes many poor white cajuns in Plaquimines and St. Bernard parishes. This state government is run by Democrats. The Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness has three people indicted for obstructing a federal audit and lying to investigators. What was being audited by the feds you might ask? Well, it was federal funding for flood mitigation in Louisiana. Where did all the money go and who sent it there? Good question, I think. Check out this page for yourself, but be warned! It doesn't mention George Bush at all.

http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/law/news/wdl20041129.html
November 29, 2004 Press Release

brian writes:
Barkley Rosser writes:

David Thomson,

You are correct that free traders have come to be marginalized among the Dems. However, the guy you were dumping on big time, Brad DeLong, happens to be among that marginalized remnant.

Jeff writes:

You give the private sector too much credit. In the perfect Adam Smith case of competition between small to medium size entities this might be true. Really, you just have to look at the cable company to figure out that this isn't true. Any large multi-national corporation has entire armies of people who don't do a damn thing to contribute to the bottom line. Check out the wikipedia entry for systemantics for more details.

Hardcore Conservative writes:

I visited this site seeking intelligent economic informaton, and I find an article that expressed a liberal idioblog that is based on personal opinion rather than fact....Very disapointing...If George W. is the cause of all our countries dismay, than what was Bill Clinton doing with this great nation, besides dipping his cigar in the honey pot?

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