Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Ills of Bureaucracy

Ideal Citizens for Most UN Member Nations - Dag Hammerskjold Plaza, NYC

On Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in Dag Hammerskjold Plaza, across from the UN complex, reading The Way of a Pilgrim (an Eastern Orthodox classic on prayer and communion with God) waiting for the NOM rally for marriage to begin. That sets the scene. A young woman with a mischievous 2-year-old sat down beside me on the bench and asked me what I was reading. The conversation went from there.

I discovered that she was Rwandan who left Rwanda around the time of the genocide and worked for the UN in Croatia during the time of the conflict in that region. She came to America in 1997. But she no longer works for the United Nation. She is an abstract artist with a distaste for the UN that she was happy to share with me. "I couldn't stand the bureaucracy," she told me. I was then surprised that she looked at me intently and asked me, "What is the problem with bureaucracy?" She had her own ideas, but wanted to know what I thought. I paused to think, and then it all came flooding to mind. Bureaucracy has the sour connotation that it does because it is four things: impersonal, unresponsive, self-serving, and (largely because of these three features) inefficient.

This is the topic for my column this week at "The Bureaucracy Gospel." Everything a liberal wants to do to solve the world's problems, including all of your problems, involves a federal government program, which in turn requires a bureaucracy.

These four ills have a lot to do with public opposition to Big Government. (I capitalize those words because Big Government is genetically related to Big Brother.) Nationwide, federal solutions to social and economic problems (Big Government) always create and perpetuate bureaucracy and its ills. Think of the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Social Security Administration. These agencies have combined budgets of approximately $238 billion and employ 132,000 people. HHS administers over $700 billion, a quarter of all federal outlays, including Medicare and Medicaid payments. It is estimated that Social Security will pay out $734 billion in benefits this year.

Consider how Social Security, to say nothing of Medicare, is going to bankrupt us in the next thirty years as the baby boom generation passes through the retirement entitlement system. In 1945, about a decade after the Social Security Administration was established, the ratio of workers paying into the system to the aged drawing out of it was 42-to-1.* That is, for every one retiree making use of the system there were 42 working people. No problem.  Now that ratio is about 3-to-1. Do you see the problem? People are living much longer than they did in 1940. The boomers will reduce that to 2:1.

The debt crisis is the crisis of the welfare state. As Europe is discovering, you just cannot keep borrowing to fund ever more generous government giveaways for everything that you feel everyone should have.

"As Europe buckles under the weight of debt-financed social programs, America still has time to address its social dependence on government entities that are by their very nature impersonal, unresponsive, self-serving, and inefficient. But time is quickly running out."

(I threw in those haunting statues of seemingly tyrannized, soulless human figures scattered around Dag Hammerskjold Plaza in New York because they are the sort of people that bureaucracy creates and likes to serve.)


* I got this figure from the SSA website. The figures seem to hide a story, however. It lists the 1940 ratio as (roughly) 159:1. That is eligible workers to beneficiaries. Five years later it is only 41:1. Five years later in 1950, it is 16:1. Five years later it is half that. Then it's 5:1. In 1975, it is just above 3:1. It moved down to 2.9-to-1 in 2010. So it has been in the very expensive range for 45 years now.

Look here for figures on the complicated life expectancy factor.

The link for the 42:1 figure I give in the body of this post comes from the Prudential. If you can trust a life insurance company to give you straight numbers, who can you trust?


Anonymous said...

In order to address the SS problem, it will be necessary to make significant adjustments. For one thing the retirement age and the methodology of calculation needs to change.

Women, for instance, live five years longer than men. They need to either retire later or pay higher premiums.

Black men live shorter lives than white men and significantly shorter lives than white women. Increasing the retirement age w/o tying in life expectancy creates an unfair distribution of benefits.

Thanks for your thought provoking article.


Anonymous said...

Very insightful post. Those UN statues give me the creeps!

Kurosawa's "Ikiru" (To Live) illustrates these 4 traits of bureaucracy as well as a 5th -- it's fear-based. The main character becomes fearless after being diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, and he becomes an effective bureaucrat (i.e. actually helping people) as well. It's worth seeing.

I'm new to your writing & will continue to read -- thank you.


David C. Innes said...

Thanks, Kristi. I will look for that film. I always have my eyes open for good political films.