Bureaucrats are every American politician’s favorite target. Barack Obama made a joke of salmon regulations; John Boehner holds up bureaucrats as the epitome of wasteful government spending. John Gravois has a great article about why that’s a bad idea.
Unbeknown to most high school civics classes, bureaucrats are the people who actually make and execute the laws these days. The running political line is that government needs to be “leaner,” executing the same mission with fewer people and resources. Unfortunately, without changing the scope of government action, you’re just asking bureaucrats to do more with less.
The results, then, are unsurprising. Cutting bureaucrats actually makes government more inefficient, as more work gets contracted out with giant cost overruns and glossed-over data in a shocking number of areas. Why weren’t the inspections better on deep-sea drilling rigs?
The Washington Post recently reported that, between 1988 and 2008, the number of deep-sea oil extraction projects in the Gulf of Mexico increased tenfold. But the number of inspectors assigned to the region barely budged. By the time of last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill—the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history—Minerals Management had fifty-five inspectors matched against some 3,000 far-flung offshore facilities across the Gulf—a ratio of 1 to 55.
I wonder if the cost of the BP oil spill will be more than the cost of hiring a few hundred extra inspectors. (PROBABLY.)
The financial meltdown was similarly caused by lax oversight and woefully understaffed inspection departments. The way you cut an agency’s staff is mostly through voluntary measures such as early-retirement or buy-outs. Thus, only the people most able to get work in the private sector — that is to say, the best employees — leave. So, as the financial industry ballooned and instruments got more sophisticated, the SEC just sat there understaffed and overworked, unable to even begin regulating the megabanks.
The waste of billions of dollars lost to contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan (one of the bigger buried stories of the year) highlights these bureaucratic deficiencies. The reduction in federal workforce generally means more reliance on contractors. The reduction in bureaucrats means almost no oversight. Then, there’s tons of waste. And then, worst of all, because the government is wholly dependent on contractors, the feds must go back to the same contractors who just screwed them and employ them again!
No one wants to be a bureaucrat. It’s often mind-numbing work; the regulations are so long that even the regulators sometimes don’t understand them; small mistakes can cost the government millions, not to mention actual human lives. On top of that, any regulation you do pass will likely be the target of a court challenge.
Alas, America needs more bureaucrats, not fewer. But I won’t be waiting to hear that one in the State of the Union.