Thursday, October 16, 2014

Do we have enough educated people in America to staff our bureaucracies?

About two weeks ago, a man ran a traffic light (apparently after brake failure) and crashed into my Honda Pilot.  This is the third time in three decades of driving with the same insurance company that I have been in an accident that was not my fault.  What has changed is that the claims "team" is slow and needs to be prodded (and now wants me to do their job online).  Upon my instruction, they ordered my car to be taken from the wrecker's yard to my preferred body shop, but did not inform the body shop of the claim number and what needed to be done.  If I had not gone to the body shop last Thursday to pull some things out of the car, then the body shop would not have known the situation and been able to get to work.

This minor inconvenience caused by an insurance company illustrates a bigger problem: We do not have enough educated, organized, and meticulous people to staff the thousands of bureaucracies needed for compliance with our myriad laws.  


I will define "bureaucrat", public or private, as someone whose primary function is to assure or enforce compliance with laws or government regulations.  Almost every phase of consumer insurance, banking, and healthcare is regulated, and government bureaucracies administer Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, veterans' benefits, building and zoning codes, taxation, food, drugs, highways, fuels, mining, dredging, trade, air, water, and dirt.

Let's make an analogy from the Colorado River.  Not much of the Colorado River today reaches salt water, and Rand McNally would not be inaccurate if their maps showed it flowing west towards Los Angeles rather than south into Mexico.  In environmental law, we call such large diversions "cumulative impacts," i.e., if every state, municipality, utility, industry, homeowner, rancher, and farmer between Big Sandy Creek, Wyoming and Yuma, Arizona draws water from the Colorado River, there is little water left to flow through the Baja into the Gulf of California. 

Likewise, the cumulative impact of regulating every service, product, and expenditure (outside of Craig's List, eBay, and flea markets) is that the quality of people available to staff the vast bureaucracies is short.  Every bureaucracy, public and private, has a few people who know how things work and lots of people who ask questions, input data, and ask permission from superiors.  Because of bureaucracy, it is now obvious that not enough "water" reaches the "gulf."

So far, I hear lots of complaints about bureaucracy and many defenses of particular regulations and programs, but I have yet to hear of a scientific study of the quality of workforce necessary to make our bureaucracies work.  On a scale between Germany and Mexico, the United States is somewhere in between in efficiency, but I am not optimistic that we are capable of improving our vast bureaucracies in my generation: the VA, CDC, IRS, HHS, EPA, BATF, armed services, and Secret Service all look weak (and evasive and arrogant) during an administration which believes in the inherent goodness of government and promised transparency and competence.

Here is my theory: Less than fifteen percent of the workforce have the skills to be reasonably efficient bureaucrats, public or private.  Just as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would likely oppose a new dam on a river because of "cumulative impacts" downstream and require the applicant to show through engineering studies of how cumulative impacts can be reduced, the cumulative growth of government on every level affects the health of polity and may likewise be measured, not just in terms of costs to consumers and industry, but upon the workforce whose productivity is vital to the prosperity and freedom of the world.  

There is a point at which the workforce cannot effectively support another regulation, and the promulgation of new regulations undermines the laws we already have.  We have reached this point.  This is not just a conservative cause, but a liberal one.