Edge of Chaos is a political podcast starring Joe Ryan and Neurotoxin. Its aim is to have a free-flowing discussion of news and current events that also examines the empirical outcomes of public policy, avoiding biases based on ideology and policy intentions. Listener discretion is both advised and encouraged.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Bureaucracy's Last Stand

What Is Bureaucracy?

For the purposes of this post, "bureaucracy" does NOT refer to government agencies. Assuming most readers have not taken classes in sociology, business management, or a related field, the broader definition of "bureaucracy" is a form of organizational structure founded on precisely defined standards and protocols, usually outlined in governing documents. Bureaucratically organized institutions have rigid internal lines of command and authority, clearly outlined qualifications and responsibilities for employees and other participants at all levels, including procedures for promotion and discipline, exact prescriptions for response to most situations, and a slew of other policies aimed to create standardization and uniformity. Most government agencies are in fact organized in this fashion; but so are the majority of large corporations, unions and professional organizations, and many larger political, non-profit, and religious entities.

In fact, this method of organization is so ingrained into modern society that most people simply take it for granted; not recognizing it's a system that was designed by sociologists and unable to imagine the types of institutions I listed above being organized in any other way. However, without getting unnecessarily deep into organizational theory and its history, suffice it to say that bureaucracy was only the first organizational system intentionally outlined by professionals in the industrialization era; and these professionals were none other than the masterminds of socialism and communism - Max Weber and Karl Marx. Further, at least 10 more competing theories have been outlined in the 150 years since bureaucracy's conception, most of them tested and proven far more efficient and compatible with human nature. As you have probably guessed, I'm highly critical of this system and believe it to be obsolete and detrimental to human society, and in this post I'm going to attempt to convince you of my outlook, and posit that the global political unrest we are witnessing largely surrounds a shift away from it.

Basics of Bureaucracy's Pros and Cons

The benefit of bureaucracy is equality before the system. Its uniform standards are aimed at identifying the optimal choice for any variety of decisions - hiring, lending, outlawing, education curriculum, medical treatment, criminal penalties, etc. What pre-dated organizational systems designed by professionals, in the pre-industrial world, was of course organization based on the whims of small and entrenched elites - consisting of rampant nepotism laced openly with bigotry in all forms; and a significant purpose of uniform standards was to counter the devastating effects of these practices on productivity, although Marx and Weber clearly outlined their ideological opposition to bigotry as well. Choices that follow objective, clearly outlined, specific standards aimed to identify the best cadre for a job, best hours for productivity, best law for society, are theoretically blind to ulterior motives, personal favoritism, and race, gender, and other such characteristics.

The costs of bureaucracy are inflexibility and corruption of standards, in that order. In theory, uniform standards sound both equalizing and effective; but standards that will outline the optimal choice are extremely difficult if not impossible to identify. Think about all the factors that truly influence an employee's work competence and performance, or a leader's ability to handle a difficult situation, or a criminal's likelihood of recidivism, or even a parent's capacity to raise their child. Is it truly possible to account for all of these in a standardized policy that prescribes how to make decisions in hiring, promotions, incarceration, or even taking children away from parents? Hence, in practice, the ideal choice mechanism of the bureaucratic system is a blunt instrument, treating individuals and individual situations based on loose categories they can be easily placed in and prescribing the best choice for a majority or plurality of members of that class. Examples of this include everything from educational standards like No Child Left Behind and Common Core, to treatment prescriptions for various diagnoses in health care and psychology, to standardized wages and minimum wage and benefit laws, to credit reports, to legislatively prescribed minimum sentences and sex offender registries. The generalizations that go into making the allegedly optimal choices in each situation are based on approximate correlation rather than causation, and ignore so many confounding variables that they are extremely poor predictors of actual outcomes. In fact, characteristics like race and gender can be compared to bureaucratic standards, in that they are gross generalizations and make terrible predictors of human behavior and capacity. The across-the-board effect is that discretion is taken out of the hands of the people with specific contact to the situation - teachers, doctors, business owners, juries, etc. and placed in a standardized prescription of what would be best in "most" loosely similar cases. Outliers with higher potential - whether they are excelling students, unusually productive workers, or even rehabilitable criminals - have very low incentive to perform under such standards, because their reward will be no more than the average person in the class. On the other hand, outliers with special needs are likely to find themselves left out in the cold because the standardized response does not meet these; discouraging individualized accommodations for students or workers with disabilities, or even exceptionally harsh sentences for especially heinous criminals.

The second cost surrounds the power of the standard setters and standard followers. Bureaucracy is based on the presumption that whoever is performing these functions does so faithfully and is not influenced in their choices by ulterior motives they would like to rationalize through standards - which can involve anything from personal profit to nepotism and bigotry. Much like the expectation of faith-based cooperation in Marx's theory of Communism, this presumption is prohibitively incompatible with human nature, and most modern sociologists that favor bureaucracy accept that a certain degree of corruption will pervade in any bureaucratic system. Their argument in favor of bureaucracy is not that this limitation does not exist, but that the benefits still outweigh these costs.

Why Bureaucracy REALLY Doesn't Work

What really makes bureaucracy the enemy of humanity is not these two costs, but the counter-intuitive interplay between them. A relatively simple bureaucracy where standards are few and general is not prone to high levels of corruption, because it will be easily identified and those charged with setting or enforcing them relieved of their duties. But few and simple standards lead to blunt and inefficient choices that stifle productivity and create unnecessary costs, and bureaucracy's invariable remedy for this is to create more of itself by complicating standards. When standards fail to produce the optimal outcome they're expected to; the bureaucratic response is to refine and update them to account for more factors and fit more potential cases. This would include separately standardized classes for gifted and special needs students, pre-set bonuses for extra work and mandated accommodations for disabled workers, prescribed special conditions for sentencing that can increase or decrease the penalty, and so forth. While these more complicated standards do accommodate a higher proportion of cases, they make the system even less palatable for cases that remain outliers, leading to an invariable further revision. More importantly, however, the perpetually more complex system becomes far more prone to corruption, as special conditions and prescriptions turn into loopholes that can be abused with relative ease, and people charged with setting them become more powerful and less accountable the more specialized and less widely understood their rationale is.

The common remedy for this increasing corruption, in turn, is to create new levels of bureaucracy to standardize the setting of standards - whether these manifest in regulations at higher levels of government to make up for lack thereof at lower levels (such as State vs Federal in Obamacare), or institution-wide policies in private organizations to make uniform the operation of sub-organizations and departments. The end result is a level of complexity so esoteric that even those who have the faith to set standards adequately and follow them simply do not have the understanding nor the capacity to do so; and ignoring or highjacking the standards becomes not corruption aimed at specific ulterior motives, but widely tolerated practice that is only abandoned when following standards becomes temporarily necessary (such as an inspection) or momentarily useful (such as the need to fire a difficult employee). This widespread nullification, in turn, overwhelms the bureaucracy's enforcement resources for its own standards.

The problem with the modern world is that 150 years after its inception, this self-replicating cancer has grown so large and infused itself so deeply into every facet of human society that it is literally strangling global efficiency and productivity. Its immense and often contradictory complexity drives and enables corruption and standard-setting for ulterior motives at the highest levels imaginable - banks and monetary policy, health care cartels and the very definitions of medicine, energy producers of various kinds and policies on climate change and conservation, and so forth. What we are witnessing in the developed world is a return to the cronyism, corruption, economic disparity, and social insecurity of the 19th century that bureaucracy was meant to counter; and these phenomena have domesticated bureaucracy and highjacked its institutions for their own purposes. This problem is actually LESS pervasive in the United States than in most places used for socioeconomic comparison such as China, Europe, Canada and Australia; which is why our economy remains more efficient and productive than those places; but the tradeoff is that we suffer from less apologetic nepotism and bigotry.

Why I Believe Bureaucracy Is On Its Deathbed

Again dishearteningly but unsurprisingly, the response to this trend of various leaders, and especially politicians, has been to double down even more on bureaucratic standards; making them more complex and conceding to higher levels of authority even as the existing ones buckle under the pressure of excessive complexity. Here are a few illustrations.

Ebola: We now have several documented cases of Ebola in the United States. According to the bureaucratically organized CDC, these resulted from medical protocols for dealing with the infected being both inadequate (blunt), and ignored (too complex and cumbersome). So, the CDC is now authoring new, Ebola-specific protocols (for health care professionals to ignore as they add complexity), and President Obama appointed a new bureaucrat specifically to set standards for how to set these standards (more uniformly and bluntly). Republican politicians, not to be outdone, have recommended everything from travel bans standardized to certain countries to health screening protocols at border crossings and airports - more blunt, work-complicating generalizations completely incapable of containing the virus that can be easily manipulated for power abuse and bigotry. Thankfully, Ebola is not very contagious, and the inevitable failure of these protocol updates is unlikely to result in a catastrophic nationwide pandemic. But rest assured, IF a virus as scary as hysterical Americans imagine Ebola to be actually materialized, it would claim 100,000s of lives, and bureaucracy would be powerless to stop it.

ISIS: Despite over a decade of standardized and bi-partisan protocols for dealing with "terrorism" and bringing stability to the Middle East to eliminate safe havens, and unthinkable amounts of resources poured into this effort, we are arguably less safe from acts of violence on our soil than we have ever been in the last 70 years. Islamic Fundamentalists have only gotten more radical and violent, as Boko Haram and ISIS now make Al Qaeda and Hezbollah look reasonable, and the region has only become more unstable and hospitable to them. However, Republicans and Democrats only disagree on which failed protocols from the last 13 years to double down on; tyrannical military occupation that pisses off the local population and drives more of it to radical Islamism (bluntness), or funding/arming/supporting double-dealing regional leaders who, after defeating the problem du jour, BECOME our new problem (corruption). Whichever of these we choose, we are likely to defeat or contain ISIS and create a new, ever more extreme movement that makes them look like altar boys; and if we keep this up we will eventually create one that poses a very serious threat to us. This is perhaps a policy domain where inefficiency and ulterior motives have fused to the point of inseparability because of its esoteric nature and drummed up sense of urgency.

Elections: This effect can even be observed in political campaigns. As I touched on in a previous post, the Democratic Party is poised to again have its ass handed to it by a poorly organized assortment of nay-sayers that pander to disgruntlement with the establishment even within its own party. This disgruntlement is largely driven by the compounding effects of bureaucracy I have outlined here, which actually has little to do with partisanship. And yet its leaders continue to double down on a campaign strategy based on uniform optimal choice standards that perpetually fail to appease outliers (bluntness) and enable localized and specific abuse by challengers (corruption).

What I see the political re-alignment in this country evolving into is a stand-off between the believers in bureaucracy and those so disillusioned with it they want to see it fail at any cost. It's tempting to claim the Democratic Party embodies the former, and it has certainly moved itself closer to that position; but the majority of Republican politicians are guilty of it as well, even some originally elected on promises to oppose it. However, what this does explain is Americans' propensity to keep electing ever-more incompetent and sometimes odious politicians who promise to obstruct and derail the system; in some cases to replace politicians that are now part of it who made the same promises only 4 years earlier. I've been accused by many of supporting the Tea Party and its ambiguous, contradictory, and often infantile and detached agenda. But the reality is that with the exception of a few politicians like Amash, Huelskamp, Massie, and Paul who have always genuinely leaned libertarian - I think the Tea Party's proposals are predominantly insane, like any other reasonable person. However, bureaucracy was failing us long before the Tea Party materialized, and continuing to double down on it is just as insane; no matter how desperately any Progressive tries to blame the Tea Party for what it's a natural response to, or tantrums that bureaucracy "would" work if only humans did not behave the way we naturally do, in truly Marxist fashion. And for this reason, I believe the Tea Party's divisive and obstructionist effect is a positive one for this country; it uses bureaucracy's own shortcomings to cause it to fail more egregiously and undeniably, turning more people against it and speeding its inevitable collapse.

As we have already witnessed, and in line with the shortcomings of bureaucracy I outlined above, it does not take anything close to a Tea Party majority to strangle this monster using its own intransigence; and there is enough popular disillusionment with the system that the Tea Party is NOT going away until said leviathan is dead at its feet. Similar arguments can be made for fringe movements in other developed countries, but this post has gotten long enough and I believe you get the point. The global political gridlock is an enema for a deeply flawed system of societal organization that absolutely has to die for humanity to survive; and while enemas are never pleasant, sometimes they're the only way to purge shit.


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