Monday, March 29, 2010

Have You Hugged Your Bureaucrat Today?

The Memsahib is a fan of CBS's Sunday Morning, Charles Osgood's show with some news but mostly human interest features. I wake up Sunday mornings with the best intentions (walkies for the poodles, a Rooseveltian (Teddy) speedwalk or marathon bike tour to burn off some calories, tending to household accounts, billing a few hours), but more often than not she calls to my attention to a feature on some elderly celebrity from my youth (the show specializes in aging rockers), and the next thing I know I'm sitting there raptly watching an interview with some guy who has an anvil museum in Forlorn, South Dakota.

And there's usually a commentary from Ben Stein. This week his remarks were in defense of government bureaucrats. Mind you, his definition of "bureaucrat" encompasses all government employees, including firemen and policemen and CIA agents. He notes that many of them are essential and very good at their jobs, and dedicated to serving the public. He also notes that private industry has its own bureaucratic culture populated by people whose function in the economy is uncertain.

Agree on both counts. My own experiences with governmental employees have not been so bad. Good, in fact. My sainted Mums was a secretary in the Hydrology Department of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha; she worked hard and those government paychecks paid for my education. Come to think of it, my last encounter with an IRS agent was quite positive; he was responsive and helpful on a difficult matter I had for a client. And we have all had exasperating experiences with this species in the corporate world.

And I would add that many's the recalcitrant bureaucrat who is difficult to deal with not because he or she is a jerk, but because he or she is required to observe regulations and laws promulgated by our elected representatives and unelected administrators. Those regs and laws may be bad, but the guy on the other end of the line telling you you have to file this or that, or talk to this or that other department, isn't responsible for them.

I don't recall Stein saying so, but I suspect that the context for his remarks was the horror many feel in anticipation of dealing with "the bureaucracy" that the new health care act promises. I feel that horror myself. Why is that, and why, despite Ben's effort to put a human face on the vast middle management of daily life, and my own fairly benign interactions with it to date, did I find myself disagreeing with him with respect to the public's instinctive distrust of the government bureaucrat?

I think there are several reasons:

First, if you are unhappy with your treatment by the government bureaucrat – or for that matter, the regulations he or she is required to enforce – you have nowhere else to go. If you don't like your treatment at the hands of the Westinghouse warranty department, the next time you are welcome to purchase a Sub-Zero. But if some thickwit has mishandled your application for a building permit, you're stuck.

Second, if a private employer has an incompetent bureaucrat on the payroll, or an entire bureau of questionable value to the shareholders, it is possible to terminate him, her, or them. (A lot harder than it used to be, unfortunately, but not all that tough if your HR and legal departments are on the ball.) My own experience is that customer service, for example, has gotten much better over the last few decades as competition has sharpened in many industries.

Third, public employee unions have metastasized throughout some governments to the point where they seem to exist solely for their own perpetuation, and the law makes them nearly impossible to eradicate. Indeed, government employees enjoy all manner of protection against improvement, unionized or not.  They have brought California to its knees.

So, while I will be giving me Mums a big hug very soon, I can't bring myself to the point of serious empathy with the hard-working men and women who draw a government paycheck. I feel kinda bad about that. I know we need some of them. I know many, maybe most, of them are doing what our elected officials have asked them to do, and are men and women of goodwill. But they're the vanguard of what is bad about government as well as what is good, and sometimes the obloquy cast their way is richly earned. They should pay it upward.

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