Cut Obama Some Slack - Change Is Tough

The President is not God.

President Barack Hussein Obama ran on a platform of "change."  He wasn't entirely specific about what he wanted to change, nor how, but it's pretty clear that just about everyone throughout the spectrum of American politics all across the fruited plain believes in Change.  The left and the right differ somewhat with respect to which specific Changes they want, but all pretty much agree on the necessity of Change.

The New York Times tells us that Mr. Obama plans to run trillion-dollar deficits for years to come.  That's an unwelcome change to us fiscal conservatives, but, as the Times reports, economists are pretty much in agreement that the government must run deficits to stimulate demand to help the economy get moving again.

The Times also reports that the economists are concerned that running deficits now will make our Social Security problem worse, of course, but Mr. Obama is aware of this:

Even as he [President Obama] prepares a stimulus plan that is expected to total nearly $800 billion in new spending and tax cuts over the next two years, he said he would make sure the money was wisely spent, and he pledged to work with Congress to enact spending controls and efficiency measures throughout the federal budget. [emphasis added]

In yesterday's inaugural address, he returned to the same theme:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.  [emphasis added]

What a concept - making sure that government spends our tax dollars wisely!  That's a change we'd love to believe in.

The trouble is, it's going to be desperately difficult for Mr. Obama to make government more efficient.  Every President we can remember as far back as Mr. Nixon has declared public war on government waste and inefficiency - all to no avail, as government waste and bloat grows in good times as bad, under Republicans as Democrats, as regular as the changing seasons.

President Carter famously proclaimed one of his budgets, which happened to be the biggest peacetime budget in American history up to that point, to be "Lean and tight."  That was such an obviously ludicrous statement that he later tried to cut government waste, as many presidents do.

One of his targets was the National Park Service.  They promptly shut off the elevator that takes tourists up the Washington Monument.  When tourists complained, the polite Park Service personnel gave them leaflets suggesting that they write, or better yet, visit their elected representative and protest this outrageous cut in essential government services.

Cost savings from not running the elevator were trivial, of course.  Cutting highly visible services to annoy the public while letting less visible, but more wasteful, costs roll on is bureaucracy 101.

My family knew this game.  We turned down the leaflet and walked up the monument on foot.  But the bureaucracy won anyway - their budget was restored in short order.

There's another component to making sure that government operates efficiently - we spend tax money supporting the bureaucrats and we also spend money following all the rules they write.

No mater how stupid or inefficient a rule may be, it benefits the bureaucrats who get paid to write it and it benefits the bureaucrats who get paid to enforce it.  Bureaucrats will do nearly anything to expand their turf so they can write more and more rules and hire more and more subordinates.

We've written about promising cancer and heart disease treatments being researched offshore because FDA rules make it impossible to do the work in the US; we've written how air bag rules cost the public at least $5 million per life saved; we've written about the Justice Department trying to make violating a web site terms of service into a criminal offense; and we've written about the USDA bureaucrats who tried to force the Hemingway museum in Key West to get an Animal License because visitors liked looking at the cats which wander around the place.  We recently found that the DoJ is trying to ban all animals other than dogs from helping people.

Given the all-too-human bureaucratic desire for more turf, how is Mr. Obama going to make government operate efficiently?  No president in living memory has ever managed to do that.  Even if he finds a department who's wasting money, he can't fire the miscreants or even cut their pay.

Shovel-Ready Surprises

Mr. Obama says he's going to run a huge deficit to get the economy moving again, but he's going to make sure the money is "wisely spent."  Great idea, but how?

Any new project takes significant planning time - it takes years to make sure any new infrastructure project won't bother bald eagles or mistreat endangered mice.  The "shovel ready" projects for which planning is already complete are mostly mass transit projects.  Greens love mass transit, but mass transit projects other than in New York and Boston never yield social benefit.

In "The Social Desirability of Urban Rail Transit Systems" which was published in the Journal of Urban Economics, Clifford Winston and Vikram Maheshri said, "With the single exception of BART in the San Francisco Bay Area, every US transit system actually reduces social welfare [emphasis in the original]." 

Even the economics of BART are suspect because the study only assessed the benefits to people who rode BART.  Operating BART costs so much that it siphons funds from lower-cost bus lines that benefit far more people in the inner city.  Thus, overall regional transit use declined since BART started operating, a slightly different outcome from the automotive-free rapid-transit nirvana the planners promised.

Polls suggest that nearly everybody agrees with me about mass transit: I believe everybody else should take mass transit so the roads stay clear for me.  That would help me get where I want to go when I want to go; with mass transit, I spend more time waiting than transiting.  Polls show that most people agree that other people should use mass transit, but they themselves plan to stick with their cars.

The known fact that mass transit systems always cost far more than estimated and end up serving far fewer people than planned is another reason to oppose mass transit investments.  Without splurging on mass transit, however, how can Mr. Obama stimulate the economy?

He can repair existing bridges, but given that Mr. Obama's green supporters will go at least spla and possibly postal if he builds any new highways even though highways do benefit society, how can he spend money on new infrastructure that will yield benefits beyond make-work?  Even repairing our existing bridges in a timely manner will be difficult because we've managed to bring about a shortage of engineers.

The Challenge of Change

We all know the extreme difficulty of getting any unionized bureaucrat to let go of any advantage - General Motors, a private company, found it easier to beg billions from the US Treasury than to persuade their unionized workers to give back even a nickel.  Mr. Obama has his work cut out if he plans to change government in the direction of efficiency.

The bureaucracy doesn't expect him to impose efficiencies on their operations.  My friends who live around the Beltway report that this Christmas had the most crowded shopping malls they'd seen in 5 or 6 years.

The bureaucracy believes that with a Democrat promising billions in stimulus in the White House, the good times will certainly roll for them.  They expect that most of the stimulus will be spent by the government and that they'll have to hire all kinds of new people to oversee how it's spent.  Promotions and pay raises all 'round!

Change is challenging in Washington, but it's also challenging closer to home.  I've been a technologist all my working life; I surf the wave of future shock to make a living.

I thought I was pretty good at change until a senior venture capitalist challenged me.  He told me I'd have a hard time changing my own life, never mind changing anybody else.  He challenged me to switch to brushing my teeth with my left hand instead of my right hand.

He was right.  It's HARD to change a habit of years.

The first time, I forgot completely.  Then I remembered, and brushed my teeth again.  I had been grabbing the tube with my left hand, twisting off the cap with my right, and rubbing the brush across the top of the tube.  I can hold the tube with my right hand, but taking the cap off left-handed is harder, and brushing!  Wow.  That's tough.

It's hard to remember that I'm doing something different; I forget maybe 1 or 2 times out of 5 and have to start over.  My friend was completely correct: personal change is difficult.

There's a reason we refer to near-impossible tasks as requiring "an act of Congress."  Without the authority to fire government employees, Mr. Obama will find it impossible to make any changes at all other than spending more money; the bureaucracy approves of that.

If he's serious about changing government, he ought to ask for the authority to fire one employee of any agency every month.  The most valuable thing to a bureaucrat is the pension.  Mr Obama wouldn't have to fire very many; just the fact that he could would make them all work better.

He's said there won't be earmarks on the stimulus bill; that would make it harder for Mrs. Clinton's successor to build roads for private shopping malls in return for contributions as she did.  Given how much our representatives like spending our money, I'll believe that change when I see it.

But we ought to cut Mr. Obama some slack.  In speaking of tax cuts, spending wisely, and boosting government efficiency, he's talking about change we most certainly need.  Good luck to him!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
When I completely agree with the focus of your article its hard to come up with something useful and pertinent to say.

So I'll say something that is only slightly on topic: I believe that high speed trains would be used in the US if they were between major cities. If I could get on a train and get from St. Louis to Kansas City in an about an hour I might even get a job out there, longer commute times aren't exactly unheard of.

This would also increase the number of people in town (ie tourists) without cars, which might just increase the use of mass transit. Mass transit would then have a good reason to expand. Just maybe it might get good enough to convince locals to try it out.
January 21, 2009 4:32 PM
This is the most impressively balanced article from the right that I've seen in a loooooong time. Why can't all journalists be so fair?

I won't even bring up the minor disagreements I have with some of your specifics, because it would detract from my gratefulness for a well-researched, well-written piece.

March 27, 2009 2:09 PM
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