Tilting at Bureaucrats

They actually can be fired - sometimes.

We stand corrected.

A friend who's spent a lifetime in the US Government bureaucracy and rose to a very senior position explained that it is possible to discipline an errant government employee.

Back when he was an up-and-coming middle manager, one of his subordinates had a habit of making really bad errors.  In the spirit of inquiry and of conducting anthropological research, he decided to see if he could do anything about it.

He documented all the mistakes, issued the required warnings, and, after much labor, managed to get the goof-off suspended for a while.  The effort in fighting the government employee's union and the civil service regulations took him more than 30 hours of his own time.  He had to do it on his own time because he had his own work to do.  Getting his job done didn't leave time for jumping though all the hoops needed to discipline a habitual foul-up.

At the end of his story, however, he told me that he's one of three or four government managers he knows who ever did that.  Few managers are willing to put in so much personal time; they tend to shuffle foul balls off to another department by covering up their flaws.  A bureaucracy must have a totally secure income stream to survive such behavior in the long term.

To be fair, such bureaucratic boondoggles are not confined to government.  Anybody who's familiar with the inner workings of large companies such as Ford, GM, or a legacy airline or telephone company can cite similar examples of employees furthering their own interests at the expense of the firm.  Given enough time, the market corrects such idiocies by bankrupting the company when inefficiencies become too serious - to wit, RCA, Digital Equipment, Eastern Airlines, and on down the list - but there's no cure for inefficient government bureaucracy other than overall social collapse.


One ray of optimism comes from the fact that it is possible to get rid of people who have a reasonable probability of being a security risk.  One of my friends in the spook community told me of a man who was getting into financial difficulties that would leave him vulnerable to pressure to become a traitor in return for taking care of his finances.  Once they concluded he was a wrong 'un, they went to his office, escorted him out of the building, and shipped his desk contents to him after they had examined everything.

The special pressures on security personnel are the main reason why the Bush administration wanted Homeland Security employees to be forbidden to join a union.  That's the current law, but the unions who helped the Democrats get a majority in the House and Senate have informed their Democrat buddies that they aren't getting enough union dues so they want Homeland Security to be allowed to unionize.  Making it more difficult to fire traitors is a policy that only a union could love.

Military Bureaucracies

The mission of the military is to kill people and break things.  Every soldier knows that his overall goal is not to die for his country but to help some other son-of-a-gun die for his country.

There's a built-in tendency for the military to be somewhat concerned with whether their policies will actually work, but their survival instinct operates only in time of war.  During peace time, the military is just another bureaucracy.  Without a war to fight, there's no way to determine whether their policies actually work or not.

A US Navy commander told me that it was a common belief in the Navy that if it ever came to a shooting war, somewhere between a third and half of their ship captains would be replaced.  "The problem is," he told me, "In peace time, how the captain fills out his paper work is the most important thing to his career.  We know from history that the few guys who can actually fight aren't good at paper work; they don't make captain in peacetime.  We hope we don't lose too many ships getting rid of the paper pushers if we ever have to fight a war."

One of my friends was a Navy Lieutenant a few years after affirmative action got well underway.  He supervised a department full of civilian employees.  One of them was an utter incompetent who never should have been hired in the first place.  She hadn't finished her probationary period; he could get rid of her if he filled out the paper work properly.

He documented all her mistakes, had all the required meetings with her and with the Human Resources department, and submitted his recommendation for her termination.

Unfortunately, he turned in his paperwork about a week after a new base commander had taken over.  The new boss called him in and explained that even though he had done all the paper work correctly, the new commander didn't want his tour of duty to start with a fight with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  She was incompetent, but she was black so they couldn't fire her.

Anybody who's been in the military for any length of time can multiply this story many-fold.


It's funny how liberals always change the meaning of words to make their policies sound better.  EEOC stands for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  It's a bureaucracy whose stated goal is to right wrongs when poor, downtrodden employees are treated unfairly by heartless, blood-sucking, capitalist employers.

We all know what the words "Equal Employment Opportunity" mean - everybody has an equal chance at a job based on his or her merits and qualifications for the job.  If that's what it actually meant, nobody could have any objection - after all, opportunity based on merit is what America is, or was, all about.

In practice, of course, the EEOC rules require that employers hire less-qualified people if they are members of favored racial groups.  This is known as "affirmative action," and it's the exact opposite of equal opportunity.  Liberals know, however, that calling it the "Affirmative Action Commission" or the "Commission to promote racism in hiring practices" would sound bad.  They'd rather tell a lie than sound bad, so "Equal Opportunity" it is.

Ever notice that when big companies advertise for new employees, they often put "Equal Opportunity / Affirmative Action Employer" at the bottom of the ad?  This is a contradiction in terms - there's no way anyone can offer both equal opportunity and affirmative action at the same time.  This Alice-in-Wonderland style of dealing with employees is spillover from our government's practice of making it impossible to ever fire anyone and forcing companies to hire less qualified employees than they otherwise would.

It's Self-Correcting

Hiring less competent people makes businesses less efficient, of course, and raises costs all around.  In 1986, the then-Prime Minister of Japan, Yasuhiro Nakasone, casually mentioned to a group of journalists that large numbers of blacks and Hispanics were a drag on the American economy and made America less competitive.  Although his observation provoked outrage in America, it was accepted as obvious truth in Japan.

It's manifestly not the case that a particular skin color makes you inherently incapable of competence, as the Japanese notoriously assume; but insofar as there is any force on personnel selection other than merit, the end result will be inefficiency.  These days, when we're competing with the entire world, that is a luxury we can no longer afford.

If our economy goes down too far, we won't be able to afford our bureaucracy.  Government always raises taxes during difficult times to avoid disrupting "essential government services" such as luxurious pensions and health care for retired politicians; then, when good times return, politicians generally start new programs with the excess revenues rather than refund the money through tax cuts.  This ratchet effect can only go on so long.

Affirmative action benefits a large, well-established bureaucracy so it will be among the last idiocies to go when the crash comes, but when it goes, we may be able to get back to hiring the best person for the job and firing people who don't perform regardless of who or what they may be.  What a meritorious notion!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
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