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July 06, 2007

The Dangers of Bureaucracy

To be a bit more substantive on the transparently cynical attempts to paint universal health care as an access point for terrorists, it's worth noting how quickly Neil Cavuto and his guest fall back on platitudes about the dangers of "bureaucracy."

Guest: You also have a situation in which a state-run health care enterprise is bureaucratic, and I think the terrorists have shown over and over again, whether it's dealing with INS or dealing with airport security, that they're very good at gaming the system within bureaucracies, they're very good at figuring out how to get around bureaucracies.

Cavuto: You also have the advantage in a bureaucracy, as I think you pointed out, in becoming invisible. If you were to join a us medical practice, or just an operation in Missouri or Kansas, you would stand out for your religious views, or being an oddity period. So that's what is distinctive about a national system, it's more diluted.

Points if anyone can parse that exchange into something sensical. The first, and most striking, hole in their argument is that it's simply factually untrue. Before 9/11, airport security wasn't part of a federal bureaucracy. It was run by private contractors. After the attacks, it was largely federalized in the Department of Homeland Security bill.

Additionally, the INS wasn't particularly gamed. The terrorists were here legally, though some had overstayed their visas. That's not some clever bureaucratic evasion, or an abuse that private companies would prove capable of quashing. And they took private flight lessons, and rented real estate from private owners, and bought groceries from private enterprises, and picked up box cutters from private suppliers, and generally proved just as adept at navigating the private sector as the public -- something Cavuto doesn't mention.

Indeed, nothing about this discourse on bureaucracies makes sense. "You become invisible." Really? To whom? More invisible than you are working at Dell, or GM? If so, why? And given that the process by which oddities stand out in the workplace is that their immediate peers notice, how would this change in a federal system? Because it's "diluted," I guess. Might as well say it's "mustard." This is just blather, words untethered from their meanings, arguments that long ago gave up on logic.

If you don't listen too closely, though, it's sort of scary. Which is the point.

Related: Megan examines the evil lurking within bureaucracies (link fixed).

July 6, 2007 | Permalink


If the last six years have taught us anything, it is that conservatives are much happier with charismatic authority than with bureaucracy.

Posted by: Max Weber | Jul 6, 2007 11:43:27 AM

Bureaucracies are slow, but they tend to make sure things are done correctly. I don't really understand much of this. Inherently, most large corporations contain their own bureaucracies. It's not as if the private sector avoids them, it's just that conservatives don't call a dog a dog in that instance.

Posted by: soullite | Jul 6, 2007 11:50:07 AM

If you were to join a us medical practice, or just an operation in Missouri or Kansas, you would stand out for your religious views, or being an oddity period.

This is a real gem: federalized systems are bad because they're insufficiently suspicious of religious minorities and other "weirdos."

Posted by: SDM | Jul 6, 2007 12:06:38 PM

More invisible than you are working at Dell, or GM? If so, why?

Because too much invisibility leads to too little accountability which leads to lack of productivity. When that happens at a Dell or GM, they lost market share or their business altogether (which we are actually seeing with both of these examples) In government? Things just continue moving forward as is.

Posted by: wisewon | Jul 6, 2007 12:15:45 PM

Wisewon, I get the impression you've never worked in Government, or in a Corporate environment either.

BTW, I never got around to congratulating you for having the character to admit your error vis a vis Ezra's stated views on the healthcare thread. Allow me to do so now.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jul 6, 2007 12:29:03 PM


I've done/do both.

When companies aren't productive, they miss profit expectations, Wall St. dings their stock price and as a restul, senior management sometimes responds with significant layoffs. Can you provide a few examples of government agencies laying off 5-10% of their workforce?

Posted by: wisewon | Jul 6, 2007 12:31:40 PM

Why would these doctors stand out as weird in an HMO? Were they wearing buttons saying "I love al Qaeda!"

I've noticed some weird people when I worked at corporations. Mostly, management doesn't care if someone is weird, so long as they get their job done. If you want examples, I can give them to you.

Posted by: stm177 | Jul 6, 2007 12:41:11 PM

If bureaucracy leads to terrorism does that mean that the historic growth of government under the Bush administration has made us more likely to be attacked by terrorists?

Posted by: Phil | Jul 6, 2007 12:45:16 PM


I can't speak to productivity per se, but you must be joking about Wall Street? I mean come on- productivity is hardly the benchmark- profits are. Those are not one and the same thing.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 6, 2007 12:48:48 PM

Max Weber--right on target then, right on target now. Can you mail a copy of Politics as a vocation to every republican currently serving in this administration? Thanks.


Posted by: aimai | Jul 6, 2007 12:56:52 PM

akaison-- agreed, hence my word choice:

When companies aren't productive, they miss profit expectations... of course its not a perfect correlation, but its generally true. Cost structures are well-understood in competitive market sectors, and if your company

As I said to WB, when has government ever done a 5-10% layoff? Companies do them. That's the difference.

Posted by: wisewon | Jul 6, 2007 1:00:33 PM

What I've seen from corporations is layoffs used to cause a short-term bump in stock prices, after which they immediately go on a hiring spree. Sprint, which is headquartered here in KC, is notorious for that. I've got several friends who have been hired and laid-off by Sprint multiple times.

As for the idea that governmental agencies never get rid of employees, this page shows the size of the Executive Branch workforce from 1960 to 2005, less Postal Employees. Throughout the 1990's, the size of the Executive branch shrank. The year 2000 was the smallest the Executive branch had been in over 40 years.

The Executive Branch has of course increased massively under Bush, but most of that is, I believe, the Department of Homeland Security and I blame pretty much everyone in DC for that.

One interesting little bit of information is that the average age of people entering the federal workforce has skewed older in recent years, meaning that they approach retirement age faster and making attrition happen at a greater rate. Layoffs aren't always necessary if through early-retirement incentives and natural attrition the workforce size can be regulated.

I haven't ever worked for the government, though my father was in civil service for over 30 years. From comparing stories with him I'd say that people are people and bureaucracies are bureaucracies no matter where they are.

And from what I've observed in private industry, those who have any faith in "the market" regulating itself effectively are delusional.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 6, 2007 1:09:52 PM

As I said to WB, when has government ever done a 5-10% layoff? Companies do them. That's the difference.

You mean like Al Gore's National Performance Review, which recommended a 12% decrease in the federal bureaucracy over five years, and by April 1997 had:

resulted in an overall reduction of 291,000 positions and savings of about $118 billion. In addition, agencies have cut 640,000 pages of internal regulations (equivalent to 130 cases of copy paper) and created and publicly committed to meeting 3,500 customer service standards. Regulatory agencies cut regulations affecting the public by nearly 16,000 pages and rewrote another 31,000 pages to make them more understandable.

Posted by: latts | Jul 6, 2007 1:16:24 PM

Putting aside wisewon's silly side argument, the suggestion that terrorists would be better off hiding with a government bureaucracy is deeply stupid. In what way would it make sense for a would-be terrorist to seek a job that would require fairly extensive background checks instead of one that wouldn't?

Posted by: Duvall | Jul 6, 2007 1:17:43 PM

when has government ever done a 5-10% layoff?

Happened at the Washington State DOA when I worked there in 92-93. Feds cut off our funding, and an entire program got cut. Lost my job, which, as it turns out, was probably the best thing that's ever happened to me.

Somehow I don't think you've did any research before you asked your question.

Posted by: Karl Steel | Jul 6, 2007 1:18:15 PM

Wisewon is absolutely right. When Circuit city had a massive layoff of all those unprofitable and costly proto-terrorists in their TV sale department who were sucking up company time and money actually selling the customer what the customer wanted the stock tanked and the company did what, exactly?

Wisewon says he's a doctor so he can be forgiven for not being up on any of the actual research on corporations and bureaucracies. Over the last forty years or so students of organizations have revealed that although the profit motive as applied to phrases like "buy low and sell high" can explain some fraction of corporate decisionmaking it can not and does not explain the vast majority of corporate decisions--certainly not those surrounding hiring and firing of workers--when you factor in boards and stockholders and stock prices. One reason for that is that the individuals making decisions about hiring and firing of other individuals, and the buying and selling of companies, aren't necessarily punished by the market for those decisions when they turn out to be wrong. There is some kind of accountability in the board room, but not at all the kind that wisewon thinks there is. Ever heard of a "golden parachute" or of that dude "from the gut" whatever his name is? Corporate raiders? junk bonds? Mafia style bust out? the corporation man?

If that all makes wisewon's head hurt perhaps he might turn to lecturing us about his particular area of expertise rather than wasting our time with warmed over randian rhetoric.


Posted by: aimai | Jul 6, 2007 1:18:43 PM

clinton laid off government workers in the 1990s. more importantly your argue is flawed. you argue the private sector deals with inefficiencies because they lay people off. that's false when it comes to healthcare. there is an entire bureacracy designed to block healthcare services. that maybe profitable by wall street's standard, but in terms of being an efficient distribution of healthcare services, no one can reasonably argue it's very productive as a system. then again, i suppose it depends on your goal. if it's to make a profit off of not providing services, then sure- that's efficient as far as making money goes. it's not as efficient when it comes to deliverying services for which people obtain health insurance for in the first place.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 6, 2007 1:23:51 PM

The only bureaucracy in touch with the 9/11 terrorists was the FBI, as per this USA Today excerpt:

"Nevertheless, federal law enforcement officials said Monday that the FBI agent involved in the matter never pursued Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi or sought their full names because the pair did nothing to arouse suspicion. When a CIA warning to the FBI about a month before the attacks included the men's full names and said they were suspected terrorists who could be in the USA, FBI officials in Washington sent the names only to the bureau's counterterrorism offices in New York and Los Angeles.

The full names weren't passed on to agents in San Diego until the hijackers were identified from passenger manifests in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. Al-Midhar and Alhazmi were among five hijackers aboard the jet that crashed into the Pentagon."

Perhaps Cavuot and guest will address how FBI bureaucracy could have led to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Posted by: Garuda | Jul 6, 2007 1:31:48 PM

Ha ha, the first government bureaucracy I worked for was very anti-weird, the Post Office. Eventually they got so efficient that employees were exploding like poorly corked champagne bottles on a hot summer day.

The last big bureaucracy I worked for was a big healthcare setup of clinics and hospitals, private enterprise all the way. They hired foreign doctors to be available and do the work when the private American doctors with admitting privileges were all on vacation or golfing, which was most of the time. The big efficiency there consisted of not admitting any poor patients, and making the family hire private nurses if the patient took more than an average amount of care.

And re-using medical equipment that was clearly marked "For Single-Patient Use Only".

The people who talk vaguely about "bureaucracies" are just brain-dead zombies running on their 30-year diet of Readers Digests.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 6, 2007 1:44:15 PM

As I said to WB, when has government ever done a 5-10% layoff? Companies do them.

I think you mean 'companies have to report them'.

But this is a diversion: what Cavuto and his Scaife-funded mate mean by 'dilution' is 'prejudice is our best defence, and private enterprise the best way to isolate scary brown folks.'

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jul 6, 2007 2:06:17 PM

Wait, who said these Terrorist Dr's weren't doing their job? Did they spend the whole day building bombs in the back of the clinics?

Posted by: Col Bat Guano | Jul 6, 2007 2:14:47 PM

I think a couple of posters have already done this, but in the hopes of getting the points Ezra promised, I'll translate the exchange:

In a big [i.e., public] bureaucracy, no one will notice you, especially not for the color of your skin or your religious beliefs. If you're in a small medical practice in the Midwest or Plains States, the whole community will be on you like a hawk if you are brown or pray to Allah.

It's stupid and racist, but there it is.

Very nice rebuttal with your examples of how the 9/11 terrorists "gamed" the private sector, Ezra. It's the kind of thing I wish I were quick enough to bring up in discussions with my conservative relatives.

Posted by: Aaron | Jul 6, 2007 2:24:53 PM

Too many posts to respond separately, so here are a few thoughts:

Karl Steel-- agree on state government, I was referring only to federal.

Akaison-- On the 90's point, see below. On the rest of the post-- we've discussed this before: Corporations maximize profit, I agree that they are maximizing profit in ways that counter societal objectives on health, hence the need for new regulations here (community rating, etc.)

Latts-- I typed too fast on my second post, I intentionally asked for multiple examples in my first post because your cited example is the one clear example and exception-- I was a huge fan of the initiative, and it was effective. If we'd all agree that Clinton-style policies were the way to go, I don't think I'd have much to say.

Aimai-- careful here. While I am a doc, I've got a fair amount of business experience-- they are needed in industry, you know. Your post seems to be looking for perfection from the private sector-- I agree its far from it. But in the long run, unproductive companies will be broken down in some fashion or another-- you mention corporate raiders as solely a bad thing. One of the primary drivers of private equity funds is that sometimes when Wall St. is wrong, not enough pressure has been brought to bear on the company-- private equity steps in, acquires the company, makes the needed changes, and sells back onto public markets at a profit.

Posted by: Rufus | Jul 6, 2007 2:27:53 PM


Rufus = wisewon for that last post, my brother is in town and got him hooked on Ezra over the last few days, his signature was saved on this computer...

Posted by: wisewon | Jul 6, 2007 2:37:58 PM

Just to add one more reason why Cavuto is an idiot:

No one, absolutely no one who has ever spoken publicly in the national discussion of healthcare reform in the U.S., has actually suggested having all the doctors in the U.S. become government employees. That would mean getting rid of all private hospitals and expanding the V.A. system to become the equivalent of U.K. National Health. That has absolutely nothing to do with a single-payer national health insurance plan, which would add no bureaucracy at all (and, depending on how much it actually replaced private plans, could significantly reduce it) in the places where doctors actually work.

Posted by: Hob | Jul 6, 2007 2:57:46 PM

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