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Belmont Club

The March of the Dinosaurs

July 17th, 2013 - 6:09 pm

After noticing that the Gmail inbox had changed yet again, a friend asked “why does Google keep switching things on me?” I replied that somebody at Google felt he had to earn his salary and, in the absence of any pressing bug, busied himself with improvements. “So it’s been improved, whether you like it or not.”

That recalled an situation some years ago at a company which I visited, in which the IT manager kept asking their database administrator why he was so idle only to receive the reply, “because I’ve set things up so that things don’t break down.”  They should have put him to working diddling with code that worked. Then he would be busy.

This is a problem shared by firemen and the military. They mostly do nothing if they do their jobs right. And by and by they will get their budgets slashed. It’s the screwups who experience eternal growth because the pot of gold is always on the other side of the hill.

It never occurred to the IT manager that if his subordinate was actually perpetually busy saving the company data it was a sure sign that he had to be fired.  And nowhere is the imperative to substitute activity for achievement so endemic as in government. Daniel Henning at the Wall Street Journal argued that  Obamacare was failing because it had become too big to actually do anything. Government just grows and grows and grows. Because that’s the nature of the beast.

The March of the Agencies

Sinclair Dinosaurs are transported on the Hudson River to the 1964 World’s Fair.

If the ObamaCare meltdown were a one-off, the system could dismiss it as a legislative misfire and move on, as always. But ObamaCare’s problems are not unique. Important parts of the federal government are breaking down almost simultaneously. …  a dweeb like Edward Snowden could download the content of the NSA’s computers onto a thumb drive and walk out of the world’s “most secretive” agency. Here’s the short answer: The NSA has 40,000 employees. (Some say it’s as high as 55,000, but it’s a secret.)

Echoing that, when the IRS’s audits of conservative groups emerged, the agency managers’ defense was that the IRS is too big for anyone to know what its agents are doing. …

It is hard to imagine a more apolitical federal function than the nation’s weather satellites. The ones we have—to predict hurricanes and such—are about to wear out and need to be replaced. Can’t do it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Pentagon have been trying to replace the old weather satellites, since 1994….

The State Department missed signs of the Arab Spring’s insurrections in late 2010 despite warnings from outside groups. Egypt is in flames, in part, because State for years has been mainly a massive, drifting bureaucracy. Little wonder Hillary Clinton spent four years in flight from the place. …

Excepting the military’s fighting units, the federal government has become a giant slug, like Jabba the Hutt, inert but dangerous. Like Jabba, the government increasingly survives by issuing authoritarian decrees from this or that agency.

The Examiner summarizes the problem succinctly: Obamacare is a 19th-century answer to a 21st-century question. “Rather than imposing a top-down, command-economy, welfare-state health care model with roots in Otto von Bismarck’s Germany of 1881, a 21st-century government would ask what is needed to apply to health care access the Internet’s boundless capacity to empower individual choice.”

But of course that’s not going to happen. Recently Leo Linbeck III proposed a consumption tax to replace the supergiant labyrinthine tax system. Whatever its merits it has one undeniable virtue: it requires far less energy to operate than the current gigantic IRS. It’s much smaller than the monumental reptilian monster than we have now.

And small systems do something counterintuitive. They let you find the button to retake control over your life.

Today individual choice is a checkbox buried in a 500 page form. It is a setting concealed deep within the preference menu of whatever software you use, a setting that will buried even deeper still when the next generation of developers adds features to your application. But it’s not choice if you don’t know it’s there.

You’ll never find the button you need to press because  all that bandwidth has to cram itself into an increasingly small pipe. On a public policy level this manifests itself as pixelated vision. The feedback loops of the immense bureaucracy can only be perceived through the low-res imaging of the mainstream media. The only thing we see is what the Narrative lets us see, so that basically we have the visual acuity of Mr. Magoo.

Recently the New York Times did a retrospective of the Tawana Brawley case. “Revisiting a Rape Scandal That Would Have Been Monstrous if True”. What was monstrous was that nobody could tell until much later that it was untrue.

But, as the meticulously researched Retro Report points out this week, it was all a hoax. After seven months, 6,000 pages of testimony and 180 witnesses, a grand jury found Ms. Brawley’s story to be a lie. Neither the police officer nor the district attorney accused by Ms. Brawley and Mr. Sharpton had been involved in any way, the report concluded.

A Sharpton associate told the news media at the time that Ms. Brawley’s lawyers, C. Vernon Mason and Alton H. Maddox Jr., and Mr. Sharpton were “frauds from the beginning.”

And about six months after the hoax, Ms. Brawley’s former boyfriend told Newsday that she had invented the allegations, apparently to avoid a beating by her mother’s boyfriend after running away from home for four days.

Last week, Retro Report interviewed Mr. Sharpton and asked whether, 25 years later, he felt that any crime had occurred at all.

“Whatever happened,” he answered, “you’re dealing with a minor who was missing four days. So it’s clear that something wrong happened.”

It’s tempting to think of the Brawley incident as a conspiracy. On one level it was exactly that. But on another level it was just bad signals being amplified by a pitiful saurian media brain that had become far too inadequate for the new and gigantic body that it had to serve. People just stampeded themselves into a fix.

Sharpton was unintentionally right. The Brawley affair was something that just happened, a spasm that ran through the dinosaur. Is it is his fault if he just happened to be around to catch pennies from heaven?  Just one of those things whose provenance no one knew nor cared what became of it later. And if weren’t Brawley  it would be something else.

What is remarkable about the misfortunes overtaking the Obama administration is they are just cumulative. It’s like standing in front of a maniac baseball pitching machine without a bat. Nothing gets solved. The don’t even bother to swing. They can’t even keep count.

The public only gets a momentary glimpse a huge problem before it gets buried in the avalanche of something else. Recently it has come to light that government has been tracking “photographs of your car in their files, noting where you were driving on a particular day, even if you never did anything wrong.”

Using automated scanners, law enforcement agencies across the country have amassed millions of digital records on the location and movement of every vehicle with a license plate, according to a study published Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. Affixed to police cars, bridges or buildings, the scanners capture images of passing or parked vehicles and note their location, uploading that information into police databases. Departments keep the records for weeks or years, sometimes indefinitely.

But so what? This new scandal has got to get in line behind the IRS, Benghazi, the North Korean Missiles in Panama, Syria, Egypt, economic bad news, Bernake, Zimmerhoo and Zimmerhaw. It ain’t never going to get attended to. I honestly expect the car monitoring scandal to buried in a week, tops. Nobody even has time to notice that the administration has been selling ambassadorships or that the IRS snooper wasn’t even an IRS employee — just a political donor.

In a manner of speaking this means there is nothing to worry about. There is no point being outraged at Jesse Jackson’s demand that the United Nations investigate the Zimmerman case.  Why? Because if the UN actually tried to do something it would be forgotten in a week, simply overwhelmed by news from Syria or a meltdown somewhere else. Besides the UN never actually does anything, which is why it is so widely admired by liberal ideologues.

It used to be a bad sign when events got inside your OODA loop. The modern bureaucratic state has gotten inside its own OODA loop. Nobody knows what’s going on. So they’ll start a committee …

Is that cause for celebration or just another “oh s**t” moment? Don’t hesitate now. Make your choice, rush out and buy a beer. Dinosaurs really can’t afford to spend too much time thinking about any one thing when they cover the best part of an acre.

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Top Rated Comments   
There's a British talk show host who specializes in featuring unemployed welfare cheats on his show. The more hideous and grotesque they are, both in actual appearance and behavior, the more excited the audience becomes. He features who are fat, with picket fence teeth, tattooed on their faces and rings through their noses.

Nor do their inner dispositions fall far from their repulsive physical appearances. They are illiterate, conniving, low-down pieces of work. And they are mostly white. Not that it means anything. They are seething with the same defensive resentfulness, cheap greed and invincible ignorance that characterize losers the world over.

If there's any reason not to hate them its because they are too pitiful to hate. The cheap shoes, the made in China bling -- the whole thing is pathetic. But that doesn't keep the clever talk show host -- think a downmarket Piers Morgan -- from jabbing them in his commanding way. They run around like rabbits on his stage and the audience laps it up.

There is something horribly cruel about the whole thing which made me think, not the better of the guests, but the worse for the talk show host and his audience. Man can be an angel. But he is also the cruelest known thing in the universe.

I think one of the reasons that religion has become so unpopular in the West is because many of us are convinced, deep down inside, that nothing -- let alone God -- could ever love the likes of us. There is something incredibly cynical about the way in which the media are raking it in over the Zimmerman-Martin thing. It makes you lose faith in humanity, even in oneself.

And then it struck me that perhaps the real meaning of faith is not to "believe in God", but to believe in a God who can believe in us. It is too easy to think of God as some kind of omnipotent Piers Morgan. But if He exists He likely to be quite something else; and the greatest of His attributes will not be omnipotence but a charity beyond our understanding.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In 1973 CBS showed 11 episodes of a sitcom named "Calucci's Department." It starred James Coco and was scheduled opposite "Sandford and Son," which guaranteed failure. Set in an unemployment office episode 5 had the Manager Calucci ordered to save money by choosing someone to let go. He surveys the collection who work in his unemployment office and chooses the only one who could possibly get another job. The rest were simply unemployable.

It would be simple for Congress to pass a law that no federal agency or other entity that takes federal money may retain records of the activity of a US citizen without the prior consent of that citizen for more than 90 days without a specific, not blanket, court order. Narrow exceptions would establish implied consent for school, passport, and motor vehicle records.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Black death had its fleas and rats,
Governments have their bureaucrats.
The IQ of a mob is the IQ of the dumbest member divided by the number of people in the mob.
Bureaucracies are nothing but slow motion mobs; the larger they become the stupider they become. Bureaucracies and their bureaucrats seek collective immortality by crushing then feeding on the freedom and creativity of individuals. All bureaucracies are evil, but government bureaucracies are the most evil because they have the monopoly coercive power of the state at their disposal. This power allows them to grow like malignant tumors.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (42)
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In closely related news, Detroit is filing for Chap 9 bankruptcy.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment

I sometimes daydream about creating a new federal department for the sole purpose of sending all of the rejects of the federal bureaucracy to one place. Federal departments could clear out dead wood this way, and managers would be able to get rid of the kind of people who make it impossible for other employees to get their work done.

Although such a job with the new federal department would be a federal job with civil service protections, it would be set up in such a way that bad apples can at least be kept from doing more damage. This new bureaucracy would be a place to send people with toxic personalities, far away from people who are actually getting work done. Think of it as Siberia for federal employees.

Well, one can dream...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
OT. Joy of Joys. My medicare card arrived today. Soon, very soon, I will be eligible for death panel review.
Its been nice knowing
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Most American fire department are composed of volunteers, not career firefighters. They have day jobs and their bosses let them have time off to fight fires, if necessary. But then again most fire departments are local, not federal.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In Virginia, outside the major metros, we have a combined Vol/ Pro system.
Each fire-rescue house has pros on watch who provide training, supervision and rapid initial response supplemented by vols (85% vol), some on watch others available for response, depending on time and place.
This includes major suburbs, like mine.
Does it work? My home owners insurance says it does. Further, my three trips to the barn in the bus with the flashing lights went well.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What happens with all this is the development of parallel or underground systems; think of samizdat and garage sales.

There is no greater bureaucracy than the military, as many of us know through experience. When I was stationed at Camp Lejeune I was more than once reminded of the old saw, ''There's a right way, a wrong way, and the Navy/USMC way.''

Eg: the sign outside the sickbay was looking ratty and I asked my E-8 chief petty officer to put in the necessary paperwork for a new one. He informed me that, in that case, it would never happen--the civil service types at the official Base Sign Office (or whatever it was) would never get to it.

Instead, he made a phone call and by the afternoon of the second day a nice sign appeared, better-looking than the original when it was new. An old pal, a traded favor ....

Similarly, another buddy was the NCO in charge of a nearby mess hall who would regularly get from us bottles of 1000 aspirin he wasn't officially supposed to keep in the mess hall.

But ... whenever we wanted to throw a beer bust for the corpsmen and their wives/girlfriends, did we put in a chit to the regimental recreation office (or whatever it was called)?

Oh, no, indeed; as if by magic would appear a box of frozen hamburger patties, a gallon or two of beans and potato salad, with the officers paying for the kegs.

The military: the most time-honored parallel system--''comshaw''. I heard that word came from the old China Marines along with ''Gung Ho'', etc but never knew for sure.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
itellu3times: "Most of the fire department crews sit around a lot, too, because you have to staff for reasonable peak loads."

By the same token, athletes spend most of their time doing things about which no-one cares; running a mile in a competition may take less than 4 minutes, but it takes years of training to be able to achieve that.

Firefighters are in a somewhat similiar position. A lot of time has to be invested in training and equipment maintenance to be able to react effectively in seconds when necessary. Skimp on the training, and next thing emergency vehicles are running over plane crash victims on San Francisco runways.

The problem is the current legal/bureaucratic mindset which emphasizes box-ticking.

Classic case occured in England a year or so back -- man was seen floating face down in a shallow duck pond in a park. Emergency services responded -- police, ambulances, fire trucks, helicopter air ambulance. And they all sat on the edge of the pond looking at the man floating face down in less than 3 feet of water, because no-one on scene had water rescue certification. One policeman volunteered to wade into the pond and pull the man out -- and was severely admonished for his suggestion.

How to free ourselves from expensive legalistic bureaucratic stupidity without involving ropes & lamposts? If anyone has any ideas, please share.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
One of the problems with simplifying things is that doing it right usually involves screwing somebody. That's why so much software is so lousy: product management doesn't really discover what the real use cases and requirements are until many revisions have been built and many generations of users have been implemented. For example, moving from on-premise or hosted implementations to software-as-a-service is tremendously expensive and disruptive--and that is just the delivery method. It gets even worse when functionality--however hoary--as to be deprecated in order to revamp the solution. There are always users who have built their business process around some arcane feature.

The thought of revamping the tax code by implementing a consumption tax runs straight into tens of millions of folks (like me) who have had their income taxed for 40 years. Now you tell me that you want to tax my retirement savings at a much higher rate as I consume it? I don't think so. This is also why Congress is careful to spread the spending on every big military budget item into as many states and congressional districts as possible.

The structure of the federal government in particular has been designed to make every single piece of it as unassailable as possible. The only way to cure this is either total systemic collapse or large across-the-boards cuts. Better to cut with an axe and allow the mohair subsidy to survive than to never cut at all.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Chicago Boyz has an interesting post featuring an excerpt from a book describing the rise of the NSDAP bureaucracy in the 1930s. You may find it relevant to this discussion, or not.

When Law Yields to Absolute Power
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
That recalled an situation some years ago at a company which I visited, in which the IT manager kept asking their database administrator why he was so idle only to receive the reply, “because I’ve set things up so that things don’t break down.”

Yes, I meant to post a short screed about that. It's not an entirely invalid argument. Certainly I've seen the exact opposite, where an IT organization can't keep operating for more than ten minutes, without fifteen people diddling stuff constantly.

That's why when someone who has worked in IT tries to apply to a product company like Microsoft, they mostly throw away the resumes - products must work without intervention 99.999999% of the time, or they're not really products. It's a different mind-set.

Most of the fire department crews sit around a lot, too, because you have to staff for reasonable peak loads. We have a military spec'd to be able to fight two wars at once, or we had that until recently, at least on paper. Electricity generation is base load and peak load. Etc.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Stop looking for excuses and start looking for solutions.

Do you know how much raw youthful energy you can unleash by telling a kid not "Yes, we can" but rather "Yes, we did"?

Results beat "hope and change" any day.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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