Belmont Club

The New Centrolions

Although attention is focused on the 2012 national elections, it is in the local elections and primaries that the infrastructure of the political parties are made.  Local is where the roots of the grass are. A number of state and local elections are still under way in the closing months of 2011. There are four legislative races. And there are the state executive races, for governor, lieutenant governor, etc. They are but a small sample of the vast undertaking that is governing America.  Most of it still takes place on the local level, though that share is declining.

One of the state legislative races, that for New Jersey, has been loaded into a sample ballot application at Ballotpedia. It seems too late to get much traction for New Jersey, but will feature other races further on. Politics in the United States is huge enterprise, involving masses of people at all levels.

The federal entity created by the U.S. Constitution is the dominant feature of the American governmental system. However, most people are also subject to a state government, and all are subject to various units of local government. The latter include counties, municipalities, and special districts.

This multiplicity of jurisdictions reflects the country’s history. The federal government was created by the states, which as colonies were established separately and governed themselves independently of the others. Units of local government were created by the colonies to efficiently carry out various state functions. As the country expanded, it admitted new states modeled on the existing ones.

In addition to elections and primaries to select who run in these elections there are also a bewildering number of ballot measures to vote on specific issues. This apparent complexity leads some observers to think that things would be much better if decision making could only be centralized among a few wise heads headquartered in Washington DC. Yet for all of its apparent chaos the decentralized system may actually be more efficient than a highly centralized one.

Bigger is not always better.

Recently top government cybersecurity experts met to explain why despite the billions of dollars at their disposal America remains uniquely vulnerable. Richard Clarke and Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA and the US Cyber Command said that the US economy is so vulnerable to cyber-attacks that practically any major enemy can bring it down. Things had reached the point where America had to be careful about angering foreign nations because “the entire us economic system could be crashed in retaliation … because we can’t defend it today.” Clarke said things are so bad that he doesn’t even know how bad they are.

“I really don’t know to what extent the weapon systems that have been developed over the last 10 years have been penetrated, to what extent the chips are compromised, to what extent the code is compromised. I can’t assure you that as you go to war with a cybersecurity-conscious, cybersecurity-capable enemy that any of our stuff is going to work.”

DARPA director Regina Dugan made an appeal for a new initiative to end the “season of darkness” that had descended on the nation’s computer security systems.  Defenses consisting of millions of lines of code were “porous as a colander”.

Put in a blunter way, U.S. networks are “as porous as a colander,” Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief turned cybersecurity Cassandra, told a packed ballroom.

“We are losing ground because we are inherently divergent from the threat,” conceded Dugan, swooping down from the stratosphere. Current network security is a numbers game: According to Darpa research, securing sensitive information on the military’s networks requires, typically, programs running 10 million lines of code. On average, the malicious code, viruses, bots, worms and exploits that try to penetrate those defenses rely on 125 lines of code. Eventually, simple beats over-engineered.

“A numbers game” could be another phrase for a system in trouble because it is almost too big to succeed. So the legions are looking to barbarian auxiliaries for help. New ideas were being solicited from “visionary hackers” to design defenses, because there is nothing like hiring the man who wrote 125 lines of code to explain how he got past the ten million.

But the problem with that is that barbarians are accustomed to operating in the barbarian way. That is the secret to their success. But for the centrolions of the Federal legions nothing can be done except in the mandated way and that means guaranteed expensive solutions.

Daniel Roelker, a DARPA project manager dressed in faded jeans and T-shirt who works on offensive cyber weapons, said the Pentagon needed technological breakthroughs to be able to fight at the speed of light in cyberspace.

The United States and unspecified “adversaries” are locked in a struggle in cyberspace, said another program manager, Timothy Fraser. “Their costs are very low, and our costs are very high,” he said.

What may really be needed to lower the costs is a political breakthrough, not a technological one. Fighting like a barbarian, not adopting the barbarian spear, may be the key innovation. If the defenders were given the freedom to find a solution, they might find one. For one, barbarians attack and one way to defend against cyber threats is to take the offensive and crash the would be crashers. But doing that to China or others countries might be considered unfriendly and there has to be coordination with the State Department, the Attorney General and the Urban League, in case somebody takes umbrage.

But attacking someone without getting permission from a zillion lawyers is something a hacker can do. A bureaucrat cannot. Finding ways of doing things cheaply or even at all inside hidebound gigantic bureaucracies in Washington is probably a daunting task. It might actually be a losing battle. Glenn Reynolds recently noticed that the bigger government government got, the less it seemed able to do. He wrote:

GOVT. FAIL: PIPELINES, TREES, AND DEMOSCLEROSIS. “In the old days, when the U.S. built things relatively quickly like Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge, someone actually got to make decisions. Today, I suspect the slightly authoritarian figures like Robert Moses or Frederick Law Olmstead would be arrested for their manner of public administration, or have their designs so slowed down and corrupted by ‘public input’ and review processes that we wouldn’t have Central Park. More likely we’d have 50 Zuccotti Parks scattered around New York City.”

What’s funny is that these innovations in legal process were championed by the same folks who — see, e.g., Rachel Maddow’s odd Hoover Dam bit — champion the idea of the government doing big things. Yet the end result of a government that focuses on process instead of product is a government that can’t do big things, and one in which the public has less faith. To pick an example from my neck of the woods, the TVA had its first dam filled within 18 months of the TVA Act’s passage. That could never happen today. Now arguably TVA built too many dams, but at least taxpayers who wondered where their money was going could see dams springing up all over. Now it goes into the pockets of lawyers and consultants and Environmental Impact Statement reviewers. Not surprisingly, that’s less impressive.

By the way, I highly recommend Jonathan Rauch’s Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer Of American Government, where the term was coined. More discussion of the phenomenon can also be found in this post, where I also praise Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities.

UPDATE: Reader Kevin Long writes:

I’m a civil engineer with a little over ten years in transportation design, and I’ve witnessed first hand the chaos the industry has fallen into. I worked with a private consultant for state and local transportation agencies, and the whole shovel-ready mess wrecked our long term plans by using up most of the available funding in short-term projects. The process now takes four to six years for even a small project to go through, so when everyone moved projects up to qualify for funding through ARRA, it left a gap where no new projects are expected for a few years. Not to mention, most of the ARRA projects required very little or no engineering (repaving roads or adding sidewalks, for example). I was among the last group of engineers and surveyors laid off from my company in June and have only found one temporary job since then, with almost all the companies in my area (Nashville) treading water or downsizing since then. (In my job search, I’ve been told more than once that people are not planning on adding staff until after next year’s election.) I’m now wondering if I should change disciplines in order to hedge my bets. Environmental engineering looks promising. If you’ve been regulated out of a job, I guess apply for a job with the regulators.


It is probably impertinent but not entirely implausible to suggest that centralized systems can actually grow to the point where they do nothing but feed themselves. All this suggests that the Great Big Government model, of which the EU is a textbook example, might not be the best way to “get the trains to run on time”. If that is the case, the plethora of local political activity in the United States is not a bug but a feature whose virtues are in danger of being forgotten.

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