Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Government and Society

What are we to make of the crosscurrents emanating from hurricane Katrina?

On the one hand, Thomas Sowell points out:
Government cannot solve all our problems, even in normal times, much less during a catastrophe of nature that reminds man how little he is, despite all his big talk.

The most basic function of government, maintaining law and order, breaks down when floods or blackouts paralyze the system.

During good times or bad, the police cannot police everybody. They can at best control a small segment of society. The vast majority of people have to control themselves.

That is where the great moral traditions of a society come in -- those moral traditions that it is so hip to sneer at, so cute to violate, and that our very schools undermine among the young, telling them that they have to evolve their own standards, rather than following what old fuddy duddies like their parents tell them.

Now we see what those do-it-yourself standards amount to in the ugliness and anarchy of New Orleans.

In a world where people flaunt their "independence," their "right" to disregard moral authority, and sometimes legal authority as well, the tragedy of New Orleans reminds us how utterly dependent each one of us is for our very lives on millions of other people we don't even see.

Thousands of people in New Orleans will be saved because millions of other people they don't even know are moved by moral obligations to come to their rescue from all corners of this country. The things our clever sophisticates sneer at are ultimately all that stand between any of us and utter devastation.
Dr. Sanity elaborates,
Well, to put it bluntly, we have moved from a society of individual personal responsibility to one of infantile entitlement.
But still, can we not expect more of government? Haven't there been times when, apparently, things got done? I was thinking back to WW2, when lots of silly red tape was ignored because it was actually important to get results fast, like the Manhattan Project.

Bernoulli Effect muses similarly:
I think there's only one situation that can smite the Gordian knot of bureaucracy--a sense of grave national danger. That sense existed briefly after 9/11, but it dissipated pretty rapidly--especially after the quick toppling of the Taliban. With no easy-to-focus-on enemies like Germany or Japan, the absence of subsequent terrorist attacks allowed us all to resume our normal ways. And for the federal government, normalcy means bureaucracy.
I think it's a mix of both. Looking back, it turns out government waste and stupidity was in its normal abundance during WW2. The difference was twofold, however. On the one hand, there seemed to be far less ankle-biting and naysaying to attempt to demoralize people; instead there was a definite propaganda effort to keep people focused on the important task at hand. Thus, secondly, people worked really hard and overcame the normal setbacks of bureacracy and found ways to get things done in spite of stupidity instead of throwing up their hands in despair and wasting time looking for someone to blame.

I mean, what else could one do, when even Mr. Peanut went to war?

So on the one hand, we had prodigious production of rapidly-designed war machines. Need to transport stuff? Ok, how about churning out Liberty Ships?
Ten to twelve months were required in 1917-18 to build an oceangoing ship. Liberty ships, though a third larger, were built in 1943 in as little as 16 days in regular production....

A Liberty ship can carry an amount of cargo equal to four trains of 75 cars each.
Need some tanks? How about 25,000 a year, which is one rolling off the assembly line ready to go, every 21 minutes, around the clock, 24/7? Warplanes? From 1940 to 1944, production jumped 16-fold to 96,000 per year, or one about every six minutes. Warships? How about producing in 1944 a tonnage equivalent to replacing the losses at Pearl Harbor every 3 weeks?

I am reminded of passages from David Brinkley's history, Washington Goes to War. The call went out for office workers to come to D.C.:
The came. They came on every train and bus, nearly all of them women, wearing dyed-to-match sweaters and skirts and carrying suitcases tied shut with white cottons clothesline....

Formal civil service exams had been dropped for the war. Too slow. The government could not wait months for the forms to be mailed, graded and classified. If you could type and had a high school diploma, you were hired. $1,440 a year....

Things moves so fast that many of the young women found themselves working at desks and typewriters and on the government payroll before they had even found a place to leave their bags.

New workers kept arriving, but they were never enough.
But snafus started immediately. There was a shortage of typewriters, as the typewriter companies had all been turned over to weapons production. A campaign to round up donated typewriters from the public didn't fare well, and the old typewriters often couldn't handle the new paper "forms, huge, elaborate and tedious, up to eighteen inches wide" that the government inexplicably started using.

Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Chester Bowles later tried a more imaginative solution in the Office of Price Administration. He had men with pushcarts sweep through the empty offices at night and haul away one out of every seven typewriters. Then he waited to see who complained. Often no one did.
The same was done with filing cabinets; if nobody within 200 feet of one knew what was in it, it got appropriated.

All those typists led to a shortage of paper.

And difficulties moving it all around.
The CAS bungled, dropped, spilled, lost or stole almost everything it touched. Its deliveries of mail between government offices were slow and unreliable. Mail arrived at the wrong offices or did not arrive at all. A lend-lease official once walked past the CAS mail room and saw bundles he had sent out weeks before still lying untouched on the floor. CAS messengers, mostly teenaged boys too young for the draft, roared through the streets on motorcycles, leaving clouds of mail blowing out of their shoulder sacks and scattered in the streets behind them. In early 1943, a pedestrian discovered bundles of confidential mail sent out by the Office of War Information lying in a gutter at Nineteenth and H streets. CAS chauffeurs were caught using government limousines for joyrides or weekend visits to their mistresses.

The CAS's duties also included the disposing of "secret and confidential trash." It bungled this, too, mixing "safe" trash with "classified" trash and strewing both kinds all over town. Some agencies chose to burn their own discarded secret papers. A State Department officer proudly told a Senate committee that State had its papers burned in its own furnace by a trustworthy black janitor who did the job carefully and was paid only $1,800 a year. Senator McClellan of Arkansas pointed a trembling finger at the witness and bellowed, "You mean to tell this committee the CAS is so incompetent you have to entrust your secret papers to an eighteen-hundred dollar nigra?"

The catalogue of CAS's sins and failures was a long document of laziness, carelessness, stupidity, delays, errors and, not least, simple theft. One investigation revealed that during gasoline rationing when government automobiles were left in the CAS repair shop, mechanics routinely drained their tanks and stole the gasoline for their own use.
This was all bad for morale. It was reported that
within six months of Pearl Harbor, more than half the young women hired as stenographers and typists had quit in disgust and returned home.
Hundreds complained that they had been hired and then paid to do nothing. Who was responsible, they demanded?
Nobody was responsible. It was simply the way the government worked, in both war and peace, although in wartime it was worse. The single fact most clearly differentiating government employers was, always, that government agencies did not have to earn their money. Congress simply handed it over every year and almost always more than the year before, so it was there to be spent and it was unthinkable not to spend it. Nobody in government ever benefitted in any way from saving money....War or peace, this basic principle of government never changed.
That doesn't even get into the issue of patronage!

The true wonder is that anything constructive gets done at all!


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