Shutdowns and Bureaucratic Fairy Tales

Shutdowns and Bureaucratic Fairy Tales

As you may have heard, it’s Shutdown Season again in Washington.  And that means that it’s also Freak Out Season again.  The federal budget debate, you see, isn’t really about the budget.  It isn’t about a government that wishes to rack up another $1 TRILLION-plus deficit on its way to spending more than $6 TRILLION, roughly a quarter of the nation’s total GDP.  It’s actually about something more sinister.  It’s about “taking out the deep state,” and getting revenge for Trump’s loss in 2020, and making “the state” less effective, and all sorts of other nefariousness:

As he runs again for a second term, Trump is vowing to “dismantle the deep state” and ensure that the government he would inherit aligns with his vision for the country. Unlike during his 2016 campaign, however, Trump and his supporters on the right—including several former high-ranking members of his administration—have developed detailed proposals for executing this plan. Immediately upon his inauguration in January 2025, they would seek to convert thousands of career employees into appointees fireable at will by the president. They would assert full White House control over agencies, including the Department of Justice, that for decades have operated as either fully or partially independent government departments.

Trump’s nearest rivals for the Republican nomination have matched and even exceeded his zeal for gutting the federal government. The businessman Vivek Ramaswamy has vowed to fire as much as 75 percent of the workforce. And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis promised a New Hampshire crowd last month, “We’re going to start slitting throats on day one.”

These plans, as well as the vicious rhetoric directed toward federal employees, have alarmed a cadre of former government officials from both parties who have made it their mission to promote and protect the nonpartisan civil service. They proudly endorse the idea that the government should be composed largely of experienced, nonpolitical employees.

“We’re defenders not of the deep state but of the effective state,” says Max Stier, the CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization devoted to strengthening government and the federal workforce. Trump’s drive to eviscerate this permanent bureaucracy, Stier and other advocates fear, will bring about a return to the early American spoils-and-patronage system, wherein jobs were won through loyalty to a party or president rather than merit, and which the century-old laws that created the modern civil service successfully rooted out.

Over the years, we have run the gamut on stuff like this.  We’ve acknowledged, for example, that the Weberian model of bureaucracy is, thus far, the most effective and efficient means for operating a massive, modern state.  We have also noted, however, that Weber’s “ideal type” was wrong about a number of things, most notably the expectation that bureaucracy is unequivocally and unalterably loyal to its executive, the person ultimately in charge of it, like the president.

Most importantly, we have pointed out (most thoroughly in The Dictatorship of Woke Capital) that the reason Weber was wrong is that he overestimated the ability of the bureaucracy to retain its neutrality.  As it turns out, the idea of an apolitical, value-neutral, non-ideological bureaucratic apparatus is as fanciful as anything that appears in the writing of those other great German sociologists, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.  In the United States in particular, bureaucrats profess to be non-partisan, even as they are encouraged to embrace value-hierarchies.  Indeed, because of the influence of people like Dwight Waldo (and in the words of George Frederickson), the modern bureaucrat is expected to embrace “three lasting themes…: social equity; democratic administration; and proactive, advocating, non-neutral public administration.”

Objectively, bureaucratic neutrality is a fantasy, and its use as a defense of the size and scope of government is demonstrably nonsensical.

In general, we don’t really care much for government shutdowns or even the threat thereof.  They’re kinda stupid politically and, in the long run, they’re also ineffective.

At the same time, the shutdown advocates have a point of the size and cost of government.  This is not part of a grand conspiracy to kill the civil service.  There are real and serious problems with the amount of money the federal government spends AND the things it spends it on.  Consider the following, for example:

In the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, a quarter of employees at the federal government’s top health agency failed to even check their emails as they worked remotely, according to internal documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

An estimated 25 percent of Department of Health and Human Services employees neglected to log on to the agency’s software suite, which includes their email, work files, video conference calls, and other applications needed to perform remote work, according to the internal documents. The report, commissioned by then-HHS chief of staff Brian Harrison, measured employees’ inactivity on a day-to-day basis between March 2020 and December 2020….

This story is sold as a critique of federal “telecommuting” and the Biden Administration’s immediate reversion to work-from-home policies.  We get that, but it’s a much bigger story as well.  Think about it.  We were in the middle of a global pandemic that experts feared would wipe out tens of millions of people (and that DID kill some 6-plus million).  Roughly one-quarter of the employees at the “top health agency” of the most important nation on earth never even bothered to log into their work accounts.  AND NO ONE NOTICED UNTIL A REPORT WAS COMMISSIONED.  It’s not that these HHS employees worked half days or started late and quit early.  It’s not that they took Fridays off or had three-hour, three-martini lunches.  It’s not as if they slacked off a little during a global pandemic.  They NEVER even logged in.  They NEVER did a single thing.  And it didn’t make a lick of difference.

We’re not all that great at math but give us a sec….If we add the sums and move the decimal and carry the one…that tells us that at least 25 percent of the federal health workforce is entirely superfluous, even during a global pandemic.  And that, in turn, suggests that there is plenty of fat to cut in the federal budget.

It also suggests that those who want to make this a story about a grand conspiracy to undermine and destroy the civil service system are looking out for their own interests, not really the interests of the American people.

Which, of course, is the problem in the first place.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.