Businessmen and bureaucrats

Published 9:28 pm Thursday, February 1, 2007

This just in: “Bureaucrats Slower, Less Efficient Than Capitalists.”

Hard to digest, I know. Yet consider the front-page account in the Wall Street Journal of the recovery process after Hurricane Katrina wiped out two bridges connecting the Mississippi towns of Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian.

“Sixteen months later,” notes the Journal’s Christopher Cooper, “the automobile bridge remains little more than pilings. The railroad bridge is busy with trains. The difference: The still-wrecked bridge is owned by the U.S. government. The other is owned by railroad giant CSX Corp. of Jacksonville, Fla. Within weeks of Katrina’s landfall, CSX dispatched construction crews to fix the freight line; six months later, the bridge reopened. Even a partial reopening of the road bridge, part of U.S. Highway 90, is at least five months away.”

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The Journal story goes on: delays, delays, delays, all across the region; growing frustration among citizens; “spools of red tape spawned by a bevy of old and new government procedures.” I might argue, picayunishly, that fish and suchlike get “spawned,” whereas tape spools get manufactured. The point would remain: Government efficiency is a contradiction. It wasn’t private enterprise that gave us the invaluable acronym SNAFU: “Situation Normal — All Fouled Up.”

The reason is, private enterprise ponders, decides, acts. Government ponders, asks for studies, distributes forms for filling out, ponders, holds hearings, ponders, hands out new forms, ponders…

It is the way of things, like cracked ground in a drought, like spaghetti sauce on white shirts. We should be used to it by now. Yet with each election cycle come the repeated avowals of government’s unparalleled efficiency in solving all our problems.

We are inevitably in such a cycle now. The government — by which I mean the establishment that comprises both political parties — has plans to give everyone generous health care, make energy ample and cheap (well, cheaper) and minister to a supposedly overheating environment. All while doing everything else we could want, such as promoting good education. I think the indicated response is: Oh, yeah? Democratic government is probably a good thing, under the aspect of eternity, but the less we see of it, and the more we see of private initiative and creativity, the better we’re likely to appreciate the results.

The Bush administration has caught a hurricane of grief and ridicule for the government response to Katrina. The rock-bottom question, I think, really isn’t: Where did the Bush White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency go wrong? It’s, instead, would the Clinton White House have done better? Or the earlier Bush White House? Yes, who might have done better, given the storm’s extraordinary dimensions, New Orleans’ extraordinary moral-cultural decay and the genetic inefficiencies of bureaucracy?

“Antifraud rules,” the Journal glumly notes, “slowed tasks as basic as ditch-digging” in Bay St. Louis. Paperwork and approvals were just part of it. There were also surprise inspections to make sure no featherbedding went on. “Start to finish,” says the Journal, “it took just over a year to complete a job that involved only about a month of shovel work.”

The Journal’s story is a depressing chronicle of overlapping, often competing, procedures and concerns on government’s part. We conclude that, indeed, the U.S. government wants to do this job right. It just can’t. At disaster relief, and most other things, government is elephantine compared to the more nimble, less inhibited private sector, whose constituency is customers, whose aim is customer satisfaction.

Here’s the moral. Take any domestic problem on the table this year — for starters, health, energy efficiency, energy supply, college costs, public school quality. The government is going to sort it out? As Eliza Doolittle so memorably put it, not bloody likely!

Not with interest groups to placate, appropriations to pass, approvals to secure, and forms — yes, forms — to fill out and read and re-read and pass on and return for review and re-review. We weren’t really wanting to use that bridge anyway, were we?