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Spinning Wheels

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So I’ve been sitting around thinking about that discussion of the  last couple of days–it ended with a “I’m comfortable knowing you’re wrong,” the Internet equivalent of a pout–

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s brought me back to the one thing I find most astonishing about the present state of American (and probably Western) civilization–that really remarkably huge number of people we pay to do work that is of no value at all.

I’m  not just talking about the people we pay to actively harm us, which is what D’s minions are all about.

I’m talking about the millions of people we pay to push duplicate and quadriplicate  pieces of paper around–or their virtual equivalents–that contain information that is of no use to anybody at all, and sometimes that isn’t even real information.

Some of this kind of thing is initiated and mandated by government, but by no means all of it is.  Bureaucracies seem to have a natural life cycle, like species of animals.  They collect “information” and devise elaborate and multilayered “rational processes” almost by instinct.

If I was asked what it was that made me sure that the West was a rich civilization, it wouldn’t be the usual things like the number of televisions and cell phones in poor households or the number of  bathrooms in the average new house.

I would look, instead, at the number of people we are able to support who contributed nothing to this society at all.

And I’m not talking here about people  on welfare or disability payments. 

I’m talking about the legions who do things like collect  statistics on how many people of each race are taking math courses at Stanford, which employees have which credit ratings, what the average weight is in Mississippi, and what colors of house paint are preferred by East Asian immigrants.

Every once in a while it is possible to glimpse the beginnings of a commercial rationale behind some of these requests for “information.” 

If the information on house paint color preferences is being gathered by a company that produces  house paint, it could be used to better target advertising to consumers who would best respond to it, possibly leading to higher sales of house paint and a healther company able to employ more workers.

It is less clear what use there is for that information to the United States Census, or to a sociology professor in Dartmouth, New Hampshire.

To a certain extent, of course, there is in this what I think of as a “neat factor.”

A lot of this information, as useless as it may be in any practical sense, is just sort of neat to know.  Black homeowners are more likely to paint their houses red than white homeowners?  Gee, cool!

Some of what seems to be going on–especially in government departments–is a kind of jobs program. 

We have convinced a generation (or two) of Americans that a college education is the key to a “good” job, and that a “good” job is by definition not a blue collar job. 

Then we  have pushed more and more of them through “college” programs that are not in fact college programs, leaving them with t he expectation that they deserve to have “good” jobs in an office somewhere.

A society that has such a large group of people in it and does nothing to diffuse the anger that will be caused by their not finding such jobs is in big trouble.  Almost all the young Muslim men who opt for radical Islam and start blowing things up belong to just that cohort–they cannot find employment, income or status that fits their idea of what their education entitles them to.

In the US and some of the other Anglophone countries, this situation is exacerbated by an affirmative action system that virtually guarantees that an outsized proportion of minority students can’t get a high school education no matter how talented they are or how hard they try.

High schools can hide their incredible incompetence behind stats that say they graduated x percentage and got y percentage into “college,” a set of numbers that would not look nearly so good if we were to compare, instead, actual skill levels.

And that same circumstance drives some of the make work in private organizations and corporations. 

If the EEOC is looking over your shoulder, and “disparate impact” is the standard by which you  will be judged to be discriminating or not, the better part of valor may easily be to do what you have to to get your numbers up.  make work jobs with carefully constructed lists if “responsibilities” that do not actually impact the bottom line or the organization’s mission.

But in the end, the most curious t hing about all of this is the fact that these explanations do not in any way explain t he entire phenomenon.

I have always taken it as a given that in any society run even half right, every single person in it would be capable of finding not just employment, but actually useful employment.

It seems to me absolutely obvious that there is so much that really needs to be done–bridges and roads built and repaired, refrigerators manufactured and serviced, cancer cured, novels written, you name it–

Anyway, that there was so much of that stuff out there to do, there should be no need for make work jobs for anybody.  That there should be no need to waste people.

And  yet wasting people is what we’re doing, hundreds of thousands of them, day after day, year after year. 

They do jobs that are not only  meaningless in some cosmic sense, but that are meaningless in fact.  Or they don’t do any jobs at all, and spend their time sitting on front stoops or at kitchen tables.

Sometimes I wonder if this happens because we’ve planned badly or operated badly, or if we’ve gotten to a point in our technological development that we literally have no use for certain kinds of people–that we have jobs that need to be done, but that the people available do not have the native intelligence or talent that would make them capable of doing it.

One of my sons is an enormous fan of a series of science fiction  novels that includes, for a while, a planet called The People’s Republic of Haven. 

In the People’s Republic of Haven, there are two kinds of people:  the administrators, and the Doles.  The administrators run everything and do every kind of work.  The Doles live off government social provision and do nothing else.

It seems to me that that cannot be a good way to live.  No matter  how generous the provision, there is something wrong in a life that has nothing in it but sort of diddling around satisfiying bodily needs and drifting aimlessly into death.

I’ve heard people on the Internet say that this is indeed what they want, that they resent working and want a world where no one would have to.

Maybe they  have some of those make work jobs that give them no real place in the world in spite of their salaries and their benefits.

I couldn’t imagine living that way myself.

Written by janeh

May 27th, 2013 at 10:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

14 Responses to 'Spinning Wheels'

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  1. This goes off in a LOT of different directions.

    SF first. Yes, I know Weber’s “Peeps” a little–and the Star Kingdom of Manticore, their opponents. I’m better acquainted with David Drake’s Alliance of Free Stars, in which all citizens are equal, but Guarantor Porra is a LOT more equal, and the Fifth Directorate makes sure everyone is happy with that–or dead. The good guys in that case are the officers of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy–the Republic being a blend of the Republic and 18th Century Britain. Go back just a bit, and you hit Jerry Pourelle’s CoDominium with its “citizens” (on welfare) and “taxpayers” (middle and upper middle classes.) Real power is held by the bureaucracy and the corrupt Grand Senate. It doesn’t even have an opponent. The Codominium will fall apart and be replaced with the Empire of Man. So three of the better and more popular SF writers of recent years have suggested that our present individual and centralized state model will come to no good end, and that intermediaries between the central government and the state may not be a bad idea. Except for Poul Anderson (“No Truce with Kings”) this would have been unprecedented before 1973 (Pournelle) and both Weber and Drake began their series in the 1990’s. In a way, it’s a serious vote of no confidence–as when Soviet citizens started talking of “the Revolution” and meant the next one.

    Numbers. Collecting numbers CAN be harmless and even useful, but isn’t always. In my last days as a sort of Federal worker in a cubicle, I calculated that between a sixth and a quarter of the cubicle-level manpower was consumed answering fool questions–by which I meant the ones not needed to make a decision. If what we were doing was useful, that was a serious drag–and NO ONE above cubicle level did anything but ask fool questions, hold meetings and sometimes reorganize. (Of course, every reorganization made the previous fool questions even more irrelevant.) Some of this might be a desire to make a job to fill a quota of some sort, but much more often it was bosses who neither knew nor cared what effect a casual question might have on production. The same could be said of the frequent pointless meetings.
    The broader question. My first thought is that darn near everyone can do something useful, and we’re pumping our own gas and shining our own shoes because the people who used to pump gas and shine shoes for us are more productive doing something else. But I’m not sure I’m right, so I’m at least not opposed to and am sometimes am in favor of restroom attendants and laws forbidding self-service gas stations. The dignity of labor ought not to be an empty phrase, and I’m very sure people are the better for being paid to do something rather than being paid to do nothing.
    The trick, as you say, is not to pay them to do something actually harmful. Many people are not doing the work they feel they are worth, or the work they would prefer. Sometimes the rest of us can only be grateful.


    27 May 13 at 2:47 pm

  2. I don’t think you can have a large complex civilization without the paper-pushers. Someone has to organize things and see to it that the right payments are (at least mostly) sent to the right people at the right time. The trick is to not let the whole system get clogged down with a kind of paper atherosclerosis or, at the other extreme, become dangerously powerful in its own right. Personally, I think that the first possiblity is far more likely than the second.

    Some of the clogging-up is undoubtedly due to new regulations intended to change human nature so that the society envisioned by the proponents of such regulations comes to pass, as has been said many times. A lot it useful work of the sort that gets building codes enforced, snowplow operators hired and scheduled and so on ad infinitum. the process can even maintain educational standards, if used properly. But there’s also a conviction in some circles that we MUST be able to prove, in a court of law if necessary, that we’ve always done the RIGHT THING. It’s not enough, to use the educational example, to have graduating students demonstrate that they can write an essay or figure out if a bridge is safe or fill a tooth. There has to be immmense bodies of paperwork assembled to document exactly what was done in each class and nit-pick to such an extent that the administration and paperwork gets in the way of the object of the exercise. Everyone is spending days and days documenting their program in hopes of showing that if their graduate’s bridge falls down, it’s not their fault for failing to educate the person. I don’t know if the problem is fear of litigation in a society that resorts to it easily but in which many people can’t afford to hire a lawyer, or a genuine belief that we can have a perfect world if only we document every step we take, and follow up on the mis-steps, but either way, a lot of people are working at stuff which everyone finds essential, but which maybe isn’t, not really.

    K-12 is a bit different, of course, especially where they don’t have a good common public exam system, which is just about everywhere. Part of the problem there is that the idea that you go to school to learn to read and write and do math and science is terribly outmoded, and the schools are trying to do the impossible like develop human potential without actually defining what developed potential they’re trying to achieve, much less how you can measure it.


    27 May 13 at 4:52 pm

  3. Cheryl, we can have both–a bureaucracy capable of crushing everything AND of demanding huge amounts of useless information while it does it. Notice the persistent pattern though: no one says “the bridge must hold X weight” or “here is the test, and the students must score YYY to graduate.” It’s the endless supervision of method, combined with counting by race sex and whatever, which generates the bulk of the forms. It’s the shift from outcome to process that’s the killer.


    27 May 13 at 6:03 pm

  4. You may be right, but I don’t think a large society can operate without bureaucracy – the only alternative I can think of is the system by which decisions are made by personal fiat of whoever is in charge, which works best in groups that are so small that one person can keep tabs on everything – and also assumes that the one person is clever enough to make the right decisions and also to avoid causing conflict by favouritism and corruption.

    So how do you reduce the risks due to bureaucracy, assuming you want to live in a large stable society that is to big and complex to be run by a single person?


    27 May 13 at 6:33 pm

  5. Oh, any society above village level needs a bureaucracy. Even the Big Man needs eyes and ears–and enforcers. And that’s one of the dangers: your bureaucracy may only be a way of implementing one man’s will, though I’m not sure that’s actually worse than a bureaucracy with a will of its own.

    But what you want is no more rules and regulations, or record-keeping than are strictly necessary to achieve your objectives. Logically, you monitor results and not methods. In the years following WWII, the Governor of Hong Kong had NO ONE trying to keep track of immigration rates, income distribution and what have you. It was his job to collect taxes, protect the population from force and fraud, and provide water, sewerage education and paved roads. Those were his responsibility, and those he monitored, rightly figuring that if he got those right the population and incomes, when someone took the time and trouble to measure them, would be rising.

    There are three dangers, and we’ve fallen into all three; the bureaucracy as the tool of a central power implementing the will of the Big Man; the bureaucracy which has become a power and interest of its own, interested in long complex laws and regulations because these work out really well for the bureaucrats; and the desire to regulate EVERYTHING because otherwise something might not be fair, or at least not be properly recorded. None of these three are necessary to a well-ordered state, and by and large we didn’t have them as of 1900,when we were already a continental nation with a population of more than 100,000,000. But we have more than enough now to make up for that.

    I’m sorry. That was a diatribe. The short answer is that you keep only the minimum necessary records–the census, say, court and police records and screening would-be immigrants for health and sanity. And you regulate only what MUST be regulated, always for results and not methods. “Meat sold in a market must be safe for human consumption,” say, and then you spot-check the meat, not “meat must be processed by Method X” and certainly not “meat sold in the market must be accompanied by Certificate Y.”

    Picture replacing the entire educational bureaucracy with a requirement that certain scores be achieved to be a high school and a college graduate, and checking to make sure this happens. Or replacing 2,000+ pages of Gramm-Rudman with 40 pages of Glass-Steagal. Any nation needs a bureaucracy. No nation needs the bureaucracy we now have.


    27 May 13 at 8:31 pm

  6. I’m sorry, Robert, but I think that methodology IS important, otherwise we have the trains running on time by shooting the engineers who don’t make schedule.

    As for meat inspection, if you can’t document the source of contaminated meat to search it out and eliminate it before it’s distributed, you’ve now required enough personnel to inspect each market or processing plant EVERY DAY. Or maybe it was the truck that shipped it, failing refrigeration. There is justification for SOME documentation, even of methodology. If it actually promotes efficiency of coverage and reduces the need for staffing, thus reducing the size of the bureaucracy.

    However, we’ve got shenanigans going on now that are beyond bizarre. Thousands of pages in a bill that no one has read. Anonymously introduced “riders” that create whole new bureaucracies that no legislator has read or discussed or voted on. Rule by “regulation” bypassing the lawmaking process, sausage-fest that it is.

    I think if we limited all bills to no longer than the Constitution (plus Bill of Rights) by word-count, limited them to ONE law at a time, and put a time limit on every regulation before it must be reviewed and ratified by the appropriate legislature, we’d be better off. I pick the Constitution, because we got a whole government out of it. Ought to be enough for a single law.

    Focusing less on method and only collecting data directly affecting the mission of the agency (not anyone *else’s* mission) would also help.


    27 May 13 at 10:55 pm

  7. “I’m sorry, Robert, but I think that methodology IS important, otherwise we have the trains running on time by shooting the engineers who don’t make schedule.”

    Umm, and this is a bad thing, Lymaree? Why? :-)


    27 May 13 at 11:53 pm

  8. Well, I suspect you’d discourage engineering students altogether, and eventually end up having no one to run the trains, Mique. If your goal is to have trains, that is. If your goal is to eliminate trains, you’ve done well.

    It all depends on your objective. ;)


    28 May 13 at 2:27 am

  9. Hehe. I agree with both of you, actually. Your problem and ours is the self-perpetuation and uncontrolled growth of bureaucracies. Every significant organisation, private or public, has them but only private organisations, ie non-government, have the freedom to prune theirs as needs be.

    My favourite example is the Australian government’s rationing bureau that continued to exist for years after the end of World War II when any realistic need for rationing, or the organisation, had long since disappeared. The government of the day, a Labor government, lost the 1948 election partly because it could not take the hard line of disbanding the organisation and throwing government employees out of work. There are plenty of similar examples around today.


    28 May 13 at 3:15 am

  10. I’m sure every blank on every form has a bureaucrat convinced he might want the information someday. Like the rest of us, they should learn to live with disappointment. Go down to your local gas station. Every pump has a little certificate from the local weights and measures people, who came by and checked that a gallon of gas in a standard container showed as a gallon on the pump. If it doesn’t it becomes the station’s job to investigate what went wrong and fix it, so they be allowed to sell gas again.

    Close down a shop for selling unsafe products, not for lacking a Form XYZ. If you do the reverse, you’ll get two bad results: first, having a valid Form XYZ will become a defense when you sell unsafe products, and–even worse in the long term–bureaucrats will become a weapon, used first to extort money, then to punish the political opposition–can you say “les Paul?”–then to keep competitors–especially the ones with new ideas–out of the market place. (“I don’t say your product isn’t safe, but it’s not built in compliance with Form XYZ.”)
    As for shooting the engineer, may I suggest that for ANY system to work, power and responsibility have to be commensurate? Someone has to be in charge, and to be held accountable when things go wrong. An over-powerful bureaucracy is designed to avoid responsibility, but we can’t avoid the consequences of that lack of accountability. (Can you say “Katrina?” How “Solyndra?” Maybe “Benghazi?”)

    Ah! On the earlier notion that the alternative to bureaucracy was one-man rule–contemplate where Hitler and Stalin would be without their respective bureaucracies. Bureaucrats are NECESSARY for one-man rule.


    28 May 13 at 8:04 am

  11. No one’s saying that bureaucrats aren’t necessary for one-man rule in any society larger than a very small tribe. The question is, as with so many other forces in society, how to ensure they’re more useful than harmful, and that’s not where I’m hearing any specific solutions.

    Form XYZ can be quite useful, too. I see them all the time, letting me know that the elevator and the restaurant kitchen have been inspected fairly recently. Like bureaucrats, it all depends on how they’re used.

    And of course they’re no better than the system behind it. Up in Ontario, an engineer is now finding out what happens when you certify a building as safe (helpfully deleting a photo of the internal structure at the request of the building’s owner) shortly before the roof collapsed. It was a shopping mall – but not crowded, so only two people were killed. Still, the tale of that building’s inspections and responses to complaints from the tenants was shocking.

    Yes, you need responsibilty and someone to take that when the bureaucratic system doesn’t quite manage to control the carelessness (if not worse) of the peopel actually in charge of public buildings. No system works perfectly, but I can’t think of a useful replacement to some level of bureaucracy.


    28 May 13 at 10:59 am

  12. I have repeatedly said some measure of bureaucracy is necessary for a nation-state. I have also said that it has to be MINIMAL, and oriented towards outcomes and not process, lest it choke out everything else. It’s like weeding a garden: trimming a bureaucracy has to be done regularly, and saying “well something has to be grown in the garden” doesn’t speak to the issue.


    28 May 13 at 4:46 pm

  13. The devil’s in the details, though, and I’m wondering just what pruning mechanism you’d recommend. Ideally, I suppose, it would be the executive branch of the government of course, but that doesn’t seem to be working from what I think you’re saying.

    Or is it the case that both the bureaucrats and the executive branch are responding in turn to changes in the underlying culture and philosophy, in which case there’s not much to be done other than hope rather selfishly that it’s a case of apres moi, le deluge (and I can’t do the accents here).


    28 May 13 at 6:00 pm

  14. It SHOULD be the executive branch, of course, and we can keep voting out executives until one of them does his job–but this also is why all these agencies have to be funded by the legislature, why Jane rightly worries about their ability to make what amounts to law–and why we have the right to rebel.
    Process and outcome. In my distant youth–c. 1974–I once watched a training section fail an inspection because the records were maintained on a computer. Even then, it was perfectly proper by regulation but the inspector hadn’t seen it before, and he wanted paper.
    But Form XYZ, centered on process, is always the enemy of innovation. The form doesn’t say the milk must be safe to drink, but that it must have been pasteurized, and heaven help the firm that irradiates. It doesn’t say the floor has to bear X weight, but that the supporting wooden beams be 10″ square. Balloon framing? Steel? What be those? But quite apart from hidebound traditionalism, think how USEFUL a procedure-oriented bureaucracy is to a current firm keeping upstarts off the market.
    Big firms and big unions–who are also big donors–really love extensive, procedure-oriented bureaucracies. There’s a reason for this.
    If the whole system weren’t brought down from time to time, bronze would never have been replaced by experimental, risky iron.


    29 May 13 at 2:01 pm

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