Posts tagged ‘technocracy’

A Couple of Nice Observations on Technocracy and Budgets

From South Bend Seven come a couple of comments I liked today.  The first was on the Left and current budget plans:

If I was on the Left I would look at these figures and then begin to think long and hard about whether knee-jerk opposition to things like Medicare block grants or defined-contribution public pensions is such a good idea. The biggest threat to redistribution to the poor is existing redistribution to the old.

To the last sentence, I would add "and redistribution to upper middle class public sector workers."  I am constantly amazed at the Left's drop-dead defense of above-market pay and benefits for public sector workers.  This already reduces funding for things like actual classroom instruction and infrastructure improvements, and almost certainly the looming public pension crisis will reduce resources for an array of programs much loved by the Left.

The second observation relates to a favorite topic of mine, on technocracy:

Often enough I think "you know, we need more scientists in charge of things." Then I remember that the scientists we get are Steven Chu and I think "yeah, maybe not so much."

Then I think about all the abominable committee meetings and discussion sessions I've been in with scientists and I think "perhaps best not to put scientists in charge."

Then I look over at my bookshelf, notice my cope of The Machinery of Freedom, and think "why are we putting anybody in charge at all?"

If this Administration has any one theme, it is a total confidence that a few people imposing solutions and optimizations top-down  is superior to bottom-up or emergent solutions.   Even the recent memo on targeted killings reflects this same philosophy, that one man with a few smart people in the White House can make better life-or-death decisions than all that messy stuff with courts and lawyers.   Those of us who understand our Hayek know that superior top-down decision-making is impossible, given that the decision-makers can never have the information or incentives to make the best decisions for complex systems, and because they tend to impose one single objective function when in fact we are a nation of individuals with 300 million different objective functions.  But the drone war / targeted killing memo demonstrates another problem:  technocrats hate due process.   Due process for them is just time-wasting review by lesser mortals of their decisions.  Just look at how Obama views Congress, or the courts.

Top Down vs. Bottom Up

I have written any number of times on the technocratic-statist urge to overturn emergent order that is created bottom up in favor of imposing their own top-down vision of how society should run.  The following is from David Mamet via Mathew Shaffer (hat tip Maggies Farm) and is a nice synopsis of this mindset

The problem is that “the Left today is essentially an elitist movement, and it has invested a lot of time and money in the idea that they know better.” Elites have been led to think “by getting the grades, and getting into good schools and think-tanks and government positions that they are fit” to reorder society more rationally. But this requires first demolishing the order produced by the organic processes of tradition, democracy, and markets — the culture. Why are some so susceptible to this fatal conceit? “They get out of elite schools being told nothing but, ‘You’re the best.’” Hubris — a dramatist’s area of expertise.

More good stuff, from the same interview

“There is no secret knowledge. The Federal Government is really the zoning board writ large,” he writes. What does that mean? He explains to me: “Mark Twain famously said, ‘God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.’ The zoning board is like that — they’re just a bunch of people with power. Some are good, some are bad. But they gotta be watched like hawks, because power corrupts.” So “secret knowledge” is a Hayekian insight wrapped up like a Talmudic paradox. The secret is there is no secret — no special caste has the knowledge or goodness, inaccessible to the rest of us, to order society. Hence Mamet’s skepticism of technocracy and his preference for order created from the democratic and disaggregated processes of the marketplace.

And here is one more nice quote from Mamet, a while ago in the Village Voice

in the abstract, we may envision an Olympian perfection of perfect beings in Washington doing the business of their employers, the people, but any of us who has ever been at a zoning meeting with our property at stake is aware of the urge to cut through all the pernicious bullshit and go straight to firearms.

On Running GM

It strikes me GM has at least four problems that led to its bankruptcy:

  • Tendency to give too much away to the UAW, both in $ and work rules concessions
  • Uninspired design largely out of contact with consumers
  • Operational processes that produce way too many errors
  • Bloated, expensive, and slow bureaucracy

It is astoundingly hard to see how federal government ownership of GM will fix any of these.   The Obama intervention in the bankruptcy has been one long giveaway to the UAW, and it is already clear that any radical or painful restructuring steps will be muddled in the political process.  What we really needed were innovative radicals swooping in a picking up assets in bankruptcy, to be run in totally new ways.  What we get instead are 31-year-old grad students with no experience in automobiles or any other business enterprise calling the shots:

It is not every 31-year-old who, in a first government job, finds himself dismantling General Motors and rewriting the rules of American capitalism.

But that, in short, is the job description for Brian Deese, a not-quite graduate of Yale Law School who had never set foot in an automotive assembly plant until he took on his nearly unseen role in remaking the American automotive industry."¦

But now, according to those who joined him in the middle of his crash course about the automakers' downward spiral, he has emerged as one of the most influential voices in what may become President Obama's biggest experiment yet in federal economic intervention.

While far more prominent members of the administration are making the big decisions about Detroit, it is Mr. Deese who is often narrowing their options.

I can say this will end poorly with some confidence, as I too at 31 found myself to be a smart but inexperienced guy advising Fortune 50 CEOs for McKinsey & Co.  I am embarrassed to this day at the solutions we used to push that blinded us with their elegance but turned out to make no sense in the real world.

The Obama administration reminds me of nothing so much as a grad school policy seminar suddenly finding itself running a government.   All that naive technocratic hubris we once kept safely bottled away in Cambridge and New Haven has been released to wreck havok on the real world.

For more, read my previous work on why GM should fail, and try to see if anything proposed to day gets at the issues discussed.  At the end of the day, what those in the Obama Administration and their many supporters fail to understand is the very basic concept of how wealth and value get created, and how this relates to the deployment of assets.  I won't go into depth on this topic today, but suffice it to say that pumping a trillion dollars or so of government borrowing into the least well-managed institutions in the country is not a recipe for growth.

Update: George Will has more.

But one reason Amtrak runs on red ink is that legislators treat it as their toy train set, preventing it from cutting egregiously unprofitable routes. Will Congress passively accept auto plant-closing decisions? Rattner says that Washington's demure vow is: "No plant decisions, no dealer decisions, no color-of-the-car decisions." He is one-third right. Last week, under the headline "Senators Blast Automakers Over Dealer Closings," The Post reported, "Because the federal government is slated to own most of General Motors and 8 percent of Chrysler, some of the senators said they have a responsibility, as major shareholders do, to review company decisions."

With the help of the California legislature, we can make it three out of three, as California is mulling legislation to ban certain car colors to stop global warming (lol).

Update #2:  More on the Chrysler shotgun wedding with Fiat.

Thanks, Government

The US Government requires that garage door openers include an electric eye system that prevents the door from closing if the beam is broken.  Unfortunately, given dirty garages, it is really easy for this beam to be blocked by dust and such.  Two years ago, the beam system caused my door to go back up without my knowledge (I just hit the button and went inside) and as a result our garage was robbed that night. 

This time of year is especially frustrating for us.  My garage faces south, so the low sun this time of year overwhelms the electric eye system in most garage doors and causes them to refuse to close.  It is hugely frustrating, and a real security issue.  I glued tubes around each eye to try to shade the sun, but it is still working erratically.  I spent much of last weekend trying to figure out how to bypass the system electrically but I could not make it work.  Finally, I have had enough.  I have spent ten times the cost of the garage door opener in stolen goods and my personal time fighting this stupid device.  Tonight I am going to remove the two eyes and just mount them facing each other on a wall so I don't have to worry about them any more.  Unless someone can come up with a better solution. 

In my mind this is a classic example of government technocracy -- someone decided for us that we should value a minuscule increase in safety over a substantial reduction in security.

Another Take on Disasters and Government

I gave my take on why this Katrina disaster does not somehow validate statist technocracy, as has been argued, here and here.  I am willing to admit that Colby Cosh says it better:

So let's just recap briefly, shall we? We've got a million or so human beings
living in a low-lying area created in the first place by government engineers.
The local government of New Orleans, apprised of an approaching storm, summarily
orders everybody out of the city about 36 hours too late without lifting a
finger to provide the means to do so. At the last minute it occurs to somebody
to herd those left behind into a large government-built structure, the
Superdome; no supplies are on hand for its inhabitants, and the structure itself
is rendered--according to the government's assessment--permanently useless. Even
though the storm misses the city, government-built levees fail in unforeseen and
catastrophic ways. Many of the New Orleans cops opportunistically quit their
jobs, many more simply fail to show up for work, others take the lead in looting
supplies from storm-stricken neighbourhoods, and just a few have the notable
good grace to shoot themselves in the head. The federal government announces
that assistance is on its way, sometime; local and state authorities--who have
the clear-cut burden of "first response" under federal guidelines nobody seems
to have read--beg for the feds to hurry up while (a) engaging in bureaucratic
pissing-matches behind the scenes and (b) making life difficult for the private
agencies who are beating the feds to the scene. Eventually the federal
government shows up with the National Guard, and to the uniform indignation and
surprise of those who have been screaming for it, the Guard turns out to have a
troubling tendency to point weapons in the general direction of civilians and
reporters. I'm not real clear on who starts doing what around mid-week, but the
various hydra-heads of government start developing amusing hobbies; confiscating
guns from civilians, demanding that photographers stop documenting the aftermath
of America's worst natural disaster in a century, enforcing this demand by
seizing cameras at gunpoint, shutting down low-power broadcasting stations in
shelters, and stealing supplies from relief agencies and private citizens. In
the wake of all this, there is probably no single provision of the U.S.
Constitution left untrampled, the Posse Comitatus Act appears destined for a
necktie party, and the 49% of Americans who have been complaining for five years
about George W. Bush being a dictator are now vexed to the point of utter
incoherence because for the last fortnight he has failed to do a sufficiently
convincing impression of a dictator.