Category Archive 'Bureaucracy'

12 Mar 2023

California: Our Dystopian Future!

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Matthew Crawford finds his home state evolved into the classic Third World kleptocracy.

I grew up in California, moved away in the early Nineties, and moved back in 2019. One of the new things I noticed upon my return was small signs stuck to the side of a car, or printed on posterboard and erected on a street corner, advertising “DMV services”. After some intercourse with a few of these, always conducted in halting, heavily accented English, I came to understand that these entrepreneurs are “fixers”, a species that most Americans are unacquainted with. If you want to get something done in the developing world, you often need to engage the services of a fixer. This is someone who has connections in the bureaucracy, often by virtue of kinship. Being a naïve visitor without connections, you couldn’t possibly know whom to bribe, how to approach them, or what forms must be observed. These things must be accomplished with delicacy. You, brainwashed to believe in the Weberian version of bureaucracy as impersonal rationality, are too naive to navigate a real one in most parts of the world. Too European.

They say California is the future. However that may be, the state has become more like the rest of the world, less like the erstwhile United States. The old European ways of procedure-following are anomalous, and perhaps never made a lot of sense. Or maybe they made sense only within a framework provided by something like Calvinism, Prussian organisation, ecclesiastical administration, or some similarly ascetic institutional morality that is “no respecter of persons”. By contrast, ties of kinship are easy to grasp, more robust, and make sense to more of the world’s peoples as the ground of cooperation, particularly in societies where the clan may be as far as trust extends.

I was very happy to have found my way to Smog Lady. I spotted her 20 minutes after I arrived at the parking lot. She was making her rounds, leaning into cars through the driver’s side window. Finally she approached me: a toothless matron who spoke only Chinese beyond a few key words in English such as “odometer” and “VIN number”. I noticed she had a large wad of cash in her hand. I gave her my $200. She then got in her car and drove out of the parking lot. I had a moment of panic, thinking I had just been ripped off. But sure enough, 30 minutes later she came back with my fraudulent smog certificate.

The Berkeley historian Yuri Slezkine coined the term “service nomads” for distinct peoples, typically itinerant or diaspora, who perform functions within a society that can only be done by outsiders. That is because these functions, though indispensable, are shady in one way or another and can’t be openly avowed as necessary. Things such as usury (that is, providing credit), burying the dead, magic, puppeteering, prostitution, peddling, cobbling, knife sharpening, dispute mediation and all manner of border-crossing and go-between work that allows the principals to negotiate without losing face or being compromised.

Every society has such liminal populations (gypsies, Jains, Travellers, the “overseas Chinese,” the Sheikh Mohammadi of eastern Afghanistan) who develop some kind of “transgressor expertise”. They must keep themselves apart, as integration into the bonds of reciprocity and communal honour would make their trade impossible. As Slezkine lays out: they are regarded as unclean, and in turn they guard their own purity against contamination by the host population, from intermarriage, say, or simply by accepting hospitality from them. Dietary restrictions and other taboos of self-segregation serve to keep the boundary intact. They speak their own language, and may pretend not to understand the host language.

At first blush, the providers of DMV services appear to fit Slezkine’s description of “service nomads”. But that concept only makes sense when framed against a surrounding society that is settled and cohesive, with taken-for-granted norms that secure a basic solidarity among the host population. Without such a background of belonging, and therefore communal honour to uphold, there would seem to be no need for a separate population and social type invested in transgressor expertise. California has become a polyglot of unrelated diasporas, opportunity-seekers, guest workers, tech Brahmins and multiple-passport-holding functionaries posted to the Pacific Rim economic zone. It is more like the bar scene in Star Wars than like Tolkien’s Shire. We are all wanderers.


18 Oct 2019

Why I Now Support Trump

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Guys like George Will and Bill Kristol ought to read this USAToday article and wake up.

All Andy Johnson wanted to do was build a pond.

Andy, a welder, and his wife, Katie, have four girls and a small farm in Wyoming, and they needed a place for their horses and cattle to drink and graze.

Working with state engineers, Andy and Katie spent hours, as well as most of their savings, constructing the pond, filling it with filtered water, providing a habitat for trout, ducks, herons, moose and bald eagles.

Approximately two years later, the project came to a screeching halt when bureaucrats from the Environmental Protection Agency knocked on Johnson’s door, informing him that, by building a pond on his own property without their permission, he had violated the Clean Water Act.

And so began a years-long back and forth between Johnson and the EPA, with Johnson presenting documentation from the state showing that his stock pond was exempt from the Clean Water Act and studies that showed his pond provided positive environmental benefits. The EPA, however, claimed that the rocks, sand and concrete Johnson used to create the dam and spillway were pollutants.

And the EPA — an agency in possession of armed enforcement — was not about to let Johnson live peacefully with his pond. He had 90 days to rip out the pond and fill it in or be subject to $16 million in fines.

Though he likely didn’t know it, Johnson was in good company.

In 2007, Mike and Chantell Sackett were threatened by the EPA with $75,000 a day in fines for trying to build a house on their own property, across the road and 500 feet away from Priest Lake in Idaho.

Charles Johnson, a Massachusetts cranberry farmer, spent millions of dollars fighting the agency for 22 years for the right to farm his own land. He finally settled in 2012, at the age of 80.

Kevin Lunny lost his family’s oyster company in California when the Department of the Interior granted itself limitless discretion to reissue the required permit and argued that Lunny didn’t have the right to sue.

In Alaska, the Army Corps of Engineers denied Richard Schok the ability to expand his pipe fabrication business when they claimed that permafrost — the subsurface layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year — was actually a wetland.

All of these cases share a common feature: They arose from unelected bureaucrats making completely selective decisions about how a law should be interpreted and enforced, without the oversight or input of Congress or the public.

In bureaucrat-speak, these decisions are often referred to as “guidance documents” or “advisory opinions” and represent an agency’s way of “interpreting” regulations and statutes.

But unlike formal regulations, guidance documents simply arise from an agency’s whim. There is no transparent process with statutory requirements for ample legal justifications, cost benefit analysis and a process for public comment and assessment.

Rather, agency bureaucrats simply decide that a policy will exist, and then will it to life. They are then free to enforce it on unsuspecting Americans, who often have little clue that such a document or policy even exists.

The subjective, secretive nature of the process has led one critic to deem it “regulatory dark matter.”

This “government by memo” is how the Obama administration effectively mandated that colleges lower the burden of proof in sexual assault tribunals on their campuses in 2011.

Two years later, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a bulletin informing that auto lenders would be liable for racial discrimination based on the makeup of their lending portfolios.

In 2015, the Department of Labor upended the entire labor market with a blog post announcing it was now classifying some independent contractors as full-time employees.

This type of murky, unclear, bureaucrat-driven style of regulating is exactly what Americans fear from the administrative state. It is, essentially, bullying by the government. Indeed, in the Sackett case, the EPA claimed the couple did not even have the right to challenge the agency’s finding in court. (The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the agency in 2012.)

The Trump administration is taking welcome steps to stop the bureaucratic bullying. With the signing of two executive orders last week, the administration is requiring that these guidance documents be subject to transparent formulation and notice before enforcement. Critically, these orders also make sure ordinary Americans have the ability to challenge the government’s determination against them.


11 Feb 2019

Stonehenge, 5000 Years Later

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“the narrative that Stonehenge has been ruined by mass tourism goes back a long way. Even Samuel Pepys complained of being ripped off by shepherds and innkeepers.”

Viewing Stonehenge is currently disrupted by the roar of traffic and the glare of headlights after dusk, but moving the road north or south has issues and putting it underneath the site in a tunnel has been found to be too expensive.

Even celebratory ceremonies always seem to go wrong.

The Guardian looks at the plethora of controversies currently raging round the landmark.

To celebrate the millennium, an ill-fated project, funded with £100,000 from the national lottery, attempted to re-enact the fetching of a single three-tonne dolerite bluestone from Wales to Wiltshire. The original plan was for volunteers, some 40 a day, to wear “‘appropriate clothing’ of skins and furs”. But that had to be abandoned for safety reasons, according to Mike Pitts’ book Hengeworld – and many of the volunteers drifted away, disenchanted by the awful task. After eventually loading the boulder on to a boat at Milford Haven, from where it was meant to travel up the Bristol channel, a frisky wind saw it tumble into the sea. At this point it was rescued, using the un-neolithic technology of a crane, and transported on a flatbed truck to the botanical gardens in Carmarthenshire, 140 miles from Stonehenge, where it remains. As a spokesman for Pembrokeshire council remarked at the time: “Stone-age man never had the health-and-safety people looking over his shoulder.”


19 Oct 2018

Ramesses II’s 1976 Passport

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Pharaoh Ramesses II’s Egyptian passport, issued in 1974 for passage to France nearly three millennia after his death.

In order to leave the country, Egypt required anyone leaving the country, living or dead, to have the proper papers. Seemingly the first mummy to receive one, Ramesses had his occupation listed as “King (deceased).”

I bet the Pharoah would say that the Adninistrative State has really gotten out of control in the 3000 years since his death.

09 Jan 2017

Individual vs. the State

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She’d never win at the Motor Vehicle Bureau.

Hat tip to Scott Drum.

08 Nov 2010

What It Takes To Build a House

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When I was a boy, in most parts of the United States outside the largest and most intensely regulated metropolitan areas, if you owned some land and wanted to build something, you could go right ahead and build it. Over the years, the empire of government has grown unceasingly, zoning regulations, infinitely detailed building codes, environmental regulations, and complex systems of permits and permissions have spread across America like kudzu.

Your tax dollars support what the Declaration of Independence referred to as “a multitude of New Offices, and… swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” Every one of those officials feels obligated to see to it that the American property owner conforms to every item and detail of the regulatory regime which represents the entire raison d’etre of his career and livelihood.

Roland Toy, at American Thinker, describes his own, perfectly typical encounter with the system Americans have enthusiastically created to protect them from themselves.

133 days earlier I had submitted plans for my house to the county building department. A month later, the department sent a letter explaining that the proposed septic system had to be relocated 60 feet to the east of a location the county had approved earlier. However, in recent months a bald eagle’s nest had been spotted in adjacent public lands, and the county now required a buffer between the nest and any development on my property. Fine. I had seen a bald eagle soaring overhead — once with something that looked like a small animal it its claws. Anything for the symbol of America. And the septic system relocation was less than trivial, a few steps in one direction in the midst of millions of acres of sandy wilderness that was already officially sanctioned for a septic system.

The problem arose when the relocation required a new permit application, complete with fresh paperwork, hefty fees, a two-week waiting period for public input, and a new soil study by a professional soil engineer on a county-approved list.

I called the man who had signed the letter and appealed to his common sense, to his engineering acumen, and finally to his decency. Any moron could see that the septic system could be nudged a few feet with zero environmental impact — the approved sand dune was the same whether 8′ or 80′ or 8000′ feet from the property line. What could possibly be accomplished by breathing life into a new bureaucratic tangle? But in the end, my entreaties failed and the conversation amounted to mutual declarations of war. I backed off when he began making vague references to a possible environmental assessment report. Thus began a slow-motion shell game in which a bureaucrat, after extracting an extortionate fee, transferred irrelevant paperwork from one file folder to another. Some highlights of that loony process ($2,831.00, 103 days) are shown below:

    * Submit plans to county ($450.00).

    * County disapproves plans, requires variance.

    * Variance request submitted ($125.00).

    * Request denied. New application and soil study required.

    * At an arbitration meeting ($250.00), the arbitrator rules for the county. Not technically a county employee, he’s on a chummy first-name basis with the county representatives.

    * Start new application ($125.00) and commission a second soil study ($1,350.00) by an engineer on the county-approved list .
    * Plan reviewers fail to show for a meeting. They’re at a ‘team-building’ retreat. In an unpleasant scene, two customer service representatives complain about my attitude after I tell them that for the non-meeting I had to drive 180 miles over winding mountain roads.

    * County approves new septic system location.

    * Craig makes site visit for percolation test ($541.00).

Back at the percolation test, all that was history. I understood it and wasn’t destined to repeat it. But Craig had been leafing through his papers for a long while. “Is there a problem?” I asked.

“Your soil engineer isn’t on the new approved list.”

“He’s gotta be there. You guys gave me his name.”

Craig pulled out his cell phone and spoke intently with his superiors. Eventually he hung up and said, “It’s probably nothing serious. But something’s screwy with the new list and I can’t do the inspection until the paperwork is right.”

“What’s the problem?”

“We’re not sure yet, but your engineer just isn’t on the list.”

“So you don’t know how long it’s going to take to fix or if it can be fixed?”

Craig muttered abjectly, “I’m sorry. I’m still on probation and they audit me.”

Like contentious litigation, every interaction with the building department had a tendency to take on an unpredictable life of its own. This was a moment of truth. God may have understood the SNAFU that had kept my engineer’s name off the list, but I didn’t. When does reasonable accommodation become craven appeasement? Would I continue working with the totalitarians who were polluting my life? Would I start another round of telephone tag, being stood up at meetings, preparing for rigged arbitrations, and paying the fees? Would I have to commission yet another soil assessment, the third one that would reiterate what everybody already knew? Or would I draw a line in the literal sand and rebel against the yoke of tyranny? A crazy image flashed through my mind. I was in the percolation test hole with a rifle, holding off swarms of g-men in bulletproof vests as helicopters and a lone bald eagle circled overhead.

27 Aug 2010

Vindictiveness Backfires

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Daniel Foster commented on the Obama Administration punishing New Jersey for insufficient compliance to the demands of the teachers’ union by disqualifying the state for hundreds of millions of dollars of federal education funds based on a trivial error in more that 1000 pages of paperwork.

This 5:29 video of Governor Chris Christie’s response is making him a national star and producing a wave of “Christie in 2012” enthusiasm.

19 Jul 2010

WaPo Top Secret America Website Launched Today

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The Washington Post’s sexy new multimedia web-site adversarially reporting on the US Intelligence Community’s components, contractors, facilities, size, and expenditures is, as was predicted, up and running today.

The introductory 1:47 video and a lengthy article by Dana Priest and William Arkin take a downright conservative-sounding tone of skepticism of big government, complaining about massive growth, duplication of effort, paralysis and confusion stemming from over-large bureaucracy, and an excessive cult of secrecy leading to a lack of accountability.

After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine. …

An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances. …

Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored. …

The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn’t include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.

At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11. Many that existed before the attacks grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending. …

Beyond redundancy, secrecy within the intelligence world hampers effectiveness… say defense and intelligence officers. For the Defense Department, the root of this problem goes back to an ultra-secret group of programs for which access is extremely limited and monitored by specially trained security officers.

These are called Special Access Programs – or SAPs – and the Pentagon’s list of code names for them runs 300 pages. The intelligence community has hundreds more of its own, and those hundreds have thousands of sub-programs with their own limits on the number of people authorized to know anything about them. All this means that very few people have a complete sense of what’s going on.

“There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs – that’s God,” said James R. Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next director of national intelligence.

Such secrecy can undermine the normal chain of command when senior officials use it to cut out rivals or when subordinates are ordered to keep secrets from their commanders.

One military officer involved in one such program said he was ordered to sign a document prohibiting him from disclosing it to his four-star commander, with whom he worked closely every day, because the commander was not authorized to know about it. Another senior defense official recalls the day he tried to find out about a program in his budget, only to be rebuffed by a peer. “What do you mean you can’t tell me? I pay for the program,” he recalled saying in a heated exchange.

These contentions sound reasonable, though the idea of top secret government functions and processes being reformed by even more unaccountable journalists with a record of personal career advancement via damaging leaks of highly classified intelligence operations strikes me as a case of the local foxes putting on efficiency expert Halloween costumes and volunteering to improve operations in the chicken house.

I’m not in the least persuaded that the Post really needed to publish a cool interactive map of government facility and contractor company locations and a searchable database of companies working on top secret contracting assignments. Why do Washington Post readers need such detailed information? Couldn’t foreign intelligence services do their own research?

It is also far from clear to me that Dana Priest and the Washington Post have not knowingly again violated the Espionage Act of 1917 by publishing that map and database. This time, who knows? It is much easier for a leftwing administration to undertake prosecutions of these kinds of offenses. The Obama Administration has already demonstrated more willingness to enforce the law in National Security cases than the Bush Administration ever did. It will be interesting to see how the government reacts.

Will Dana Priest go to jail or will she just collect one more Pulitzer Prize?


Fox News says the Obama Administration is expecting some absurd spending stories and quotes Intelligence Community sources talking about what a great resource for America’s enemies that Post website is going to be.

The Obama administration is bracing for the first in a series of Washington Post articles said to focus in unprecedented detail on the government’s spending on intelligence contractors.

The intelligence community is warning that the article could blow the cover of contract companies doing top-secret work for the government. At the same time, a senior administration official acknowledged that the kind of wasteful spending expected to be spotlighted in the series is “troubling” and something the administration is trying to address.

“There will be examples of money being wasted in the series that seem egregious and we are just as offended as the readers by those examples,” the official said. The official said some of the information in the story is “explainable,” in that some “redundancy” is necessary in the intelligence community. But the official said the administration has been working to reduce “waste” and that “it’s something we’ve been on top of.”

Other sectors of the administration were on high alert over the piece. A source told Fox News that the series amounts to a “significant targeting document” in that it will apparently bring together unclassified information from the public domain in a single location, making it a one-stop shop for this level of detail. The official said “few intelligence groups have the assets and resources to pool” this kind of information.

This has led to warnings about how the information could be used. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence sent out a memo saying that “foreign intelligence services, terrorist organizations and criminal elements will have potential interest in this kind of information.”

18 Feb 2010

No Rescues Contrary to Regulation

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The Telegraph reports that a week ago today, West Mercia police, obedient to safety regulations, left a five-year-old trapped in a submerged car for close to two hours waiting for properly-trained specialists to arrive.

The five-year-old girl, her-six year-old brother and their father Chris Grady were in the car when it plunged into the river Avon in Evesham, Worcestershire, on Thursday morning.

Mr Grady and his son Ryan, managed to escape from the submerged car. They were helped clear by police officers on the riverbank.

However, Mr Grady’s daughter, Gabrielle, was trapped inside the vehicle for 97 minutes before the closest police dive team, based in the next county, could arrive. The divers then took a further 12 minutes to rescue her.

The officers already on the scene were prevented from diving in earlier to rescue her by police safety regulations.

The little girl remained in a critical state in hospital yesterday while her brother yesterday began to make a recovery.

He was well enough to sit up in bed and talk to family at his bedside.

West Mercia police admitted last night that safety regulations barred normal police officers from jumping into rivers to try to save people.

A police spokesman said the closest available police dive team was Avon and Somerset constabulary.

“Their team arrived within 97 minutes of the original request being made.

“Once they had arrived it took only a further 12 minutes to rescue the child from the submerged vehicle.

“At the time of the original request Avon and Somerset Dive Team were involved in an underwater search for a missing person in Gloucestershire.

“Police officers are not trained or equipped to enter rivers in order to rescue people.

“They are trained and equipped to make rescues from riverbanks.

“The risk involved in untrained and ill-equipped officers entering the water in these circumstances are generally too high to contemplate.

The American Pseudo-Intelligentsia desires above all things that the United States should become ever more like Europe. The tragedy in Worcestershire demonstrates that the brave new Progressive world all tidily ruled over and arranged into order by centralized authority leaves no room for initiative, improvisation, and reckless courage, no room for humanity. Yet, in a real emergency, it is precisely the unruly individual, the human being willing to risk everything and to ignore the rulebook, that makes the critical difference. They’ve done an excellent job of eliminating people like that in the socialist bureaucracies of modern Europe, including Britain.

23 Jul 2008

The Process

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Decisions by committee, you know what those are like.

4:32 video

Hat tip to Ketchup and Caviar.

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