More of Mark's comment:
Too often, enthusiasts of top-down problem solving seem to address the task of finding a good mechanism by first wishing away all those negatives. There is no benevolent and wise Philosopher King. Many people seem to ignore that fact in their enthusiasm to get to the solving of problems and righting of wrongs. The regulatory mechanism is going to be slow, hidebound, favor those with political clout, and will create unintended side effects as people respond to new incentives.
Mark writes that meddling bureaucrats wish away the negatives of their regulatory mechanisms1
. It is not quite that simple. There are very many times when bureaucrats know there will be negative outcomes, but accept them as trade-offs because the overall situation will still be better. There are times when they’re surprised by negative outcomes. There are times when what one group considers a negative outcome is what the bureaucrats considered the point
. But I don’t think there are lots of times when bureaucrats ponder a negative outcome, then airily dismiss it. Every negative outcome has a constituency dedicated to making that consequence the most important thing in a bureaucrat’s life. We do not get to dismiss much.
So I don’t think that bureaucrats are willfully making bad regulations, but I have to acknowledge that the accumulated codes are painfully dense thickets, too tangled for easy use by our citizens, complicated, with internal contradictions. I want to talk about how civil servants doing their best end up making systems that are so frustrating that “bureaucrats” and “regulations” are nearly epithets. I mean, Bush’s Executive Order was his usual self-serving corrupt bullshit, but people were willing to give it a pass, just on the grounds that it might make the bureaucrats less able to do the work the country pays them for. How did it get so bad?
Some of it is that we are, like Lindblom said
, muddling through. Most of it the rest of it, I think, is that bureaucracies contain programs, which spend their time solving problems. The last of it, I guess, is a lack of vision.
Lindblom pointed out in 1959 that when bureaucracies go to solve problems, they do not evaluate the full range of solutions available, and pick the optimal solution. Instead, they look at a few solutions that look very like the current situation, only a trifle better, and pick one of those. Lindblom says muddling through isn’t all bad, and I agree. But it leads to complexity. It maintains and builds on the existing regulations; no branches get pruned out, but twigs are added for redirection.
So we start with a complex set of regulations, but I think a bigger problem with bureaucratic function is that bureaucracies are divided into programs and work to solve problems. The programs are a good rough cut at pieces of the natural world. On a big scale, we have agencies for air, transportation, forests, agriculture, coasts and oceans, wildlife, water2
. Hell, we have two for water. But real problems exist in the continuous system. Salmon live and are fished in the ocean, but swim up streams polluted by agriculture unless they are blocked by road culverts or unless they die in streams that are too warm because too much water was diverted to send to a far away city, or they make it all the way up to headwaters, where their spawning gravel is silted up because the logged hillsides are eroding. Which agency fixes that
? Well, they ALL do, piecemeal, applying the lessons of their own fields. You know that regulation will overlap and be inconsistent, because there isn’t a Salmon Agency3
to keep it all in order. It is better for each agency to do something
, because any missing piece makes the rest moot, but it will be a jumble when they’re done.
A worse structural flaw, however, is that programs want to solve problems. They are assigned problems by the legislature and the problems are just too narrowly defined. Bureaucrats are pretty good at solving the problem in front of them (creek is flooding? Make it concrete to decrease turbulence and increase flood capacity) and, like all people, not that good at asking how that fits into the world or what effects it will have. They solve the problem in front of them and make more. In some ways it isn’t fair to hold them responsible for the next set of problems (concrete rivers are ugly, no fish or wildlife); they probably did a very nice job solving the problem they were assigned4
. But a narrow focus on solving the problem in front of you makes more problems, and agencies have been chasing the problems they’ve caused for decades now. That approach, and its iterations and reversals, has rightfully earned the public’s contempt.
So what is an agency to do if the public demands action about something in its jurisdiction? How can it handle that without adding to already complicated regulation, or making a new problem somewhere else? In the real world, I don’t know. Things probably have to keep going the way they do, muddling through. I have a fantasy though. I imagine sometimes, that instead of figuring out what we gotta do to our regulations to get the results we want, we work backwards from a vision. People who care and people with expert knowledge come up with a detailed picture of the world with that problem solved. Then we ask, what are the physical conditions and the human interactions and the laws that would bring that picture into being? We write those
regs, clean and consistent and orderly. That’s the only way I can think to escape the inevitable complexity of an incremental approach.1
His further comments suggest that he is objecting to the processes we use to develop regulations. EXCELLENT! I wanted to continue this series forever! I am done
with funny, pithy posts! Short, lighthearted posts are a thing of the past! We’ll never talk about water or boys or Los Osos again! Who even wants to? Not me!2
I have heard there are agencies that deal with things that aren’t the environment, but you couldn’t prove that by me.3
We tried to have a Bay-Delta Agency (called CALFED), but it collapsed. I don’t think that is proof that an inter-field agency organized around the issue is doomed, but the first big one we tried didn’t work.4
You know what kills me? All those engineers would be just as happy with harder problems. It isn’t that they are attached to the all-concrete river solution; it is just that that is the best solution for the only-flood problem. If you give them a bigger assignment, like flood + nice river-park + fish, they would just as happily optimize that assignment.