Today’s Election Matters So Much: That’s Not a Good Thing

I’ve avoided writing about the presidential election because, frankly, your vote is your business. But I just read this editorial by Jonah Goldberg that fits my philosophy on government perfectly. Here’s the key message:

The mere fact that presidential elections matter this much is not a sign of national health but of national dysfunction. The more the federal government gets involved in every aspect of our lives — for good or ill — the more people will feel that their livelihoods, lifestyles, even their actual lives are at stake in a presidential election. If the federal government didn’t have so much leverage over your life, politicians wouldn’t be able to scare you into the voting booths.

We all agree  that government has important functions, environmental protection being one. But in my honest opinion the day that our government started to matter, personally, to each of us is the day the government went too far. I don’t know how long ago that day occurred, but I certainly am one who feels that government has involved itself in every personal decision and entangled itself in human endeavour. I liked it better when government went about its business and I went about mine. What happened to east being east, and west being west, and “never the twain shall meet?”

Now go vote, however you feel. We’ll clean up this mess later.

It’s June 22, 1633 in Italy Today

June 22, 1633 is the date that a Vatican Inquisition passed its judgment against Galileo Galilei for supporting the Copernican Theory of the universe. Today, 379 years after the date Galileo was condemned for being on the wrong side of the church, six Italian scientists and one government official were condemned by an Italian court for being on the wrong side of government because they failed to adequately warn of the deadly 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.

And so the Italian Enlightenment dies a second death at the hands of an Italian inquisition.

Self-Financing State Parks? Never Going to Work.

From Fox News comes the story that Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, facing a $3 billion state budget deficit, is considering zeroing out the budget for Washington state parks.

Washington State is considering being the first in the nation to make its Parks Department self-sustaining. As recently as 2009 the legislature appropriated $94 million toward the operating budget of the state’s 117 parks. But now, facing a $3 billion budget deficit, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire is proposing cutting funding to zero.

Later in the story we read that Washington’s state park system receives 40 million visits annually. The first thought is that the arithmetic works out: 40 million visitors against a $94 million budget comes out to about $2.35 a head. Sounds infinitely reasonable. The problem is with those visitation statistics. Washington isn’t getting 40 million distinct individuals to drive through its park gates. They’re not recording 40 million visitors, but rather 40 million visits. The 40 million figure likely represents a much smaller group of people who frequently visit the parks. In reality, the math doesn’t add up unless you stick a small group of users with a hefty fee.

When I was studying for my master’s program I spent some time exploring funding alternatives for state parks. The debate Washington is having isn’t new by any means. I recall some years ago that Vermont made a serious effort to get its parks “off budget.” I’m not aware that they were successful, and in my research I discovered that it would be very difficult indeed to maintain parks as public resources without funding them from the general treasury. User fees, private foundation support, dedicated vehicle tags – all are nice ideas and may provide some level of additional support to the parks, but if the public wants a state park system, they are going to have to fund it out of their tax dollars, until someone comes along with a revolutionary new model for running state parks.

Howard on Reforming Bureaucracy

Philip K. Howard has a nice piece in The Atlantic about reforming the bureaucracy and returning accountability to government. Howard calls for a revolution to replace the bureaucratic tangle of government with a “radically simpler structure in which public goals are linked to individual responsibility.” We like simplicity at Free the Commons! Simplicity is one of our foundational goals. Here’s Howard:

How government became a deviant subculture is a story of good intentions gone awry. We tried to avoid government abuse by replacing individual responsibility with detailed rules and objective legal proceedings.

What we achieved instead was what philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the rule of Nobody.” Instead of an automated assembly line, government became a bureaucratic jungle, with all the pathologies of a culture without responsibility or accountability: savage politics disconnected from actual accomplishment; hyper-inefficiency; and a universal sense of powerlessness, causing a downward spiral of selfishness and cynicism.

Howard is preaching to the choir here, and I think the four steps he recommends are dead-on. I won’t repeat what he shares with you at the link above, but will add a few points of my own:

(1) His first point is key. I’d like to see civil service jobs evolve toward temporary careers that are transient and project oriented in nature. Too many people grab their government jobs and never leave. 30 years later they retire with great pensions, but little to show for the time they put in. Let’s change this arrangement so that smart, talented individuals can be plucked from the private sector and institutions and employed in short-term, goal-oriented roles in our bureaucracies. Let them work as teams to complete projects and analyze environmental problems before returning to the private sector.

(2) I like Howard’s third point a great deal: regulate by results, not by red tape. Federal policies should be descriptive rather than prescriptive. The government should set standards, thresholds, and goals on issues like air and water quality, and the private sector and local governments should be required to meet these goals if they wish to do things like produce power or operate municipal waste water treatment plants. Government should provide them the flexibility to find the best way to achieve these goals. What we have instead is a government that dictates, in exacting detail and step-by-painful-costly-step, how these goals are to be achieved. This system creates inordinate volumes of red tape, requires large bureaucracies full of technical experts, leads to corruption and graft, and ultimately results in inefficient and ineffective outcomes.

We’ve written before here and here about the nature of bureaucracy. I like Howard’s contributions to the debate. He should be taken seriously, as these are solid, achievable proposals to serious governmental problems. Overcoming bureaucratic culture, ingrained public sector unions, and entrenched special interests will be difficult, but it must be done if we are to restore some semblance of accountability to government.

Dear EPA: Please Stop Already

Ok ok, this is my last “Dear XX”-titled post. Just having some fun.

Today comes the story that the EPA is run by a bunch of incompetent buffoons. Already knew that, you say? Well, then this is no surprise:

The Environmental Protection Agency has approved E15 for all cars from the 2001 model year and newer, although most standard cars warn in the owner’s manual that using a blend above 10 percent can void the warranty. The E.P.A. has not approved its use for any motorcycles or all-terrain vehicles. [E15] [is not] intended for use in lawnmowers, leaf blowers or other gasoline-powered nonroad equipment, especially equipment that positions an engine close to the user, where a fire could be catastrophic. To help keep E15 out of these and other engines, service stations offering E15 and E10 from the same pump station must agree to sell a minimum volume of fuel, four gallons, to the customer. But not all motorcycle fill-ups reach four gallons.

(Pardon my editing, as the statement above is a mash up of content from the rather confused NY Times blog post which I’m citing.)

What we have here is a requirement that makes absolutely no sense in the real, concrete, physical world. I own a motorcycle: I can tell you that I have never, not even at the time of purchase, put 4 gallons of fuel into my tank. You see, most motorcycle gas tanks have a capacity of only 4 or 5 gallons gallon tanks. Further, the majority of motorcycles don’t have fuel gauges; that is, you never know how full your tank is, so you stop fairly regularly – usually by tracking miles driven – to fill your tank. Now if I stop at an EPA-diktat gas station and find that I can’t fill my tank because I don’t need 4 gallons, I’m in real trouble.

The thing about this is I can guarantee you with first-hand knowledge of how bureaucracies like the EPA operate that this rule on the use of E15 wasn’t approved without about a gazillion attorneys, policy techs, political appointees and chain-of-command types reviewing the proposal. Is it really conceivable, that amongst all of these people, not a single one of them, not one!, stopped to think that motorcycle fuel tanks are too small for a 4-gallon limit? Not one of these people owns or has ever operated a motorcycle, a moped, a scooter? These people are in charge of fuel standards? Once again, the EPA beclowns itself. The EPA: a vital U.S. agency, with a critical mission, operated by a bunch of yahoos without a lick of common sense.

More on NEPA and the Nature of Bureaucracy

I was thinking about my post on NEPA as the poster-child for our dysfunctional environmental bureaucracy and thought I might expand on a couple of points.

The general problems I describe with bureaucracy were first outlined by James Q. Wilson in his 1975 work, “The Rise of the Bureaucratic State.” Wilson wrote about how the discretionary powers bestowed upon bureaucracies allowed them to grow increasingly unaccountable to the public. Two themes in Wilson’s writing are relevant to our discussion of NEPA: clientelism, and the self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

Clientelism, which is very similar to regulatory capture, is an easy concept to illustrate. For example, whereas the early government created federal departments focused on broad government functions like foreign affairs and the treasury, government in the 20th century began to create departments focused on specific interests, like agriculture and labor. As congress increasingly began to create programs that were aimed at helping specific groups or segments of society, bureaucracies charged with carrying out these programs inevitably became client oriented, devoted to the interests of the particular group the government program was intended to serve. Suddently, government ceases to serve the “public” in the large sense of the word, and rather creates bureaucracies that serve specific “clients.” Once the relationship betweent the bureaucracy and the client is formed, it becomes increasingly difficult to break.

The self-perpetuating bureaucracy is an outgrowth of clientelism. Wilson described the self-perpetuating bureaucracy as one that carried out programs that were initially adopted by broad coalitions that shared a general standard of the public good. As the bureaucracy began to provide benefits to specific groups or interests, however, the bureaucracy formed close relationships with these groups that made it difficult for the large majority to overcome. Wilson wrote: “What was created in the name of the common good is sustained in the name of the particular interest.” When this happens, it becomes particularly difficult to change the program. The result is that government is perpetually increasing not just in size, but in scope, as more and more special interests seek to capture the attention of government programs and functions.

In my opinion, this is exactly what has happened with NEPA. A broadly public, common-good law when written in 1969, NEPA serves an increasingly narrow segment of the public – the environmental litigant. The litigants make greater and greater demands on NEPA, and therefore on the bureaucratic functionaries that are responsible for NEPA, until NEPA in extent, content, and process is wholly captured and controlled by the special interests.

Likewise, the bureaucracy is forced to specialize to an ever greater extent in the application of NEPA to satisfy the narrow interests of the litigants. Every year increasing amounts of time, funding, and manpower is devoted to NEPA while the general public’s interest in the law is ignored. This is clientelism in the self-sustaining bureaucracy, and it is an ugly, ugly thing.


NEPA as a Case Study of our Broken Environmental Bureaucracy

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the cornerstone of our nation’s environmental laws, is the quintessential example of our government’s broken approach to managing environmental concerns. If I could write my grad school thesis over, I would choose NEPA as the subject. Since this is blog post, I’ll try to keep my analysis brief.

NEPA is the environmental law that requires the study of all federal actions to determine their impacts on the environment. The law “declared a national policy for the environment,” and strove to balance environmental concerns against economic considerations. While grand sounding in theory, all NEPA really did was require that information on the environmental impacts of federal actions be made known to agency officials and the public before the action is undertaken. NEPA, to be blunt, is a procedure. It does not guarantee outcomes. It does not guarantee that the environment will be protected. Other laws, like the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act, are intended to protect the environment. All that NEPA and its implementing regulations do is ensure that information is gathered, analyzed, and shared before the feds chop the tree, dig the hole, or build the bridge.

NEPA was not even six (6!) pages long when signed into law by President Nixon on the first day of 1970. Today, 42 years later, NEPA is a monstrous paperwork boondoggle, an albatross around the neck of every federal undertaking, a black hole of government initiative, personnel, and funds. A NEPA analysis today can cost millions of dollars, require years to complete, and run several hundred pages in length. Just this week I received an email with new NEPA “direction” that requires more than 50 new elements that must be included in our NEPA studies. This new direction is on top of the hundreds of pages of process “direction” and case law that we already labor under as we attempt to write the impossible – a lawsuit-proof NEPA document.

Humorously, the implementing regulations state that the intent of NEPA is not to “generate paperwork”: NEPA analyses, according to the regulations, are to be “concise” documents that “briefly” discuss significant issues and that are written in “plain language.” Of course, the federal government’s Plain Language Guideline is 112 pages long, so maybe NEPA analyses are not so bad.

Seriously though, how did we get to this point? NEPA wasn’t the best written law; it lacked definitions and explanation. But its intent was clear and I think that the regulations which tell people like me how to write NEPA documents are easy to understand and implement.

What has happened to NEPA is the same thing that has happened, or will happen, to all federal environmental laws (and health care laws and banking regulations and so on): The law (whichever law), while well intentioned, is eventually overtaken by the Iron Triangle of Stupidity. It works like this: First, the law is written by a congress that no longer has the knowledge nor possesses the will to write law that is clear and implementable and addresses the core problem; Second, the ambiguous statute is left to the bureaucracy to interpret and write the regulations under which the law will be implemented; and Third, the law and its regulations become fodder for various special interest groups who make a living off the promises and vagaries of the law.

Let’s see how it has worked with NEPA. In 1969 Congress writes the NEPA statute (becoming law in 1970). In, oh, 1978 the Council on Environmental Quality writes implementing regulations for NEPA.  Bureaucracies haphazardly begin to implement NEPA. The environmental community doesn’t like what it sees and begins to challenge the bureaucracies in courts. The courts begin to side with the environmentalists, writing opinions that at once tell the bureaucrats that they have no idea how to implement NEPA while leaving it up to the bureaucrats to fix the implementation of NEPA. Congress, meanwhile, ignores the whole mess it created.

Today, we have a very active environmental community that makes a living litigating every NEPA analysis written by the bureaucrats, the bureaucrats in turn make a flailing, ugly effort to respond to the increasingly frequent court orders by writing ever lengthier and inclusive NEPA analyses that invariably end up back in court, and congress couldn’t be bothered to understand any of it. The end result is that nothing gets done, we spend immense amounts of time and money following a broken law, and all that our bureaucracies can do is send out really long emails to their staff providing the most recent updated direction on all the crap that we need to pile into our NEPA documents.

I’ll wrap it up now with the kicker: nowhere in this entire process is the public interest considered. Remember that part? The entire purpose of NEPA – to inform the public – has been lost in the Iron Triangle. Federal actions are less transparent than ever when it comes to the environmental impacts that they cause because no member of the public has the time, will, or training needed to read a NEPA study. Let’s be honest; today’s NEPA documents are written for the courts and in anticipation of the coming environmental litigation, with the courts refereeing the perpetual battle between the bureaucrats and the environmental litigants. NEPA has failed. Congress, the ball is in your court.