Posts tagged with: bureaucracy

My commentary this week touches on the spiritual and cultural significance of the largest U.S. oil spill in history. I was a resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for 11 and a half years. I worked in the Gulfport district office of U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss) before leaving for seminary. I was a Katrina evacuee and returned to see unbelievable decimation. It reminded me of the pictures of Hiroshima in textbooks after the dropping of the nuclear bomb. I always think it is fascinating when I hear people observe the Gulf Coast on the news after a tragedy and say how the people should just move. I wonder where they would go when the water is such an integral part of their subsistence and heritage? The people on the Gulf have much more culturally in common with individuals on the Gulf in neighboring states than they do with those living inland in their own state. Louisiana, especially, has one one of the most uniquely diverse cultures in this country. A key theme in my piece is that BP can compensate them economically, but there is an important cultural and spiritual aspect to their labor that is above financial compensation. The text of my piece is also printed below:

Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill

by Ray Nothstine

Many Americans are proud of where they come from; this is no less true of the people of the Gulf Coast. Human interest stories have gripped viewers and readers following the news about the BP oil spill, which often highlights the locals’ pride in their roots. Sal Sunseri, the owner of P&J Oysters in New Orleans says it well: “The history and culture of the seafood industry in Louisiana is part of the fabric of who we are. The world should not take this lightly.”

Sunseri brings to life an important point about the spiritual and cultural aspect of work that is especially rich on the Gulf Coast. Work in a free economy is an expression of our creativity, virtue, and response to a calling. Christian authors Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster note that “God so arranges work that it develops the soul.”

BP is airing a commercial in which it vows to compensate fishermen and others for the loss of income until the cleanup is completed. This is a good start. But it also serves as a reminder that earnings are secondary to fishermen whose very labor is the preservation of heritage. It is not uncommon to hear fishing crews speaking Cajun French off the coast and in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. Cajun French, an endangered language, was at one time banned in Louisiana schools. The spill is another threat to communities and a way of life for generations of a proud and sometimes marginalized people.

Vietnamese shrimpers, too, proudly work these waters, many of them refugees from communist aggression. They flourish at shrimping, a trade that generations of families practiced in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were among the first communities to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina, often not waiting for government aid. The Washington Post, in a story on the Vietnamese community, echoed this fact and explained how the spill was especially tragic as a resilient community was forced to await assistance.

BP would be wise to continue to hire as many local crews as possible for cleaning up this disaster. Locals have an extra incentive to assist in a thorough effort since they are most tied to the water. BP needs to be concerned not only with repairing its brand; the company has a clear moral obligation to follow promises with action.

The oil industry in the Gulf Coast accounts for almost a third of all U.S. oil production. The oil company’s contribution to the nation’s energy supply is invaluable, but they have been fighting public relations battles for years. Seen largely as a benefit to the community before the spill, they are now being battered by doubts from many in the region who repeat a common line: “We have made a deal with the devil.”

But many residents and local leaders understand that the oil industry is essential to Louisiana’s economic well being. The governor and legislators have fought a bipartisan battle to preserve jobs while the federal government seeks a moratorium on offshore deep-water drilling.

Many in Mississippi and Louisiana are also understandably weary of an often unresponsive federal bureaucracy. United States Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss), who represents the seacoast, said of the federal response, “I’m having Katrina flashbacks,” and called the current administration’s efforts “incompetent.” In a particularly harsh quip Florida Senator George Lemieux (R-Fla) added: “It’s not just oil that’s washing ashore Mr. President, it’s failure.” Asked about the biggest frustration with the federal response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-La) on day 73 of the spill lamented, “There’s just no sense of urgency.”

There is dismay that a nation that once landed men on the moon, liberated nations, and fed and rebuilt its enemies has few answers: the “yes we can” mantra has not materialized for the Gulf. Out of the darkened waters, there is an opening for an oil company to do the right thing and repair trust with an understandably outraged populace.

The men and women of the Gulf Coast who take to the water to practice their trade deserve the opportunity to flourish in the vast wonder of creation. The many Christians among them are keenly aware of the passage from John 21, when the resurrected Christ from afar tells the disciples to cast their net on the right side of the boat and they are rewarded in abundance. The passage is a reminder that Christ has an intimate knowledge of and concern for even the creatures under the sea. It is a source of hope that the cooperation of private enterprise, government, and local ingenuity can bring healing and the rejuvenation of a treasured way of life.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, February 27, 2009

Somewhere in the United States today, government officials are writing a plan that will profoundly affect other people’s lives, incomes, and property. Though it may be written with the best intentions, the plan will go horribly wrong. The costs will be far higher than anticipated, the benefits will prove far smaller, and various unintended consequences will turn out to be worse than even the plan’s critics predicted.

That’s the first paragraph of Randal O’Toole’s wonderful book, The Best Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

It’s not a new book (2007), but it is timely, for reasons that should be obvious. O’Toole’s prime example is the US Forest Service, which he investigated on behalf of environmental groups for many years. From there he moves on to land use and transportation, churning through a number of sub-topics along the way. You might expect the book to be a polemic, but it isn’t. O’Toole is a careful researcher and he gives public employees their due. He simply lays out in devastating detail the impossibility of the tasks set before government planners, especially when it comes to long-term agendas of five or ten years. A refreshingly sensible analysis of senseless bureaucratic bungling.

It’s a truism that progressive Christians emphasize the pervasiveness of structural or institutional evil, often at the expense of individual or personal sin. The structures of the world are broken and they, not individuals, are responsible for the enduring injustices in the world.

But how come this perspective is never (or rarely) aimed at the bureaucracy of government? Sure, when the government does something political progressives don’t like, they’re quick to condemn the institution itself. But why isn’t the broken bureaucracy of public education or public welfare, for instance, ever to blame?

Lord Acton: “Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government, inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power.”

Pope John XXIII was once asked how many people worked for the Vatican. “About half” he humorously replied, alluding to a workforce not known for its speed and efficiency. Under the pontificates of John Paul II and especially Benedict XVI, however, the Vatican seems to have made some efforts to improve the delivery of various services.

Take for example this interview with the city-state’s head physician, Dr. Giovanni Rocchi, who boasts of minimal waiting periods for patients at Vatican-run health clinics and laboratories. Such medical services are provided to Vatican employees and residents, including the Swiss Guard, local security officials, and the thousands of daily visitors to the Vatican.

Emergency treatment, Dr. Rocchi says, is immediate and often relies on its own ambulance service to transport the injured and sick. Clinical test results are typically received within 2-3 days. Major medical interventions such as heart or back surgery are usually arranged within a maximum of 2-3 weeks upon diagnosis, which is nothing compared to the purgatory Italian citizens must endure in the country’s public health care system for similar and even very minor treatments.

The Vatican’s health care system is small-scale, offering limited medical services such as emergency first aid, clinical analyses, immunization, physical check-ups, with much of the routine care provided by general practitioners. Major medical surgery must be arranged through outsourced medical facilities found in Rome’s private religious hospitals, like the Fatebenefratelli hospital located on the Tiber Island or the Gemelli hospital, which cared for Pope John Paul II on several occasions. (more…)

I’ve noted this quote on the blog before, but Ray’s post on professionalism sparked recall of another kind of professional, the professional bureaucratic manager:

Government insists more and more that its civil servants themselves have the kind of education that will qualify them as experts. It more and more recruits those who claim to be experts into its civil service. And it characteristically recruits too the heirs of the nineteenth-century reformers. Government itself becomes a hierarchy of bureaucratic managers, and the major justification advanced for the intervention of government in society is the contention that government has resources of competence which most citizens do not possess. –Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2d ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 85.

Call them what you will; planners, bureaucratic managers, government professionals, it all amounts to the same thing in the end, I think. And Lord Acton’s observation about bureaucracy is relevant here as well: “Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government, inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power.”

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Europe, Alberto Mingardi of Istituto Bruno Leoni (and long-time Acton friend) lists some of the reforms Italy needs to boost economic growth, which is forecast at a measly 0.6 – 0.8 percent for 2008.

Mingardi advocates a number of tax cuts and a more determined privatization of state assets. Some of these issues are being discussed – timidly – in the current election campaign; Mingardi also focuses on de-regulation and de-bureaucratization, issues heretofore neglected by Italian politicians.

Current labor regulations are “so numerous that no one can even give their precise number. No one can comply with rules they don’t even know about.” Mingardi adds that “it’s safe to say at least half the statutes currently in force should be repealed, as their only effect is to create confusion.”

A recent study shows that it takes on average 696 days to dismiss a worker in Italy compared to only 19 in the Netherlands. Critics of de-regulation would argue that Italian workers are therefore better protected. Wrong. Unemployment is 5 per cent in Holland compared to 6 per cent in Italy.

This may seem counter-intuitive but makes economic sense. If I know it will be impossible to fire an unproductive worker, I will be much less likely to take a chance on hiring any worker I don’t personally know. Hence, the Italian model of “family capitalism” and higher levels of unemployment.

Italian bureaucracy also exacts high costs on business creation. According to the World Bank, the cost of opening a business is 18.7 per cent of per capita income compared to only 0.8 per cent in the United Kingdom and 0.3 per cent in the Republic of Ireland. Moreover, an Italian business spends an average of 360 hours per year filing taxes whereas in neighboring Switzerland 63 hours suffice. (Not surprisingly, Switzerland is the economic envy of Europe.)

Workers also pay for onerous regulations. Everyone in Italy nowadays complains about stagnant wages, these are clearly the result of decreasing productivity caused by bureaucratic disincentives for businesses to invest and grow.

An overwhelming bureaucracy undermines both individual liberty and the public interest. It punishes the creative spirit of the entrepreneur by obstructing investment and innovation, and harms society by killing the potential for growth and employment. The irony is that regulation and bureaucracy are often enacted in the name of social values.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Related to John’s post about “natural” capitalism (and as I previously promised in the context of the “new” evangelicalism), I’d like to point to this summary of the contemporary situation from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, speaking of a left/right political divide:

This bifurcation is itself an important clue to the central characteristics of modern societies and one which may enable us to avoid being deceived by their own internal political debates. Those debates are often staged in terms of a supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism, each appearing in a variety of doctrinal forms. On the one side there appear the self-defined protagonists of individual liberty, on the other the self-defined protagonists of planning and regulation, of the goods which are available through bureaucratic organization. But in fact what is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. The consequences of a victory by one side or the other are often of the highest immediate importance; but, as Solzhenitzyn has understood so well, both ways of life are in the long run intolerable. Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.

There has been a lot of confusion over Mike Huckabee’s invocation of the term “vertical politics,” but I think it is one attempt (perhaps futile) to come to terms with this feature of modern political life. The fact that the chattering classes exist in a two-dimensional realm explains why they have trouble understanding such attempts at transcending a binary political continuum. Such attempts at transcendence seem to me to be necessary given a view that holds to a hierarchy of moral goods (perhaps a minority view, nowadays).