James Q. Wilson’s terrific book Bureaucracy has an interesting story about Donald Trump and New York mayor Ed Koch. The year was 1986. The city of New York had spent six years and $13 million failing to build an ice skating rink in Central Park. In early summer that year, Donald Trump proposed to Mayor Ed Koch that he take over the project for $3 million and promised to cover any excess amounts himself rather than go back to the city. By late October the project was finished and was three quarters of a million dollars under budget.
How do you explain this story? Why was the city of New York so inept that it could not do in six years and with five times the money what Donald Trump was able to achieve in a few months?
There are several reasons why the city failed so miserably, but ultimately, the answer is that when government tries to do something, everything is infected by politics. For example, when the city planned to build the rink, the type of fuel used for refrigeration was a political matter. When Trump built the rink, he only worried about getting a reliable refrigeration unit. The city also had to abide by standards for equitable bidding of the project. Trump only had to give the contract to someone he knew could get the job done. Most important, when the city had the project there wasn’t much incentive to contain cost. No member of the government would personally have to cover cost overruns. Trump, on the other hand, accepted responsibility for coming in at or under the budget as the only way he could come out ahead.
As we continue to expand our government, we need to be thinking about what we really want. Bureaucracy gives us all kinds of things that we emphasize in our politics such as politically correct energy, equity and diversity in bidding, protection of union members, and providing jobs for government workers. On the other hand, sometimes you just want your skating rink by December.