Tilting at Windmills

March/April 2011 The ugly truth in twenty-one words… The bakery-industrial complex… Make-believe = survival

By Charles Peters

It’s tough to take stands like that in West Virginia. When Jay Rockefeller first ran for governor, he campaigned against strip mining, the precursor of mountaintop removal, and was soundly defeated. So it’s understandable that mountaintop removal is an issue that state leaders will not tackle. Similar problems exist with many other industries. The chemical industry has spent most of the last century threatening the people of West Virginia with a choice between the perils to their health from dangerous chemicals on the one hand, and the risk of losing their jobs on the other. Recently Bayer CropScience told the Gazette that it would “stop making, using, and storing the deadly chemical methyl isocyanate” at its plant near Charleston. But the company also said that the move will cost the jobs of 220 local residents.

One of the great tragedies of this country is that similar problems exist in almost every other state. Military contractors, for example, have been clever enough to spread their work out over several state and congressional districts, especially those of the congressional committees that affect defense, so that politicians have a stake in their prosperity. This of course means that state officials, including the congressional delegation, are unwilling to oppose expenditures for whatever weapon is being made locally without regard to whether it is dangerous or useless.

Commodity calamity

Here’s another reason why I recommend John Gravois’s article on the danger of understaffed agencies: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, again according to the Journal, is “trying to swallow a huge expansion in its workload, without an accompanying boost in its budget.” Why should you care? The CFTC is all that stands between you and dangerous derivatives, as well as the speculators that drive up everything from corn to coffee to oil.

Hoosier hero, Tea Party zero

The only at-all-prominent Republican leader who seems to acknowledge the importance of regulation is Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana. As former head of the OMB, he also understands the value of performance—of how to make the trains of government run on time. But I fear the Tea Partiers, with their dogmatic and automatic antigovernment attitude, will never allow someone like Daniels to become president.

Make-believe = survival

In our last issue, I told you that most cables our diplomats send to the State Department are not read. Now comes confirmation from no less than the Secretary of State herself. Hillary Clinton is acknowledging, reports Lisa Rein of the Washington Post, that most of the thousands of reports our diplomats send to State “are never read.” Clinton, however, blames the problem on reports that the diplomats are required to write. What she does not acknowledge is that many of the cables are self-generated by the diplomats.

In my book How Washington Really Works, I explained the basic bureaucratic equation: “Make-believe = survival.” Writing memoranda and attending meetings are the activities that offer an official the opportunity to appear to be working hard and at the same time avoid trouble.

A similar truth applies to their bosses: “I have to confess, as a senator,” says Clinton, “when in doubt, order a report.”

This reminds me of a secret of Washington life enunciated by one of the great students of bureaucracy, the late Jim Boren: “When in doubt, mumble.” An important corollary is to accompany the mumble with the grave demeanor of a wise elder statesman.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.