Broken

In an op-ed, Bruce Schneier writes:

Our nation needs to spend its homeland security dollars on two things: intelligence-gathering and emergency response. These two things will help us regardless of what the terrorists are plotting, and the second helps both against terrorist attacks and national disasters.

Katrina demonstrated that we haven't invested enough in emergency response. New Orleans police officers couldn't talk with each other after power outages shut down their primary communications system -- and there was no backup. The Department of Homeland Security, which was established in order to centralize federal response in a situation like this, couldn't figure out who was in charge or what to do, and actively obstructed aid by others. FEMA did no better, and thousands died while turf battles were being fought.

Our government's ineptitude in the aftermath of Katrina demonstrates how little we're getting for all our security spending. It's unconscionable that we're wasting our money fingerprinting foreigners, profiling airline passengers, and invading foreign countries while emergency response at home goes underfunded. Money spent on emergency response makes us safer, regardless of what the next disaster is, whether terrorist-made or natural. This includes good communications on the ground, good coordination up the command chain, and resources -- people and supplies -- that can be quickly deployed wherever they're needed.

Similarly, money spent on intelligence-gathering makes us safer, regardless of what the next disaster is. Against terrorism, that includes the NSA and the CIA. Against natural disasters, that includes the National Weather Service and the National Earthquake Information Center.

Katrina deftly illustrated homeland security's biggest challenge: guessing correctly. The solution is to fund security that doesn't rely on guessing. Defending against movie plots doesn't make us appreciably safer. Emergency response does. It lessens the damage and suffering caused by disasters, whether man-made, like 9/11, or nature-made, like Katrina.

Bruce's problem is that he thinks that government spending is about turning tax dollars into citizen benefits. It's not, of course. It's about turning tax dollars into juicy zero-bid government contracts and cushy jobs for your cronies. Of course we'd use his methods if we wanted security. But instead we seem to want a democratic government, which naturally tends to bloat and corruption, so we naturally get waste and inefficiency, not good solutions.

This particular error in thought is amazingly common (I do it myself on occasion). Intelligent, reasonable people suggest sensible ways that the government could accomplish its purported goals, and are surprised when it bungles like Clouseau (but without the lucky save in the end). They write sensible books about solving the world's problems - poverty, disease, environmental degradation. But little ever comes of it, because the behemoth only needs to appease its victims enough to keep up that sustaining flow of tax dollars, ripe for pilfering, misdirecting, lightening, and just plain wasting.

Its not that I want to preach a political revolution. I really wish there were incremental solutions. I really wish the system just needed fine-tuning, or a better helmsman, or better educated advisors or politicans or voters, or less apathy, or any of the other suggestions that idealistic fans of democracy suggest. But those won't help. It's fundamentally broken.

Or rather, it works quite well - as a device to redistribute wealth and power to those holding the political reins. Smart people should stop wasting their time giving sensible advice to an organization built to ignore it. Tell it to charity, tell it to the private sector, found a company, or don't bother. You're wasting your breath.

UPDATE: To add a positive note, here's my previous post on potential solutions to the problem of government waste.

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"It’s fundamentally

"It’s fundamentally broken."

Again, with the hyperbole. It's fundamentally inferior, in some ways, yes. "Broken"? No.

Yes, privatization is almost always a better solution. But let's not exaggerate. I swear, to read some libertarian blogs, you'd be amazed that our roads aren't potholed obstacle courses, the postal service takes less than a month to deliver mail, that public school students have a literacy rate above 10% and that government vaccination programs hadn't made a dent in the polio epidemic.

Guess what: government, for all its flaws, isn't a total failure.

I mean, I consider myself a minarchist, but for real -- if there wasn't s Superdome (financed thru a bond issue backed by a hotel tax), there would have been some people in even direr straits, and it's hard to imagine a public-works project on the scale of levees being funded by rent-seeking private investors.

Also, I (like commenter Matt McIntosh) feel that it's a cop out to just blame government. We're never going to live in a libertarian utopia and so these theories about the magic of a government-free society are never put to the test.

Instead, I think we need to be realistic: no pie-in-the-sky ideas about just trashing the whole thing and starting from scratch. We should instead look at how we can take a series of small steps to move things in the right direction. Unless you're literally tapped out of time, energy and ideas, promoting private charities and urging FEMA reform aren't mutually exclusive.

The systems is broken, but

The systems is broken, but there are ways to make it less broken. Change the way the system is arranged, change the incentives, change the outcomes. I've been remiss in not writing about this stuff lately, maybe I'll do that tonight...

One solution I have seen

One solution I have seen proposed on institutions that get misdirected, either with or without malice aforethought -I recall Norman Cruikshank's testimony on health care thirty-five years ago, -The American system of providing medical care serves admirably to suit its purpose. Unfortunately that purpose is not to provide health care for the citizens, but to guarantee that a few entrepreneurs can become extremely rich.- (My paraphrase. I do not have the source ready to hand.)
A possible solution is sunset provisions in all charters, including the constitution. The Dartmouth College Case has resulted in disaster. Having worked for a short time in Civil Service, and many years in Corporations, I can testify that the institutions become entrenched in the career goals of individuals, and few retain any sense of mission. Were we to require any institution to dissolve after a generation or so, and REALLY dissolve, we might avoid some of the problems. THe March of Dimes was permitted to look around for a new group of victims after a vaccine for polio was discovered. The organization should have been disbanded.
Of course, many organizations would be created with ulterior motives, and function to fulfill those motives, but at least not in perpetuity, and we might diminish the number which pervert their original intent.
If the Pennsylvania railroad or the New York Central had simply been required to auction off their assets and distribute the proceeds to stockholders in, say 1926, we might still have viable rail passenger service running profitably where it made sense to offer it.
Any comments on ramifications or unintended consequences would be greatly appreciated.

Again, with the hyperbole.

Again, with the hyperbole. It’s fundamentally inferior, in some ways, yes. “Broken"? No.

The context was whether the government was an effective device for transforming voting dollars into services for citizens. As such a device, it is broken. I'm not sure whether the return in useful services is 1 penny or 3 pennies or 5 pennies per dollar, but its down there somewhere. Wouldn't you consider "broken" a reasonable term for a change machine which kept 90+% of every dollar?

Also, I (like commenter Matt McIntosh) feel that it’s a cop out to just blame government.

Who said anything about blame? I don't blame the change machine for being broken - it's a machine, not a person. But the fact remains that it is responsible for the high cost of my obtaining change, and that a better change machine would lower the cost and make my life better.

I don't understand how identifying the culprit is "a cop out". If I studied large corporations, and decided that some element of their organization led to business inefficiency and pointed that out, would that be "a cop out"? If not, what is the difference?

We’re never going to live in a libertarian utopia and so these theories about the magic of a government-free society are never put to the test.

First, you ignore the historical examples. As recently as a few hundred years ago, England (not exactly an obscure country) had private enforcement of law.

Second, no one said anything about a utopia. All I want is a better system. It just so happens that my analysis of the current system suggests that radical change is the only way to get substantial improvement.

And third, no matter how much you tune a car, it still isn't going to be as fast a form a travel as the plane. Would you tell the Wright Brothers that we're never going to live in a jet-set utopia? Democracy is only a few hundred years old - I can just hear you telling the founding fathers of America, pre-revolution, then "We're never going to live in a democratic utopia and so these theories about the magic of a monarchy-free society are never put to the test.