Re: Grading the gov't (was Re: G & J, in cahoots?)

From: Matt Jensen (
Date: Tue Mar 20 2001 - 16:24:33 PST

On Tue, 20 Mar 2001, Jeff Bone wrote:

> USDA: doing a pretty poor job, IMO.

Poor job at what? Farm loans, conservation incentives, price stability,
food stamps, student lunches, food inspections, Forest Service,
agricultural research... ? Everything?

> Postal Service: can't even operate profitably. Why do we have this again, instead
> of private concerns only?

Several reasons. One is that we view it as a social good to enable
low-cost mail throughout the country. Much like phone bills in rural
areas are subsidized by phone users in the city. Not only do we find it
fairer and simpler, like flat-fee ISP access, but it increases the pool of
users, boosting network effects. If FedEx can come close to breakeven at
35 cents a letter nationally, maybe they could ask for the business, but I
don't think there's enough ROI in such a service to interest them and
still let Grannie in Wyoming mail her bills cheaply.

Another reason is that in many communities, the U.S. Post Office is the
only public building. There are civic benefits to maintaining these
community centers that are not calculable in cost-benefit analysis.

> D. of Ag: do we really *need* this thing? Did we ever?

Er, that's the same thing as USDA. U.S. Dept. of Ag.

> A fresh young
> idealist shows up in DC and immediately gets the message hammered into his brain:
> "don't fuck with my budget. In fact, make it bigger."

Right, and that never happens in corporations.

> I want ROI. I want small, well-factored, local, interlocking systems with good
> checks and balances and a kill switch. I want good interface / implementation
> separation. Good separation of concerns. Instead, we've got a massive whore of a
> system riddled with "spaghetti code" relationships, inefficient redundancies, waste
> on an unheard-of scale, and outright unnecessary bullshit.

Some of the agencies you call redundant are on their own for a reason.

In some cases, such as Dept. of Veteran Affairs, they are for efficiency
(centralization in contrast to the traditional rivalries among the
military branches). In other cases, they are to ensure independence, such
as keeping the EPA out of the Dept. of the Interior, whose mission
flip-flops between conservation and development between administrations.

I did laugh at your list, though :-) For a serious discussion on the
topic, I wonder if someone can recommend a good, recent book about which
government programs fail. Perhaps something to contrast with Kuttner's
"Everything for Sale : The Virtues and Limits of Markets". Suggestions?

-Matt Jensen

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