There are some things you simply don’t farm out — and national security is one of those things

I am cheap.  Very cheap.  That means that I’m a bargain hunter.  I like used books and cheap clothes.  I prefer to buy American but, if my pocketbook tells me that America isn’t a good deal, I’ll usually follow my pocketbook.  Usually, but not always.  If buying something from another country would put me in danger, I don’t do it.  That’s why I don’t buy canned goods or, indeed, anything that goes in my mouth, from China.  The t-shirts may be shoddy, fading and ripping quickly, but they won’t poison me.  The food just might.  (I’d like to avoid Chinese honey, too, which is chock full of antibiotics, fungicides, and industrial pollutants, but the fact is that most of the major manufacturers that use honey as an ingredient buy cheap Chinese honey.)

Not only will I avoid products that will harm me, I’m also unlikely to pay someone for service if I know that the person’s agenda is hostile to mine.  You don’t have the local thief install your burglar alarm.  I don’t even need active hostility to back off.  I also won’t buy service from someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in doing a good job for me.

None of the above is rocket science.  It’s good old-fashioned common sense — which, of course, is the one thing government lacks.  This current administration, especially, seems to go out of its way to abandon common sense.

I mention all this now because of a news story that the MSM is ignoring, but that should matter to everyone concerned both with American national security and with the American economy.  Here’s the deal:

There may be additional heartening employment news in the same sector [Boeing got an air tanker deal], following a request by the U.S. Air Force to identify suppliers for a new kind of airplane that can perform the light attack and armed reconnaissance (LAAR) missions that are being requested by our military leaders.

The new aircraft’s purpose is to allow our U.S. pilots to more effectively execute the tactics, maneuvers and procedures that are needed for the type of counter insurgency warfare that we are currently seeing in Afghanistan and other conflict zones around the globe. In turn, these American pilots will train their partners and developing nation counterparts to fly these same planes and defend themselves, with a goal of reducing the need for U.S. military presence in the region.

Two companies are vying for the Air Force contract — Hawker Beechcraft, a Kansas-based company, and Embraer, a Brazilian owned and operated company.

The Red State article to which I linked explains that Hawker Beechcraft has a good history and a good product.  I’m sure that’s true.  I’ll even stipulate that Embraer also has a good history and a good product.  My question, though, is why in the world our government, which has never before been constrained by bargain shopping and common  sense, is willingly giving another country the blueprints for and access to one of our military products?

Here’s a perfect anecdote to illustrate my concerns:  Think back to 1976 and the Entebbe rescue mission.  The Israeli military’s raid on Entebbe to rescue hostages is one of the great stories of derring-do, intelligent planning, heroism, and creative thinking.  But it was also made possible by one significant fact:  More than a decade before the hostage-taking, an Israeli company had built the airport.  This meant that Israel had the plans.  As it happened, back in 1976, the fact that a non-Ugandan company had this type of information was the best thing that could have happened, helping the good guys win, and soundly defeating and humiliating the bad guys.

In this case, though, we’re the good guys.  I’d classify the Brazilians as the neutral guys for now, although their decision to follow in our footsteps and elect an anti-capitalist president is worrying.  While I believe and hope that Americans can and will shake off the Obama’s pernicious socialism, it’s not so clear that Brazil will.  If Venezuela is any guide, once socialism is firmly ensconced in a Latin American government, that government is no friend of ours.  Even without that specific scenario, though, the fact is taht one never knows what will happen in another country.  Right now, we’re witnessing events in the Middle East that caught the West entirely flatfooted.  Today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy.

The whole friend/enemy thing is tolerable if you’re talking about buying t-shirts and canned foods or tables and cars from your frenemy, but it comes much more fraught when you’re talking about national security.  The optimal situation is one in which no country, Brazil included, knows too much about a “new kind of airplane that can perform the light attack and armed reconnaissance missions that” are part of modern American military tactics. Ten years from now, when the world has shifted, we may find ourselves bitterly regretting placing that information in another’s hands.

In addition to the security angle, there’ s also a matter of steering tax dollars, especially during a big recession.  It’s one thing for the marketplace to make decisions about where the money flows.  If I want to send my money to China, well, that’s my choice.  If enough people do that, than China gets rich or American companies figure out how to compete.  The government, though, is not the marketplace.  We’re not talking millions of customers making market-responsive decisions.  Instead, we’re talking about a huge, unwieldy, unresponsive bureaucracy taking millions and millions of dollars that taxpayers are forced to hand over to the government, and then sending it far, far away from the taxpayers.  This makes sense if the American market cannot supply the product — but we know that, in this case, the American market, made up of American taxpayers, is perfectly capable of providing the product.  There is therefore, no economic reason to ship our security over seas.

My congress people are Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein and Lynn Woolsey.  In other words, contacting them is about as useful as using tweezers to move mountains.  If you’re in a district that boasts slightly responsive congress people, though, let them know your concerns about this deal.  Sending military airplane manufacturing out of the country is bad for national security and bad for the economy.

It takes a bureaucracy to kill a bureaucracy

Years ago, NPR did a story about the disgraceful way in which President Bush used executive orders to circumvent Congress.  Shame on him!  Sadly, I can’t find that story (although, maybe, if I had the time and patience to weed through 8 years of NPR archives I could.)  I just remember the anger about those executive orders.

New president, new rules.  The Left, in order to reverse the effect of Obama’s “shellacking” (a description that became hackneyed within seconds of its first use), is touting the President’s ability to use executive orders to pursue his agenda.  Of course, since this is a super president, they’re touting a super-use of those same executive powers, in a way never before conceived in American politics.

Ed Lasky spells out specific ways that the new Congress — and, more specifically, the new House — can use its own bureaucratic powers to stop the onrushing regulatory nightmare.

Exactly my point about bureaucracies.

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about the inevitable nature of bureaucracies, which is a destructive search for regulatory perfection.  The Optimistic Conservative now provides a perfect example of the point I was trying to make.

The death of functionality due to bureaucracy

A couple of weeks ago, I ranted about the way bureaucracies are relentless in pursuit of some imaginary perfection.  My focus was health care, but I noted that bureaucracies will always keep going, trying to nail every detail down, so much so that life becomes impossible.  Britain perfectly proves my point about bureaucracies:

Local government bureaucrats have had to follow 74,000 pages of new rules and instructions handed down by Whitehall over the past decade, council chiefs complained yesterday.

The forest of red tape was a product of 4,000 different laws and circulars covering everything from parish council election advice to carbon reduction targets.

The direct cost to taxpayers of demands sent down by ministers to town halls amounts to £900 million a year and the overall losses could be as high as £2.5 billion annually, the Local Government Association said.

Where the bureaucratic state always seems to end up — death

The other day, I did a post about the fact that bureaucracies, in their ceaseless question for administrative protection, run the risk of killing us all.  I think Zombie makes my point precisely, in a post pointing out that people and nations most deeply wedded to perfection through bureaucracy (i.e., totalitarianism) all seem remarkably comfortable with determining who is unworthy of life — not because of evil acts they have committed, but because of their failure to conform to state perfection.

Death through bureaucratic perfection *UPDATED*

I was speaking the other day with a friend who is contemplating a different type cancer treatment, one that is neither chemo, nor radiation.  She has reacted badly to both, so they simply aren’t an option for her. Her doctor highly recommends this third type of treatment, which he believes will provide an optimal outcome, with the lowest level of stress to her body.  The treatment has been used successfully all over the world — except in the U.S.  The problem is, the FDA won’t approve it.  If my friend wants this treatment, she’ll have to leave the US for Mexico or India.

I have a real problem with the FDA.  As originally formed, it was intended to provide baselines for Food and Drugs, below which the consumer was imminently at risk.  This was a reasonable mandate.  As you may or may not know, one of the triggers for the FDA’s formation was the occasion when a pharmacist, back in the days when pharmacists made their own medicines, mixed ethylene glycol, aka antifreeze, into a children’s medicine to make the flavor more palatable. Large numbers of children sickened, with way too many dying.

Somewhere along the line, however, the FDA changed its own mandate.  It went from trying to provide minimal safeguards for consumers to trying to ensure that every product placed on the market is perfect and risk free.  Of course, that’s not possible, and the FDA knows it, but it keeps trying with ever greater demands.  The result is that medicines and treatments that could work never make it to the consumer.

The FDA will say that these medicines and treatments carry risks, but so do all the medicines and treatments.  Heck, have you ever gotten a prescription recently that didn’t have thousands of words of fine print detailing every possible side effect that could ever happen?  In fact, these things are usually so chock full of information, they’re unintelligible.  A nice example is the info sheet for Ambien, a quite innocuous and very helpful sleeping pill.

I bet that, if you’re having trouble sleeping, you’ll wade through all that Ambien info and decide that it’s worth trying out.  If you’re unlucky, and sensitive, you’ll get the side effects.  If you’re lucky, not only won’t you get side effects, but you’ll sleep well for the first time in forever.  The important thing is that, armed with the information and your doctor’s recommendation, you made a choice.

The FDA not only bars drugs, it also bars treatments (especially cancer treatments) that might not work.  How about allowing the treatment, but mandating that the provider clearly explain to the patient that the FDA thinks it won’t work or spelling out clearly what the risks are?  This would be similar to the warnings on cigarette packages — you know, the ones that say, it’s a free society, and you can buy cigarettes if you want, but you should know that they’ll probably end up killing you.  People still smoke in America, but many fewer than when I was growing up.  Freely available information changed people’s behaviors.

Imagine a cancer patient who, for whatever reason, is not a candidate for either chemo or radiation because his reaction to them is so severe it’s likely to kill him before the cancer does.  There is a third option available, one that has fewer side effects, but is also less likely to cure him.  Because, in this hypothetical, information is readily available about the treatment, he knows it is not a miracle cure with no risks.  Still, it might cure him, and he’s willing to pay the price for that chance.  Unfortunately for our sufferer, the FDA won’t approve it, because it’s less effective than chemo or radiation.  (I.e., it’s not perfect.)  That leaves the patient with only one other option:  no treatment and certain death. I’ve framed this as a hypothetical but, if you circle back to the top of this post, you’ll see that’s precisely what my friend is facing.

You see the exact same pattern — the bureaucrat’s ceaseless pursuit of perfection — when it comes to building codes.  They’ve gone from minimal safety requirements to known risks (fire, earthquake, collapse from rotten wood, etc.), to dreams of glory that often make new buildings and remodels impossibly costly.  We were thinking of adding a small stand-alone studio to our property, but gave it up when we learned that the building code required, among a hundred other things, that we make large parts of the studio wheelchair accessible — never mind that we don’t need wheelchair accessibility.  Yes, we might later require wheelchairs, but if that need arises we can spend the extra money at that time.  Or a prospective purchaser might demand wheelchair access, at which point we could, if we so desired, drop our sales price as part of closing the sale.  The big question, though, is why am I being forced to include those expensive and, to me, unnecessary amenities now?  Faced with the prohibitive cost, we abandoned our plan.  That was too bad, since it would have improved our property, and have provided employment to a bunch of people during a recession.

This is not an aimless rant.  It’s a rant that’s connected to government controlled health care.  One of the things that’s been worrying all of us is the accountant’s mentality that will gradually constrict the identity of patients who are entitled to care:  “It’s not cost effective for the government to pay for this cancer treatment for people over 70.”  “It’s not cost effective for the government to maintain medicine for hemophiliacs.”  “It’s not cost effective to provide intensive care for a newborn given a less than 50% chance of survival.”  We’ve already seen this happening in other countries that have government run medicine, so we know it will happen here.

But what we haven’t thought about is that the bureaucrats’ penchant for perfection will also affect the way government care is managed from within, never mind the patients who qualify for treatment.  That is, the government won’t just cut patients who might not have perfect outcomes.  The government will also cut medicines and treatments that might not have perfect outcomes.

This treatment and drug cutting won’t come about with the announcement that the government is henceforth refusing to pay for Drug A or Treatment B because they’re imperfect.  Nope.  This will be a backdoor one.  The government will promulgate more and more complex regulations, written in the abstract, regarding its expectations for drugs and treatments that will make the cut.  Superficially, these regulations will make it look as if the bureaucrats in charge care deeply for us, because they want only the best, the most optimal, the most perfect drugs and treatments to touch the precious body of each American citizen.  In reality, though, the bureaucratic quest for perfection, easy enough to achieve on paper, will prohibit entirely whole branches of treatment and medicine, since they will fail to meet the regulatory standards.

Voila!  Death through bureaucratic perfection.

Incidentally, if you want to read more on the subject of impossible bureaucratic hurdles, I highly recommend an old, but not out-dated book, called The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America.

One more thing:  one of these days, this bureaucratic perfection is going to spread to the world of eugenics based, not on race, but on freedom from imperfections — with the imperfections being mapped out by the same bureaucrats.  This isn’t going to be ugly, with mean spirited words about destroying the imperfect.  It’s going to be dry legalize that carefully spells out the perfect babies the government wants to ensure its citizens have.

UPDATE:  Right on time, there comes an article in my local paper about a rash of broken arms at brand new — meaning “totally up to code” — school playgrounds.

Hmmm *UPDATED*

The parts I’ve highlighted make this sound like a very expensive proposition and, as I explain below, I’m worried that the bureaucratic rigidity that controls these types of things is part of what will make it so ridiculously expensive:

Corte Madera must put a $3 million to $4 million revenue measure before voters by the end of 2015 to fund curb, sidewalk and other disability access improvements after a federal judge signed off on a settlement agreement Thursday.

The deal between Corte Madera and disability rights advocate Richard Skaff also requires the town to make numerous street, seating and disabled parking improvements by June 30, 2011, including repairing the sidewalk on Redwood Avenue, installing wheelchair seating in the gazebo at Old Corte Madera Square and putting in a curb ramp at Tamalpais Drive and Willow Avenue.

That work will be part of a street reconstruction project worth approximately $700,000 already included in the 2010-2011 budget, said George Warman, Corte Madera’s director of finance.

“The decree into which we’ve entered provides further assurance that the town will continue to work with due diligence to comply with state and federal disability laws,” Mayor Carla Condon said. “It is our utmost goal to remove any impediments to anyone with any disability.”

The settlement “is going to impact the town financially, but the long-term results will be in everyone’s interests,” she added.

Filed in 2008 in U.S. District Court, Skaff’s lawsuit contended that Corte Madera streets, sidewalks, trails and parking lots violated state and federal law guaranteeing access to people with disabilities. In a July 6 closed session, the council unanimously approved the settlement, which includes no admission of liability.

After the first phase of projects are completed next year, Corte Madera must establish a fund for subsequent work, the agreement said. The town will then put aside annual sums of either $50,000 or 50 percent of specific gas tax revenues, whichever is greater, and 10 percent of its unrestricted capital improvement expenditures from the fiscal year two years earlier until the revenue measure goes before voters some time between 2011 and the end of 2015.

Corte Madera’s unrestricted capital improvement expenditures came to zero last year because of the town’s financial problems, which include a projected $3.6 million deficit by the end of the 2010-2011 fiscal year, Warman said.

Skaff is a 66-year-old Mill Valley resident and former Corte Madera mayor who has sued numerous public agencies and businesses to get disability access. He said he hopes town officials frame the revenue measure in a positive light, highlighting its benefits for all residents.

“The sidewalks are just a horrendous mess. There has not been any work done on those for a long time,” Skaff said. “This (revenue measure) will give the town management the opportunity and the funding to do that.”

Under the settlement, Corte Madera will pay $200,000 in attorney and expert fees to Skaff as well as $25,000 in damages.

Skaff said he plans to put the $25,000 into his nonprofit Designing Accessible Communities, from which he draws no salary.

“We aren’t getting any enforcement by the California Department of Justice, so it ends up that individuals have to do the enforcement,” Skaff said. “It’s really frustrating because I’m one person, and trying to change the world as one person doesn’t work very well.”

Should the voters reject the revenue measure, the plaintiff will decide whether to continue bankrolling the work through the gas tax and capital improvement expenditures for 15 more years or to seek alternate funding sources, according to the settlement.

Read the rest here.

I’ve written before at this blog about the occasional insanity of bureaucratically imposed handicapped access.  When we got a north-south stop sign installed at our street, it cost the town a fortune because the town had to install wheel chair ramps at each of the four corners of the intersection — although there were broad driveways within 5-10 feet of each corner.  Because of the cost of the ramps, there was no money for the four way stop signs residents had actually requested to stop speeding cars that routinely drove through the east-west access.  So, for something like $40,000 taxpayer dollars, we got four redundant wheelchair ramps and two useless stop signs, which do nothing to slow the speeders.

My point is that, while I think handicapped access is a good thing, especially since those wheelchair ramps serve double duty for mothers with strollers, once the bureaucracy gets a hold of it, lunacy results — at taxpayer’s expense.  I have my doubts about the benefits of this whole thing.

UPDATE:  The town of Corte Madera was forced into this by a lawsuit, although I’m complaining, not about wheelchair accessibility, but about the fact that I’m sure the price is estimated to be so high because of inevitable bureaucratic foolishness in execution.  What’s Ann Arbor’s excuse for destroying its treasury and making its decisions?

The problem of self-perpetuating bureacracy

In the movie Wall-E, the little robot had a task, and it did the task, long after the task’s necessity had passed.  Like a funded bureaucrat, Wall-E just kept going and going and going.

In California, the Department of Transportation was given a mandate and a task, and now, long after the money has gone and the efforts proven fruitless, it’s still going and going and going, sucking up nonexistent funds and making expensive and pointless changes (emphasis mine):

In hopes of luring the endangered steelhead trout into the Santa Monica Mountains, California’s transportation agency is planning to spend $935,000 to pave over part of a popular beach with cement and boulders to build a freeway of sorts for fish.

The project is the latest, yet far from the most unusual, steelhead recovery attempt by government agencies that have spent millions of dollars on concrete fish ladders, cameras, fishways and other contraptions to allow seagoing trout to spawn in Southern California streams.

The problem, even some conservationists say, is that there is little evidence construction efforts since the 1980s have done anything except absorb taxpayer dollars. The work to save the species has led to about a dozen concrete fishways at a cost of more than $16.7 million.

A $1 million fish ladder — a structure designed to allow fish to migrate upstream over a barrier — may cost $7.5 million in stimulus funds to rebuild. Another fish ladder would require fish to leap 8 feet to reach it. Studies alone for replacing a third ladder have cost an estimated $3 million.

Read the rest here. Taxpayers and steelheads alike are weeping.

The above is a perfect example of the problems inherent in vesting too much power in government.  I’m perfectly sure that the various individuals involved in the project are good people.  Nevertheless, the bureaucracy for which they work has taken on a life of its own.  For these people to secure their jobs, they have to just keep working.  As long as they “look busy,”* they’ll keep getting funding, regardless of the fact that their task is pointless and costly.  Government never shrinks; it just grows.

How much better it would have been to have created a goal, and then tasked the marketplace with achieving that goal.

_____________________

*In my family, the phrase “looka busy” ties in to a very bad old joke my Dad used to tell, which is why I put “look busy” in quotation marks.  Here’s the joke, and please pardon the pathetic 1960s Italian-style accent that’s a part of the joke:

On a hot summer’s day, two Italian monks are working in desultory fashion along the roadside, pulling weeks.  Suddenly, the first monk gets a look of wonderment on his face.  “Hey!  Looka there.  Itsa Jesus Christ himself, a-walking to us.”  The second monk grabs his hoe and replies.  “Don’t just standa there.  Looka busy.”

See, I told you it was bad.  I was a little girl when I first remember Daddy telling it, and he spent an inordinate amount of time explaining to me the whole principle of looking busy around the boss.  I think that’s why the joke stuck in my brain.

Liberals laugh at business — even when they concede that it functions better than government

Last night, I went to hear Atul Gawande give a talk promoting his new book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.  The book’s premise is a simple one:  In an increasingly complex world, even experts benefit from a routine checklist that requires them to focus on the essentials necessary to their task.  The best checklists are not too detailed, and leave room for individual or team autonomy.  Gawande, a surgeon, came up with the idea when the World Health Organization asked him to investigate how to decrease unnecessary deaths associated with surgery.  After investigating similar complex situations (building tall buildings or airplanes), Gawande concluded that checklists that force people to remember what should be obvious (but nevertheless gets forgotten or overlooked), and that enable teams actually to function as teams, were the way to go.  Boeing was a huge inspiration for this.

I came away from the talk convinced that Gawande has a point (perhaps because I’m a checklist and outline person myself).  I was also impressed much less favorably by his devotion to the notion of government controlled health care (he’s all for the Frankenstein monstrosity wending its way through Congress).  Aside from my own prejudices, his manifest delight in the health care bill made no sense as he told anecdote after anecdote demonstrating that it’s the business sector, not the government, that is best able to adapt to his recommendations.  This became most clear when he talked about Hurricane Katrina.

Gawande noted that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA descended on New Orleans with the Checklists from Hell.  They were overly detailed, denied any personal responsibility, and prevented FEMA employees from adapting to the situation on the ground.  These government generated checklists, rather than heightening efficiency, rendered government employees ineffectual.

Gawande paused after this description.  Around me, all the people in this liberal, elite San Francisco audience nodded their heads wisely.  “That dumb Bush and his corrupt administration,” you could practically see them thinking.

By contrast, said Gawande, you could see the effective use of checklists from . . . long pause . . . “Wal-Mart, of all things.”  He paused for the obvious laugh line, and the audience obliged.  What a joke that the fascist Wal-Mart commercial dictatorship would function better than government.  Gawande clearly agreed, yet he went on to describe a Walmart behaving efficiently and humanely during the disaster.

Because its checklists weren’t rigid or overly long, Wal-Mart employees had a certain degree of latitude in the face of an enormous crisis.  Ultimately, Wal-Mart asked only that the managers check in with headquarters daily so that they could pool information and exchange ideas.  Within one day, while FEMA was still turning away supplies because they weren’t on a given employee’s checklist, Wal-Mart had arranged for free medicine to be handed out to be people who were dependent on their medicine (diabetics, for example). They were also providing essential supplies to FEMA, which was incapable of accessing its own resources.

What neither Gawande nor the audience seemed to comprehend was that this outcome wasn’t surprising, it was obvious.  Government is a bureaucratic entity ultimately responsible only for more government.  It is driven by fear, not by outcome.  The fear each employee has that he or she might get downgraded on the civil service list, the collective entity’s fear of a funding cut, its leadership’s fear that each member will fail to ascend in the government ranks, and so on.  It has no responsibility beyond its own bureaucratic survival.  If it goes through the motions, and sort of gets the job done, it will continue to exist.

Business, however, must be infinitely adaptable in the Darwinian world of the marketplace.  It cannot afford complacency or rigidity.  It cannot afford the risk of litigation for failure.  It can react with incredible speed, since management doesn’t have to go through a bureaucratic or legislative process in order to change a checklist or procedure.  If Gawande really believes in his lists, the last thing he’ll want is for them to be government controlled, because they will never improve.  Instead, they will stagnate in bureaucratic limbo, good enough, but never better.

Gawande’s talk left me more certain than ever that, while our health care system needs reform, handing the details over to the government is a sure recipe for a FEMA-level disaster.

Life in the bureaucratic state

People around the world are facing food shortages but, in the magical bureacracy that is the EU, food is being destroyed for being a millimeter off of Brussels regulations:

A market trader has been banned from selling a batch of kiwi fruits because they are 1mm smaller than EU rules allow.

Inspectors told 53-year- old Tim Down he is forbidden even to give away the fruits, which are perfectly healthy.

The father of three will now have to bin the 5,000 kiwis, costing him £1,000 in lost sales.

Speaking yesterday from the stall in Bristol he has owned for 20 years, Mr Down said: ‘It’s total nonsense. I work hard enough to make a living without all these bureaucrats telling us what we can and can’t sell.

‘They’re saying I’m a criminal for selling this fruit, but the real crime is that all this fruit will go to waste  –  all because it’s 1mm too small.

‘It’s a terrible waste, particularly when we’re all feeling the pinch from rising food prices and I’ve got to throw away this perfectly good fruit.’

This is life in a world regulated, not by the marketplace of real sellers and buyers, but by the government.  This, incidentally, is what Barack Obama would like to bring to all of us, since his fellow travelers are all statists — people who want the government to play an overarching role in our lives, including in the marketplace.

Your British tax dollars at work

I can’t add anything to this that you haven’t already thought of yourselves:

A solicitor who specialises in representing terror suspects and tells them not to cooperate with police was paid almost £1 million in legal aid last year.

Muddassar Arani’s firm represented Abu Hamza, dirty bomb plotter Dhirin Barot and three of the 21/7 bombers in recent years.

She has raked in £3.5 million in taxpayer-funded support to help defend extremist suspects in recent years, according to new figures.

In the seven years documented in figures released under the Freedom of Information Act payments from the Legal Services Commission have almost quadrupled.

In one month alone – May last year – the firm billed almost £400,000 for legal services.

The 44-year-old mum of two once boasted in a magazine that those accused of terrorism come to her first.

Read the rest here.

Your federal government at work

This tidbit showed up in today’s paper:

Adding an extra dollar to peak-hour commutes across the Golden Gate Bridge is supposed to make the trip faster by discouraging people from crossing at the busiest times.

So bridge officials were a little befuddled when, in the days leading up to hatching the new plan, federal transportation wonks weighed in – strongly suggesting that the new toll be $6.50 all day long.

Bridge authorities explained that A) it was the feds’ own idea to charge more at peak times and B) a $6.50 toll would be self-defeating, because toll takers would have to make change, which in turn would lead to even bigger backups.

The feds’ response: How about a $7 toll – but give everyone a coupon for $1 off on their next trip? That way it would still come out to $6.50.

And you wonder why things are so screwed up in Washington.

Life is so confusing when you’re a bureaucrat.

More stories of bureacracies run wild

My mother-in-law’s parents died in Auschwitz.  She wasn’t around for that horror because her parents, in a tremendous (and prescient) sacrifice, boarded her onto the Kindertransport, which took young children out of Nazi countries.  As with my mother-in-law, most of these children never saw their parents again.  Because the fact that she had to flee her country deprived her of the natural opportunities of an education, my mother-in-law became entitled to reparations.  (My Dad, too, would have been entitled to such reparations if he hadn’t been such a stubborn Communist that he refused to apply, but that’s another long, sad story.)

Anyway, the reparation money eventually came through and ended up in an Austrian bank.  For more than two years now, my mother in law has been trying to get that money out of the bank and transferred to her here — without any success.

The bank has a continually growing list of bureaucratic assigns which, aggregated, create a Sisyphean task that can never be fulfilled.  They keep asking her to prove that she is who she says she is, and with every new proof, they ask her to prove that the proof is real.  The bank’s most recent pronouncement, which arrived in today’s mail, is to the effect that, per an EU regulation that went into effect last November (two years after she started trying to get her money), the bank is entitled to a 1,000 Euro fee for the act of giving her own money back to her.

My mother-in-law thinks that this is an anti-Semitic plot to take advantage of an aged refugee, and steal her money.  I think that it’s a petty bureaucratic scheme by which a bank manages to use its rules and the EU’s rules take advantage of a far-away depositor, first by refusing to release the money altogether and then by hanging onto a handsome profit for returning her own property to her.  Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bank’s delay in processing her request occurred precisely because its administrators knew about the upcoming EU regulation that would give them a 1,000 Euro windfall.

I mention this whole story, which nicely seems to sum up the inhumanity that characterizes so many European bureaucracies (just think about the pain-in-the-neck process of checking into a European hotel hotel), because I read a story out of England that takes this insane commitment to process to an extreme degree:

When Rachel Leake developed complications from diabetes, her selfless daughter tried to donate one of her kidneys to save her.

But 21-year-old Laura Ashworth died suddenly before the arrangements could be completed – and her mother has now been told the organs will go to strangers instead.

Family and friends, who all knew of Laura’s desire to be a live donor, tried to get the authorities to change the decision.

They even enlisted the help of local MP Gerry Sutcliffe to lobby health ministers on Mrs Leake’s behalf, but to no avail.

Laura died after suffering massive brain damage when she stopped breathing because of a suspected asthma attack.

One of Laura’s kidneys went to a man in Sheffield and the second to a man in London. Her liver was given to a 15-year-old girl.

“I am angry, really angry,” said Mrs Leake, who is 39. “I am not finding comfort at the moment in the fact that she helped three people.”

[snip]

Mrs Leake said she still did not know why her request to receive her daughter’s organs was refused.

She said: “Everyone has gone mad and everyone is disgusted. The thing that hurts the most is how Laura would feel. She would be devastated that she was not able to help me.

“My sister has now written down her wishes that I get her kidney if anything was to happen to her. I will not let this go – there could be another person it could happen to.”

A spokesman for UK Transplant said the final decision in this case was taken by the Human Tissue Authority.

“They were the ones who in this circumstance were asked if the daughter’s kidney could go to the mother,” he said. “Their judgement, under the law, was that it was not allowed to happen.”

No one at the Human Tissue Authority was available for comment.

Sanity returns (at least temporarily) in Chicago

I blogged yesterday about law enforcement run amok, in connection with the decision to prosecute a mother who left a sleeping child in the car, while she walked a few feet away — something every mother in the world has done. As you may recall, I was quite heated in expounding upon the idiocy of a system that would terrorize a good citizen in this way. I suspect I wasn’t the only one generating heat, because Chicago’s prosecutors abruptly decided to drop the charges against Treffly Coyne:

Charges will be dropped against a woman who briefly left her 2-year- old daughter alone in the car to take her two older daughters to pour coins into a Salvation Army kettle, prosecutors said Thursday.

The woman, Treffly Coyne, was charged with misdemeanor child endangerment and obstructing a peace officer after a Crestwood police officer spotted her sleeping daughter alone in the vehicle Dec. 8. The mother claimed she was close by at all times and was gone for just minutes.

Coyne’s trial was supposed to begin Thursday, but prosecutors could not meet the burden of proof and decided to drop the charges, Cook County State’s Attorney spokesman John Gorman said.

Her husband reacted with relief and anger. If convicted, his wife faced up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500.

“We shouldn’t have had to fight this long and this hard when my wife never did anything wrong,” said Timothy Janecyk. The planned dismissal of the charges “only shows they tore my family apart for no reason.”

Coyne, who was arrested in a loading zone near the entrance of a Wal- Mart store, contended 2-year-old Phoebe, who was sleeping, was safe inside the car after she locked it, activated the alarm system and turned on the emergency flashers.

She said she was never more than 30 feet from the vehicle, did not step inside the store and was gone for only minutes. And her attorney said because the car was always in sight, Coyne’s daughter never was unattended.

Crestwood Police Chief Timothy Sulikowski said he disagreed with prosecutors’ decision.

“We stand by the actions of our officers that night and they were looking out for the best interests of the child,” he said.

Sulikowski said that while police were obligated to report the case to the state’s child welfare agency, Coyne would not have been arrested had she cooperated and not refused to give them basic information, including the child’s name.

“By not providing us with that information and the information of her child, at that point we don’t know that that child is hers. We don’t know if that child has been listed as a kidnapped child or a missing child,” he said. “Absolutely, she forced this.”

Coyne has acknowledged that she did not tell the officers her child’s name after she called her husband on her cell phone and he told her not to say anything until he arrived. She said she was afraid and only wanted to wait for her husband, but police arrested her before he did.

I trust that you’ve figured out by now that this harassment against Treffly was because she didn’t immediately give the police the investigation they demanded. I’m extremely supportive of police, and I fully appreciate how difficult and dangerous their job is. But to harass a mother like this, to threaten her with the loss of her children, because she fell silent, is a horrific act of police ego and overreach, which was then, not only rubber-stamped, but enthusiastically endorsed by the entire Cook County political and prosecutorial system.  Shame on all of them.
And now I have only one last question: what kind of name is Treffly?

Petty tyrants

I blogged here about the risk of vesting too much power in petty bureaucracies.  Rhymes with Right has a really awful story about a single petty tyrant vested with too much power.

Government versus private business — and the dictatorship of one

In several posts over the last few days, I’ve commented about Disney efficiency.  Thousands of people are fairly painlessly shuffled from place to place; Fast Passes are a think of beauty, especially if individuals handle them well; everything is immaculately clean, including the overused bathrooms; the equipment functions superbly well considering the demands made upon it; and the people who work there are pleasant and handle their jobs with competence.  The whole place is a testament to corporate efficiency.  Many, however, think corporations are bad things (Obama, anyone?) and, if elected, assure us that they will see to it that the government will manage more and more aspects of our lives (healthcare, anyone?).

For those of you who think this liberal vision is a good thing, I’d like to give you a little example of how the government handles things, along with the added bonus of some insight into how disability advocates view society’s obligations to them:

Where else but San Francisco City Hall could a 10-foot-long wheelchair ramp wind up costing $1 million?

Thanks to a maze of bureaucratic indecision and historic restrictions, taxpayers may shell out $100,000 per foot to make the Board of Supervisors president’s perch in the historic chambers accessible to the disabled.

What’s more, the little remodel job that planners first thought would take three months has stretched into more than four years – and will probably mean the supervisors will have to move out of their hallowed hall for five months while the work is done.

“It’s crazy,” admits Susan Mizner, director of the mayor’s Office on Disability. “But this is just the price of doing business in a historic building.”

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick said Tuesday that the issue went to the heart of liberal guilt that often drives the city’s decision making. He also choked on the price tag, and asked that the board take some more time to come up with an alternative, like maybe just getting rid of the president’s elevated seat.

The root of the problem dates back to when City Hall got a $300 million makeover in the 1990s that made just about every hallway, bathroom and office accessible to the disabled. The exception was the board president’s podium, which is reachable only for someone who can climb the five steps from the chamber floor.

The understanding was that the room would eventually be made fully accessible. But no one worried about the podium until 2004 when Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, who uses a wheelchair, joined the board.

City architect Tony Irons and representatives of the state Office of Historic Preservation – which had to be consulted to make sure the city was sensitive to the building’s designation as a state landmark – were called in to take measurements.

Then preservation architects from the San Francisco firm Page and Turnbill worked up no fewer than 18 design options – at a cost of $98,000 – with ideas ranging from an electric lift to abandoning the president’s lordly podium altogether.

No one could decide which design to use, so after a year of arguing, the Department of Public Works was ordered to make 3-D computer models of all the options.

The ramp won, which means lowering the president’s desk, which means eliminating three of the “historic” stairs and tearing out Manchurian oak panels that are no longer available, which in turn will mean finding a historically correct replacement.

And because the ramp was going to encroach on the room’s sound equipment, officials decided they might as well use the opportunity to upgrade the board chamber’s entire audio-visual system, to the tune of $300,000.

Here’s what else is going into the million-dollar ramp:

— $77,000 for the city’s Bureau of Architecture project manager, design and construction fees.

— $455,000 for the actual construction, plus asbestos removal.

— $28,000 for a construction scheduling consultant.

— $3,500 for an electrical consultant.

— $68,000 for the Bureau of Construction Management to oversee the construction and various consultants.

— $12,000 for Department of Technology and Information Services oversight.

— $16,500 for permits and fees. (Yes, believe it or not, the city charges itself.)

— And as much as $65,000 for bid overruns.

All for a total of: $1,123,000.

And counting.

The supervisors considered signing off on the work Tuesday but put it over for another week. Even if the board gives its final blessing, however, construction of the ramp won’t be completed before the end of the year – midway through Alioto-Pier’s second and final term.

“I deserve equal access to every part of the chamber,” Alioto-Pier told her colleagues, adding that ending discrimination is worth the $1 million.  [Emphasis added plus this point:  One million in taxpayer money, that is.]

Incidentally, I am not unsympathetic to the hurdles the handicapped face in this world.  It’s also true that many handicapped access ramps and bathroom stalls extend an unexpected benefit to moms with strollers.  However, as I’ve blogged before, there has to be some cost/benefit analysis before we give over huge sums of public money, not to benefit all or most of the handicapped, but to benefit one person (as in Alioto-Pier, the only wheelchair bound supervisor ever) or, as is often the case with relentless bureaucratic initiatives, no persons at all.

How government works

I grew up in San Francisco, and always found the intersection at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard frustrating and nerve wracking. Sloat runs east/west and 19th Avenue runs north/south. If you’re heading south on 19th Avenue, and want to make a left turn onto Sloat (heading east), there is a left turn signal. However, if you’re heading east on Sloat and would like to make a left turn onto 19th Avenue (north), there is no left turn signal. Instead the far left lane is a left turn only lane, with the second left lane being a lane that allows drivers to go straight ahead or turn left.

During peak traffic periods, when a green light hits, people in the far left lane creep out into the intersection and sit there waiting for an opportunity to make that left turn. Often, when the light changes, they find themselves trapped in the intersection, with traffic on 19th Avenue heading their way from both directions, always an unnerving experience.

If you’re in the second to left lane, the situation is even worse, because drivers who had no intention of turning left find themselves trapped in that lane behind the left turners. They get impatient, and start pushing in dangerous directions. They, too, find themselves trapped in the intersection when the light changes but, instead of turning into the north/south flow of 19th Avenue, they’re still trying to head east, against the flow.

Just to add to the chaos, students from several nearby high schools traverse the intersection (as I did in my day), and things get even worse on summer weekends because of the popular open air concerts held at Stern Grove, which fronts on the intersection. The statistics for the intersection are amazing:

With its 7.5-mile length, 85,000 daily vehicles, and 80,000 daily pedestrians, 19th Avenue is one of the busiest — and most dangerous — corridors in The City, connecting Interstate 280 and highway 1 to the Golden Gate Bridge. At least three deaths have occurred along the state highway, which is under the jurisdiction of Caltrans and not the city of San Francisco.

There were seven injury collisions in 2006 and six in 2005 at 19th and Sloat.  (Emphasis mine.)

Sadly, just last month, a 21 year old woman joined the list of fatalities at that intersection (and four other people were injured).   It therefore didn’t surprise me today to read that Caltrans is finally going to do something to make the intersection safer — it’s going to put a left turn signal on Sloat Boulevard for east bound traffic that wants to turn left (north) onto 19th Avenue:

A new traffic signal, to be installed today at the intersection, will allow drivers eastbound on Sloat to make a left onto 19th without the threat of a collision from incoming cars on westbound Sloat.

That’s the good news.  Here’s the shocking part of the story:

According to Municipal Transportation Agency spokeswoman Maggie Lynch, the agency’s engineers have been seeking approval for the installation for seven years.  (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, because of bureaucratic inertia, several people have been injured and one woman has died at a manifestly dangerous intersection — and one that routinely contributes to major traffic jams on that well-traveled 19th Avenue.  No matter how you slice it, bureaucracies are inherently inefficient institutions.  This type of story is one of the main reasons I’ve moved away from being a liberal.  Their faith in government means that every single policy they support requires creating ever more bureaucracies.  I recognize the necessity of these institutions when it comes to traditional government functions such as transportation or defense, but I shudder to think of expanding them into more and more corners of our daily life.  (Think:  managed care.)

Using a regulatory howitzer to kill a fly — and destroying freedom in the process

Don Quixote will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think one of the core things about being a libertarian is that you don’t try to control people’s conduct, but you do step in if they break certain clearly stated rules. Indeed, you don’t need to be a libertarian to have that view. As a capitalist, I don’t want the government controlling the marketplace. I just want it to step in and stop cheats. Heck, forget capitalism. Let’s look at the Bible. I doubt many have missed the fact that, subject to a couple of exceptions (identifying the Lord as your Lord, and requiring believers to honor their parents), the Ten Commandments prohibit several categories of immoral acts, but otherwise give people the great gift of free will when it comes to navigating the moral universe.

That’s the sublime. Here comes the ridiculous. To crack down on illegal recruiting in high school athletics, California has imposed a blanket ban holding that kids who transfer from one school to another are barred for a year from participating in competitive sports:

Morgan Farrer knew she wanted to leave Marin Catholic High School last spring. She says all her friends attend Terra Linda High School and she made the decision to transfer, no matter the consequence.

This summer, Farrer learned what it cost her: no interscholastic athletics for one full school year.

“I wanted to play (softball) there,” Farrer said of Terra Linda. “All my friends are on the team, and they want me to play with them, too.”

Farrer, a junior, is among the casualties of tough new regulations for athletic eligibility of transfer students. The new rules, instituted for every high school in the state by the California Interscholastic Federation, make it harder for high school transfer students to retain varsity eligibility at their new schools.

The federation is attempting to curb transfers in which students move to new schools purely for athletic purposes or because of illegal recruitment from coaches. The federation has jurisdiction only over athletics and no other extracurricular activities – which is why a student would not be punished for transferring to a better art department or theater program, but they would lose a year of athletic eligibility even if the transfer is not athletics-related.

The changes come on the heels of a number of violations by members of the Marin County Athletic League. In May, the Redwood High boys lacrosse team was stripped of its league championship and forced to forfeit all its wins for using two ineligible transfer students. Earlier in the spring, the Tam High boys tennis team forfeited the individual matches of an ineligible player who transferred in.

This is the same insanity that plays out in the zero tolerance world that most recently saw a boy suspended from school for drawing what was either a science fiction style weapon or a wacky house.

These kinds of legislative activities, especially when they concern children, could not be better examples of the dangers of government micro management, the type of management that, in the laziest way possible, eases policing duties for government employees. After all, it’s easier just to bar everyone from an activity than to pay attention to whether the activity is being carried out honestly. Worse, this bureaucratic management approach assumes that all employees are too stupid to make judgment calls, and that all students (and employees) are potential cheats.

This post gives me the opportunity to flog a book written more than a decade ago, but one that is as clearly relevant today as it was when written. It’s called The Death of Common Sense : How Law is Suffocating America and its author, Philip K. Howard, fills its pages with examples of rules, regulations and legislation that regularly aim punitive, mind-numbing sanctions at ordinary citizens, and that stifle innovation. Buy it or get it from the library. You’ll find it opens your eyes tro the world around you.

The post also gives me the opportunity to answer publicly a question that DQ asked me privately: How could I tolerate or find even slightly believable the Dolores Umbridge character in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? My reply was three tiered, with the last tier tying into this post’s subject. First, I’ve actually known people like Umbridge, who are sugary sweet in their presentation and utterly evil and amoral in their acts. Second, I think Umbridge is the extreme representation of girls generally, since girls are often quite mean but cover it with pinky sweetness.

Third — and here’s the tie-in to this post — I think Umbridge is not merely meant to be a character. I think she is a symbol of the type of overreaching bureaucracy that, by paying lip service to the public good, stifles initiative, imagination, free speech, ordinary morality, and individual judgment. And if you think I’m finding symbolism where there is none, keep in mind that J.K. Rowling is a citizen of Europe, where the “beneficent” EU keeps legislating freedom away, one petty regulation after another.

Using a regulatory howitzer to kill a fly — and destroying freedom in the process

Don Quixote will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think one of the core things about being a libertarian is that you don’t try to control people’s conduct, but you do step in if they break certain clearly stated rules. Indeed, you don’t need to be a libertarian to have that view. As a capitalist, I don’t want the government controlling the marketplace. I just want it to step in and stop cheats. Heck, forget capitalism. Let’s look at the Bible. I doubt many have missed the fact that, subject to a couple of exceptions (identifying the Lord as your Lord, and requiring believers to honor their parents), the Ten Commandments prohibit several categories of immoral acts, but otherwise give people the great gift of free will when it comes to navigating the moral universe.

That’s the sublime. Here comes the ridiculous. To crack down on illegal recruiting in high school athletics, California has imposed a blanket ban holding that kids who transfer from one school to another are barred for a year from participating in competitive sports:

Morgan Farrer knew she wanted to leave Marin Catholic High School last spring. She says all her friends attend Terra Linda High School and she made the decision to transfer, no matter the consequence.

This summer, Farrer learned what it cost her: no interscholastic athletics for one full school year.

“I wanted to play (softball) there,” Farrer said of Terra Linda. “All my friends are on the team, and they want me to play with them, too.”

Farrer, a junior, is among the casualties of tough new regulations for athletic eligibility of transfer students. The new rules, instituted for every high school in the state by the California Interscholastic Federation, make it harder for high school transfer students to retain varsity eligibility at their new schools.

The federation is attempting to curb transfers in which students move to new schools purely for athletic purposes or because of illegal recruitment from coaches. The federation has jurisdiction only over athletics and no other extracurricular activities – which is why a student would not be punished for transferring to a better art department or theater program, but they would lose a year of athletic eligibility even if the transfer is not athletics-related.

The changes come on the heels of a number of violations by members of the Marin County Athletic League. In May, the Redwood High boys lacrosse team was stripped of its league championship and forced to forfeit all its wins for using two ineligible transfer students. Earlier in the spring, the Tam High boys tennis team forfeited the individual matches of an ineligible player who transferred in.

This is the same insanity that plays out in the zero tolerance world that most recently saw a boy suspended from school for drawing what was either a science fiction style weapon or a wacky house.

These kinds of legislative activities, especially when they concern children, could not be better examples of the dangers of government micro management, the type of management that, in the laziest way possible, eases policing duties for government employees. After all, it’s easier just to bar everyone from an activity than to pay attention to whether the activity is being carried out honestly. Worse, this bureaucratic management approach assumes that all employees are too stupid to make judgment calls, and that all students (and employees) are potential cheats.

This post gives me the opportunity to flog a book written more than a decade ago, but one that is as clearly relevant today as it was when written. It’s called The Death of Common Sense : How Law is Suffocating America and its author, Philip K. Howard, fills its pages with examples of rules, regulations and legislation that regularly aim punitive, mind-numbing sanctions at ordinary citizens, and that stifle innovation. Buy it or get it from the library. You’ll find it opens your eyes tro the world around you.

The post also gives me the opportunity to answer publicly a question that DQ asked me privately: How could I tolerate or find even slightly believable the Dolores Umbridge character in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? My reply was three tiered, with the last tier tying into this post’s subject. First, I’ve actually known people like Umbridge, who are sugary sweet in their presentation and utterly evil and amoral in their acts. Second, I think Umbridge is the extreme representation of girls generally, since girls are often quite mean but cover it with pinky sweetness.

Third — and here’s the tie-in to this post — I think Umbridge is not merely meant to be a character. I think she is a symbol of the type of overreaching bureaucracy that, by paying lip service to the public good, stifles initiative, imagination, free speech, ordinary morality, and individual judgment. And if you think I’m finding symbolism where there is none, keep in mind that J.K. Rowling is a citizen of Europe, where the “beneficent” EU keeps legislating freedom away, one petty regulation after another.