Sunday, May 30, 2010

Efficiency and Inefficiency in government

The useful stereotype has been that government is inefficient whereas the Darwinian private world is full of efficient, killer sharks. And you certainly feel it’s true anytime you’re stuck in a long, slow line at the DMV or Post Office…but you never think about the distinction when you’re stuck on the phone with the insurance company or waiting for the cable guy to show up, do you? (Absurdly, it seems to be standard cable guy practice to give you a three-hour window wherein they might show up. Or might not.)

Of the customer service departments I’ve dealt with, the easiest to interact with have been Apple, Amazon, and Amtrak. Think about that for a second.

Anyway, I’ve been reading the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, The Path To Power, and was struck by the section on Johnson’s leadership of the Texas office of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program created to ease the pains of youth during the Depression: to employ them at worthwhile jobs during the summer, then to create useful part-time jobs during the school year to give them funds to keep them in school.

It becomes complicated, but that’s testament to the potential of government to come up with inventive solutions to difficult problems. First, the restrictions to the program: you couldn’t displace older workers, and the majority of funds appropriated to the NYA had to go directly into wages to the working students (and not, for example, to building materials). Johnson came up with a very clever solution: the Texas highways in those times had no rest stops and often narrow shoulders, meaning that if you wanted to stop to go to the bathroom, or have a picnic or something, you had to pull over on the narrow (or nonexistent) shoulder, which is obviously not very good. So he had the students build rest stops (the Texas department in charge of highways wasn’t planning on doing it, but was able to furnish the building materials, thus checking all the boxes in a particularly satisfying way).

But wait, there’s more (pp. 364-5):
The student aid program was…accomplishing its purpose…by June 1939, the NYA’s fourth year, more than a thousand graduating students had received NYA aid for each of their four years…[also, 11,061 high school students received aid]

The Texas NYA was, in fact, accomplishing purposes only vaguely, if at all, envisioned in Washington, where colleges were often thought of as the ivied, lavish campuses of the Northeast. Many Texas colleges, only a few years old and engaged in a continual struggle just to keep to keep their doors open, had been unable to build needed facilities. For example, ten years after the founding of Texas Tech…, its campus was still only a treeless, barren tract on the plains just below the Panhandle, with inadequate library and laboratories, and with dormitory space for only 600 of its 3,000 students. Falling enrollment from the children of the plains’ struggling farmers and ranchers had imperiled its existence. The NYA not only got Texas tech’s students back to school, but put them to work building needed facilities, planting trees and bushes, and sodding the quadrangles.

One NYA program…was designed to help young people who had never been to college and who—without help—would not be able to go for some time. There were many such youths in Texas who, after graduating from high school, had found that their families, in desperate financial straits, could not spare them from the farm and who had gone to work, intending to resume their education when the grip of the Depression eased…[T]his trend spelled tragedy. In sparsely settled rural areas, higher education was not an accepted part of life. Once youths from these areas dropped off the educational path, they were all too often off it for good, never to return.

What was the solution? What ended up being called a Freshman College Center where:

At it, students whose families were on relief and who could not be spared from the farm or ranch, were offered, upon graduation from high school, the opportunity to take one or two tuition-free college courses while continuing to live and work at home. A college could not afford to pay the professors for such a center…but the NYA could—and if the teachers hired by the NYA were those who had been laid off by colleges and were now on relief, teachers as well as students would be helped. By March 1936, twenty Freshman College Centers were operating in Texas.

Still more:

Another NYA program used colleges to help young men and women who didn’t want to go to college. Some wanted to stay on the farm; the NYA did not attempt to change their feelings, only to show how life on the farm could be better than they had known it, while giving them a little cash to ease life there. Rural youths were brought to the campus for a four-month vocational course in such areas as animal husbandry, dairy manufacturing, farm-machinery repair…

The point here isn’t just a simple refutation of the government must always or is usually inefficient, but that government too often doesn’t live up to its possibilities. (For another example, read Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful profile of Lois Weisberg). Why is that? One thing that immediately suggests itself is Lyndon B. Johnson, and Caro makes it clear that Texas under Johnson’s leadership was unique in sophistication, energy and innovation in the NYA program, that other states repeatedly fell under quota for its basic requirements. This would not be a cheering suggestion if true, since finding a large cadre of people who are potential Presidents and putting them all in government is difficult for one, perhaps undesirable for another. So hopefully this isn’t it. But then, what is? I’m not sure, and I haven’t really seen a lot of thinking going around about how to solve such questions as, “How can we make the trip to the DMV tolerable?”

Answering such questions wouldn’t be good in of themselves—surely saving everyone hours of time is a very good thing in itself. But it would be good for public confidence in general. Trust in government, according to the Pew Center, hasn’t gone above 50% since 1978. And lack of trust in government leads to people voting—typically for Republicans--for people who profess to dislike government and want to do things like drown it in a bathtub. And, sure enough, electing people who want to drown government in a bathtub doesn’t lead to particularly good governing—you wouldn’t hire a vegetarian to be a barbeque chef, now would you? And this means even less trust in government and….well, you see where this is going, don’t you? When people don’t trust government, they look out for their self-interest first of all, which is will inevitably lead to trouble when we need to take action against the deficit. Now I don’t mean to suggest fixing the DMV is the only thing separating us from trusting government again, but certainly it’s a start? After all, how do people interact with government most—the DMV, the Post Office, police, firefighters, etc. So if we can figure out how to make the DMV a little more like the Texas NYA, we can solve many more problems than just the obvious ones.

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