Taking on the Mandarins

Bureaucrats benefit complex societies and are necessary to modern industrial states, but also impose costs and perils. Modelling the United States’ civil service in part on the Chinese use of mandarins, 19th-century government reformers hoped to create a highly skilled apolitical professional bureaucracy. That bureaucracy is now monstrous and tilted dangerously towards one political alignment over another. The American professional bureaucracy’s barely concealed hostility to the Trump administration is but the latest evidence of this. The president has an opportunity to reform the civil service, but such a hazardous undertaking must be done doggedly and deliberately.

China’s historic success can be attributed in part to the creation of mandarins, professional bureaucrats who not only managed the government, but also developed and preserved cultural norms, such as language and Confucianism. Starting around the time of the Tang Dynasty the government selected mandarins on true merit, rather than elite family connections, based upon a rigorous written exam. There were obvious inequities, as the illiterate poor were usually, though not entirely, excluded. It was not unknown for a poor village to finance the education of a promising peasant boy in hopes that he would pass the exam and bring honor and wealth back home.

Of course, this also created problems, as mandarins, though nominally unbiased and professional, could use their power to benefit themselves, and/or to destroy perceived enemies, whether or not these actions benefitted the state. Ultimately, the mandarin became a societal class unto itself, and like any such class, sought to advance its own interests above those of the common good.

The U.S. civil service has followed a similar course. Originally, selection was based on the spoils system, according to the outcome of presidential elections, meaning that American bureaucrats did not have to be particularly smart, qualified, or skilled, so long as they had the correct political affiliation. This ended in the late 1800s with the Pendleton Act and the establishment of the Civil Service Commission. While hardly perfect, the new system, like that of the ancient Chinese, incorporated a competitive exam to weed out incompetents, promote excellence, and reduce bias in hiring decisions.

In modern times, until 1981, federal job applicants for higher level positions were required to take the PACE Test (overall for a relatively small percentage of federal jobs.)  Although the test was carefully crafted and vetted, black applicants consistently did much worse on the test compared to white applicants (and other minority groups) with the result that the Carter administration scrapped the test in 1981, without replacing it. From that point on federal civil service hiring proceeded without an objective measure of competency or excellence.

The goal was to open up high-end federal jobs to African-Americans, which might have been noble, but came with its own consequences. Leaving aside whether this policy impacted efficiency or service delivery, it clearly if not deliberately ensured the hiring of employees almost guaranteed to be committed Democrats. The same supervisors hiring African-Americans under the rubric of affirmative action or diversity, could do much the same thing by hiring women or other minorities who skew Democrat, without having pesky test scores interfere. It even works for white males, by selecting the more probably liberal of two equally qualified candidates, e.g., the guy from Long Island who went to NYU and did graduate work at Berkeley.

Nearly forty years on, much of the federal bureaucracy is a clique of entrenched Democrat apparatchiks, with job protections that make it difficult if not impossible to fire. They have their hands on the levers of government, and now with an almost universally reviled (among Democrats) Republican president, are ready and willing to act against him.  

What can Trump do?

Get his administration organized so that cabinet members and agency heads will appoint politically tough and reliable undersecretaries willing to do battle with career subordinates. This sounds like a no-brainer but it is not. It’s contrary to human nature and ordinary business practice. You generally don’t go into a job assuming your new employees are your enemies.

Bring back the PACE exam or something similar. Update it so that the inevitable attacks that arise about it being prejudicial to minorities can at least be muted. While African-Americans a generation ago might have had legitimate complaints about lack of educational opportunity compromising test performance that case is hard to make today.

Maintain the hiring freeze. The freeze not only keeps the federal rolls from expanding, it inhibits empire building within agencies. This has the added effect of slowing promotion.

Reinstitute broad merit pay systems in the federal government. These have been both ineffective and unpopular in the past, but so what. If it reduces the attractiveness of federal employment, presumably we will have fewer federal employees. Plus implementing such policies, or threatening them, gives the new administration some leverage, and will further demonstrate that Trump means business.

While troublesome federal employees are difficult to fire, they can be neutered, though at a cost. Within the government are thousands of employees who for various reasons are simply given a desk, told to come into work every day, and are paid for doing nothing -- the federal equivalent of “teachers’ jail” where school districts place problematic teachers who are too hard to fire. Not all of these employees are incompetent. Some simply refuse to kowtow to whatever bureaucratic imperative their bosses demand, or even perhaps display a politically incorrect mien. These people might be allies. Meanwhile, those bureaucrats who attempt to obstruct the work of the new administration but are too difficult to fire might be put out to pasture this way. You have to still pay them, but better to pay them for being harmless than undermining their boss.

None of this would be easy, and reinstituting an exam and merit pay would likely require new legislation. Likewise, for such a large task, eight years would be better than four.

I have nothing against federal bureaucrats. My father was one, and I’ve worked there myself. But the system has obviously become dangerously corrupted by politics in a way that the civil service reforms of a century ago were meant to eliminate.  By putting this issue in high relief, Trump’s election could provide the impetus to undo the damage before it is too late. 

Bureaucrats benefit complex societies and are necessary to modern industrial states, but also impose costs and perils. Modelling the United States’ civil service in part on the Chinese use of mandarins, 19th-century government reformers hoped to create a highly skilled apolitical professional bureaucracy. That bureaucracy is now monstrous and tilted dangerously towards one political alignment over another. The American professional bureaucracy’s barely concealed hostility to the Trump administration is but the latest evidence of this. The president has an opportunity to reform the civil service, but such a hazardous undertaking must be done doggedly and deliberately.

China’s historic success can be attributed in part to the creation of mandarins, professional bureaucrats who not only managed the government, but also developed and preserved cultural norms, such as language and Confucianism. Starting around the time of the Tang Dynasty the government selected mandarins on true merit, rather than elite family connections, based upon a rigorous written exam. There were obvious inequities, as the illiterate poor were usually, though not entirely, excluded. It was not unknown for a poor village to finance the education of a promising peasant boy in hopes that he would pass the exam and bring honor and wealth back home.

Of course, this also created problems, as mandarins, though nominally unbiased and professional, could use their power to benefit themselves, and/or to destroy perceived enemies, whether or not these actions benefitted the state. Ultimately, the mandarin became a societal class unto itself, and like any such class, sought to advance its own interests above those of the common good.

The U.S. civil service has followed a similar course. Originally, selection was based on the spoils system, according to the outcome of presidential elections, meaning that American bureaucrats did not have to be particularly smart, qualified, or skilled, so long as they had the correct political affiliation. This ended in the late 1800s with the Pendleton Act and the establishment of the Civil Service Commission. While hardly perfect, the new system, like that of the ancient Chinese, incorporated a competitive exam to weed out incompetents, promote excellence, and reduce bias in hiring decisions.

In modern times, until 1981, federal job applicants for higher level positions were required to take the PACE Test (overall for a relatively small percentage of federal jobs.)  Although the test was carefully crafted and vetted, black applicants consistently did much worse on the test compared to white applicants (and other minority groups) with the result that the Carter administration scrapped the test in 1981, without replacing it. From that point on federal civil service hiring proceeded without an objective measure of competency or excellence.

The goal was to open up high-end federal jobs to African-Americans, which might have been noble, but came with its own consequences. Leaving aside whether this policy impacted efficiency or service delivery, it clearly if not deliberately ensured the hiring of employees almost guaranteed to be committed Democrats. The same supervisors hiring African-Americans under the rubric of affirmative action or diversity, could do much the same thing by hiring women or other minorities who skew Democrat, without having pesky test scores interfere. It even works for white males, by selecting the more probably liberal of two equally qualified candidates, e.g., the guy from Long Island who went to NYU and did graduate work at Berkeley.

Nearly forty years on, much of the federal bureaucracy is a clique of entrenched Democrat apparatchiks, with job protections that make it difficult if not impossible to fire. They have their hands on the levers of government, and now with an almost universally reviled (among Democrats) Republican president, are ready and willing to act against him.  

What can Trump do?

Get his administration organized so that cabinet members and agency heads will appoint politically tough and reliable undersecretaries willing to do battle with career subordinates. This sounds like a no-brainer but it is not. It’s contrary to human nature and ordinary business practice. You generally don’t go into a job assuming your new employees are your enemies.

Bring back the PACE exam or something similar. Update it so that the inevitable attacks that arise about it being prejudicial to minorities can at least be muted. While African-Americans a generation ago might have had legitimate complaints about lack of educational opportunity compromising test performance that case is hard to make today.

Maintain the hiring freeze. The freeze not only keeps the federal rolls from expanding, it inhibits empire building within agencies. This has the added effect of slowing promotion.

Reinstitute broad merit pay systems in the federal government. These have been both ineffective and unpopular in the past, but so what. If it reduces the attractiveness of federal employment, presumably we will have fewer federal employees. Plus implementing such policies, or threatening them, gives the new administration some leverage, and will further demonstrate that Trump means business.

While troublesome federal employees are difficult to fire, they can be neutered, though at a cost. Within the government are thousands of employees who for various reasons are simply given a desk, told to come into work every day, and are paid for doing nothing -- the federal equivalent of “teachers’ jail” where school districts place problematic teachers who are too hard to fire. Not all of these employees are incompetent. Some simply refuse to kowtow to whatever bureaucratic imperative their bosses demand, or even perhaps display a politically incorrect mien. These people might be allies. Meanwhile, those bureaucrats who attempt to obstruct the work of the new administration but are too difficult to fire might be put out to pasture this way. You have to still pay them, but better to pay them for being harmless than undermining their boss.

None of this would be easy, and reinstituting an exam and merit pay would likely require new legislation. Likewise, for such a large task, eight years would be better than four.

I have nothing against federal bureaucrats. My father was one, and I’ve worked there myself. But the system has obviously become dangerously corrupted by politics in a way that the civil service reforms of a century ago were meant to eliminate.  By putting this issue in high relief, Trump’s election could provide the impetus to undo the damage before it is too late. 

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