Barack and the Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is liberalism's strong right arm. Liberalism would not exist as it does today without it -- it would have nothing of the reach or durability that it now possesses.

Government bureaucracy forms a kind of shadow universe, in which each human activity has its department or agency to oversee and manipulate it -- a massive structure established over decades, with no real purpose but to perpetuate itself

Liberals view this as approximating a state of utopia, a more perfect universe, with nothing existing without its bureaucratic shadow, with bureaucracy controlling everything and bureaucracy itself under liberal control. This is a goal they've been working toward for generations, each liberal administration (and many of the "conservative" ones as well) adding to the growing structure, and in no case subtracting anything. Liberalism and bureaucracy act to bulwark each other, bureaucracy operating as a toolkit for liberal programs while liberalism provides funding and direction. 

The marriage of bureaucracy and liberalism is one of the most malignant developments of modernism as expressed in politics. It was here before Obama arrived, and it will still be rolling long after he has vanished into disgrace. It is the greatest enemy of individual freedom, health, and happiness in the millennial world (if not worse -- one particularly wild-eyed figure claims that liberalism in conjunction with bureaucracy is one of the greatest forces of mass mortality in the world today),

Obama has lived his entire life in and around the bureaucratic shadow universe -- first amid the social services bureaucracy as a "community organizer," then the academic adjunct bureaucracy as a student and "constitutional law professor," then in government in the Illinois and D.C. senates  -- both effective fundraising mechanisms for bureaucracy at the state and federal levels. His attitude toward bureaucracy is positively cultic, that of the typical liberal -- that it is a perfect system and that it cannot fail. If bureaucratic programs fall short, it is for one of two reasons: because they were undermined by reactionaries or because there was too little money.

This attitude has been clearly in play with the Gulf blowout. Obama appears to have believed that all he needed to do was set the goals, put the bureaucracy in motion, and then saunter off to enjoy a hole or two of golf amid universal applause. Naïveté of this level would be astonishing if it weren't so common within elite liberal circles, all of whom are governed by some variant of it.

Two separate bureaucracies are involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster: the corporate bureaucracy of BP, larger than that of some nations, and the federal bureaucracy, a mélange of Interior, Corps of Engineers, Environmental, and Energy agencies. (Andrew Malcolm reports that no fewer than seventeen agencies are currently in play in the Gulf.) Supporters of the president's efforts -- and there are plenty -- attempt to excuse his ineptness with the claim that there was nothing that he could do, that the matter was completely in the hands of BP. They forget the federal structure, directly under the command of none other than Mr. B.H. Obama. There was plenty he, and they, could have done. They -- and he -- did nothing. As the record clearly reveals, Obama's world-girdling bureaucracy consistently amplified the disaster while making it impossible for any concerted effort to be carried out.

  • It has been widely reported that the government's oversight agency for oil exploitation, the Mineral Management Service (MMS), was riddled with corruption to a point of open control by the oil industry. This scandal was uncovered in September 2008, with the Bush administration beginning a thorough housecleaning in its final months.

So when Obama entered office, he, with his superhuman abilities and knowledge, accelerated and deepened the reform effort. ...Well, no, not quite. The overriding goal of the new administration was to carry out some kind of dreamworld Green revolution. The newly appointed Interior secretary, Ken Salazar, was to act as standard-bearer. His first policy order of March 11, 2009, stated that "facilitating the production, development, and delivery of renewable energy [are] top priorities for the Department."

The new head of the MMS, Elizabeth Birnbaum, a convinced Green, put almost all of her efforts into the Massachusetts Cape Wind project. (What does wind power have to do with mineral resources? You've got me there.) In the meantime, the Bush reform effort stalled and ground to a halt.

The Cape Wind project was finally approved on April 29, 2010, a little over a week after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and only weeks before Birnbaum was forced to resign.

  • One result of the MMS Green crusade was that inspection of offshore oil rigs became a low priority. Although regulations stated that rigs should be inspected monthly, the Deepwater Horizon platform was inspected only six times in the year before the disaster. Furthermore, the last inspection on April 1 (history having fun with us, no doubt) was made by a trainee, Eric Neal. Working alone with no experienced supervision, Neal carried out his first professional inspection, after only four months' training, on the Deepwater Horizon platform. Only three weeks later, the rig blew up and sank.
  • No fewer than twelve nations along with the U.N. offered assistance to the U.S. following the blowout: Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, the Republic of Korea, Spain, and Sweden. It's not accurate to say that all were turned down, because some apparently received no answer at all.

The culprit here appears to be the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, AKA the Jones Act, which requires that all commercial vessels operating in U.S. waters be American-owned, constructed, and crewed. (A quick read of the act suggests that it was intended only in reference to merchant bottoms, but such laws usually are interpreted in the broadest manner possible.)

Both Dutch and Belgian companies experienced in oil spill cleanup offered their services only to be turned down. Using specialist vessels, the Belgians and Dutch could clean the spill in three to four months. Only a half-dozen such ships exist, none owned by U.S. companies.

Similarly, Dallas businessman Fred McCallister had access to up to 25 skimmer boats capable of sweeping up oil. But since they were foreign-owned, the government was not interested.

Although waivers to the Jones Act can be granted on an emergency basis, no such action was taken by the Obama administration. The problem appears to have been bureaucratic confusion. While both Admiral Thad Allen, chief of the "Unified Command" and Carol Browner, one of Obama's "czars" (I forget of what), both said that they would issue waivers, both also insisted that no request had been made. It appears that such efforts were being stifled farther down the bureaucratic ladder by assistants to assistants who "know" the rules and don't bother to forward anything they believe to be in violation. This is a classic bureaucratic problem that is constantly encountered and has never been adequately addressed.

(On June 17, it was reported that the administration had finally, after nearly two full months, decided to accept a Dutch offer of four oil skimmers. The four skimmers can process up to 146,000 barrels a day, or roughly twice as much as using current equipment.)

  • The same problem was encountered by Packgen of Auburn, Maine, which manufactures floating booms capable of containing oil slicks. Packgen discussed the problem with BP, manufactured 80,000 feet of boom, and guaranteed another 42,000 feet a day. Then everything ground to a halt when the boom failed a government "quality control test."

It seems that the end connectors were of a design that the government doesn't like. Rather than a universal connector, the company used another type. So rather than utilize the available item, the feds decided to wait for government-approved variety that wasn't quite ready but was being "obtained quickly." Meanwhile, the oil spread to the coast.

  • Capping all this was the Coast Guard's decision to beach sixteen oil-skimming barges due to an inability to "verify whether there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board." Those who argue that it's a simple matter to step aboard and check really don't grasp how this game is played. There are forms that must be filled out, signed, sent to the "Unified Command's" central office, checked and countersigned at each level of the hierarchy, discussed at meetings, then sent back down once again for corrections and rechecking before the process is repeated two or three times. The question of whether the extinguishers and vests actually exist has nothing to do with anything. As it happens, the barges were back out in only twenty-four hours. That's fast.

Berms will probably go on to the record as the overriding symbol of the disaster. Only days after the blowout, Governor Bobby Jindal requested government assistance in building 24 sand berms to protect Louisiana's wetlands. He was put off by a lower-level administration functionary. Repeated requests went unanswered for weeks. At last, after dozens of miles of coast had been inundated, Jindal took matters into his owns hands and ordered berms to be built by the state National Guard, with the bill sent to BP. The administration at last stirred itself to okay the construction of precisely five berms, or roughly one-fifth the number required. 

Speculation as to the reason for the delay range from interagency squabbling to uncertainty about the location of pipelines to the fact that Jindal is a Republican (there may just be something to that), but the true explanation is doubtless simple bureaucratic inertia, as we have seen with the Dutch skimmers and Maine booms. Occam's Razor states that the simplest solution is the best; that is no doubt the case here.

Jindal was soon joined by the county commissioners of Okaloosa County, Florida, who in full defiance of the federal bureaucracy voted for their own emergency management team to take action to halt oil from entering Choctawhatchee Bay. The vote was carried out despite the fact that it was technically in violation of environmental regulations. Chairman Wayne Harris was quoted as saying, "We made the decision legislatively to break the laws if necessary. We will do whatever it takes to protect our county's waterways, and we're prepared to go to jail to do it."

Bureaucratic failure in the case of the Deepwater Horizon blowout runs the gamut of governmental incompetence. While doing nothing to fulfill their chartered missions, the various agencies involved  

  • Failed to adequately oversee their own operations
  • Displayed a distinct preference for the utopian over the mundane
  • Failed to enforce their own regulations
  • Displayed total bureaucratic inertia of every possible variety in every conceivable situation
  • Obstructed local government and anyone else who knew what he was doing

That is bureaucracy. That is how it operates, and there is no refining it. Bureaucracies in government are truly effective in only one instance: carrying out a single large-scale project, such as NASA's Apollo program. They are clumsy to worthless in anything more long-term, such as NASA's post-Apollo manned program, which has functionally ceased to exist. This is true no matter the circumstances, on what principles the governmental system is based, or what the goal might be. Whether it is the USSR, Nazi Germany, Maoist China, the EU, New Orleans 2005, or the Gulf 2010, the record of bureaucracy is one of unmitigated bankruptcy.

We can be certain that Obama fails to understand this, the same as he fails to understand anything of the dynamic behind this disaster. In his historic "handful of gimme" speech last Tuesday, his long-term solution guessed it! Yet another bureaucracy, run by one more of his endless train of czars.

Bureaucracy is a fact of life. It is something that we cannot do without, in the same way that we cannot do without sewage systems and dumps. But it would be awfully strange if plumbers and landfill operators were allowed to set their own standards, make their own rules, operate in secret, and manipulate the rest of society to their own benefit while providing nothing in the way of actual services. This is precisely what has happened with bureaucracy. It has been allowed to grow on its own with no attempt at understanding or control, like some form of governmental kudzu.

Bureaucracy is at best a tool, and it must be treated as such. By definition, a tool remains under external control. If this is not the case, the tool inevitably becomes a means of destruction. Obama is a passing threat, a creature of the shadow universe that is fading steadily every day. But bureaucracy is a permanent threat. We must arrive at some means of gaining control of the bureaucratic structure or look forward to even worse disasters than the gulf blowout.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and editor of the forthcoming Military Thinker.
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