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Monday, May 20, 2019


The first thing we do, let's kill all the government experts

by Tom Sullivan

That famous Shakespeare line about lawyers is typically construed as a slur against the legal profession. In the context of “Henry VI, Part 2,” the line spoken by Dick the Butcher, a member of Jack Cade's uprising, is open to several interpretations, including one offered by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in a case footnote. Stevens wrote, "Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government."

Killing off the lawyers meant upending the rule of law. Replacing civil servants with for-profit consultants opens government to plunder.

Now "$44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule," California's bullet train project went off the rails after an army of consultants convinced the state it could save money by hiring them rather than assembling an in-house team of hundreds of engineers and rail experts. What resulted instead was "awesome delays and cost bloat," The Week's Ryan Cooper writes:

This demonstrates a fundamental problem with modern American governance — lack of basic state capacity. A government must have in-house expertise if it is to undertake difficult, complicated projects. The first step to getting some is to stop this reliance on private companies to do the state's job for it.
Management of the Texas Permanent School Fund, for example. For 165 years state employees oversaw it. Twenty-five years ago, the state turned it over to consulting firms and, Cooper writes, "The result was a giant increase in fees, worse fund performance, less money for students, and what looks like naked corruption, with billions of fund money reportedly invested in well-connected companies."

Stories of such failures are everywhere. Water privatization. Highway construction. Charter schools. Private equity firms taking over military parts suppliers.

Cooper continues:
At any rate, the ideology behind the consulting boom is classic neoliberalism — an ingrained belief that society must subordinate itself to the self-regulating market, and that government functions should be outsourced or privatized wherever possible. The results speak for themselves.

Now, in theory there is nothing wrong in principle with government hiring private firms for certain tasks. Other countries do it all the time — hiring engineering companies to design projects, construction firms to build them, and so on. Indeed, the U.S. itself did this at a vast scale in the 1930s with the Public Works Administration, which hired private companies to build high-quality projects across the nation, like the Grand Coulee Dam and the Lincoln Tunnel.

But the state must still keep a tight grip on those firms, providing clear guidance and strong oversight to make sure the jobs are done properly and at a decent price — and often, it makes perfect sense for the state to just do the project itself. Conversely, as we see today, if government is inept, ignorant, or timid, consultants and contractors will simply line their own pockets and turn in shoddy, overpriced work.
Michael Lewis in his book "The Fifth Risk" describes Donald Trump's as embodying that trend. The government manages a portfolio of risks that requires "mission-driven" careerists, experts with a dedication to the work, not to making big money from it. Donald Trump's administration came to Washington to upend that system. Not to improve it, but to exploit it for profit. They abandoned data collection on anything Trumpers opposed, the New York Times review explained, "like climate change or food safety regulations, or that they didn’t care about, like poverty, or stuff that they assumed were government boondoggles, which was most everything not involving the Pentagon."

The Trump administration refuses to listen to in-house experts. Trump installed unqualified cronies with no commitment to managing the people's business. Or else he left posts unfilled. Nearly 20 percent of the top 6,000 civil servants left in the first year under Donald Trump, Lewis says [timestamp 7:30].

But "classic neoliberalism," as Cooper puts it, affects not only government but private industry. A consultant in private industry for decades, I have watched cost- and staff-cutting at Fortune 500 and global firms over time result in the near-lobotomizing of their in-house expertise. This leaves them little expertise in managing company core functions and reliant on people like me to know their business for them.

Putting under-experienced personnel in charge of massive capital projects in itself results in delays, cost overruns, and shoddy work. This leaves us with having to teach clients' own staff both what they need to know and what they don't know they don't know ... if they will listen. That's why for years my cocktail party reply to the question, "So, what is it you do?" has been that clients pay a lot of money to ignore what I tell them.

Now a know-nothing client like that is in charge of running the country. The results are predictable.