Far Less Could Be Much More

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:10

    A form of functional gridlock devoured everyone's energy just protecting and expanding their vanities and turf instead of doing whatever it is political operatives are supposed to do to turn their employers into all-purpose alloys of Winston Churchill and Regis Philbin. Of course the potential value of the colorfully heady gesture of leaving Washington and reducing the imperial entourage seems to have been virally attacked by the campaign's continued employment of several evidently compromised leaders such as Tony Coelho and the appointment of a campaign director, Donna Brazile, familiar with the crucible of political failure during her maladroit conniption as a leading lady in the anti-exemplary Dukakis odyssey.

    But this is not to detract from someone's decision that in politics, as well as decorating cakes and makeup for dowagers, less is more. There is a deep and accurate perception throughout the history of human organizations that they expand on their own, as often without functional purpose as with some credible or at least plausible cause. It seems almost a law of human nature that people find it easier and emotionally more satisfying to add numbers to their groups rather than dispense with them. What has been called The Iron Law of Bureaucracy has been the slow ruin of countless organizations baffled by the fact that what they are supposed to do they do less effectively and with less fun than they would like. Bureaucracies appear to specialize in turning external product into internal process. The worst ones produce nothing at all except an avalanche of paper or now electrical scribbles describing action and reaction, and nothing doing.

    For a dozen years I was a research director of the one of the Guggenheim foundations that was charged with supplying money to researchers looking for fundamental causes of human violence and inequality. We had a splendid and invigorating time identifying and then cosseting people?in a modest manner?who were pursuing serious and often arrestingly significant work on a fascinating variety of subjects. In general, we almost never provided money for organizations that are endlessly voracious sponges for resources that lose their impact without a trace. We emitted money only to individuals, and under their personal control too. And we paid no "overheads" to the universities employing these researchers?some institutions decided that their kickback had to be as high as 73 percent of the original grant. Once Stanford University sent a vice president to New York to tell us so very urgently we had to pay their luxurious rake-off on a $30,000 grant since everyone else did that sort of thing. We refused and offered to let Stanford tell its scientist he couldn't receive his grant because of our bad behavior. Of course they hadn't the courage to do so.

    Notwithstanding this sturdy rule, at one point it seemed plausible to bring together an international group in a forum to try to explain what was being found out to a variety of national and cultural milieus. With considerable trepidation given its already hideous reputation, I went to UNESCO headquarters in Paris to discuss the project with people there who had already indicated an interest in this subject so obviously relevant to the organization.

    But I chose a bad time. Unexpectedly, I left full-handed. Even though I was Mr. Modest Moneybags, I was not able to spend a minute with a single significant bureaucrat because they were all working on the Director-General's Annual Report. Now this happened to be the unusually awful and morally toxic Director-General, Amadou M'Bow, from Senegal. He ran an organization that managed to spend 80 percent of its $198 million budget in Paris on itself. Twenty percent escaped the clutches of perhaps 1500 multicultural officials, probably by mistake, and actually found its way into the rest of the wide world to deal with literacy, monuments, cultural exchange and the like. The concernocrats ran the show for their own amusement, expenses, advancement and jobs for cousins. Every single person of even moderate status in the huge building was involved in crafting their particular unit's contribution to the grand proclamation of the great man. When it was completed it was of course an utterly predictable diarrhea of stupefying platitudes and high-church civil-service sentimentality. The politics of this process were so intense that even the lure of free and unexpected American money for long lunches by the Seine could not interfere with the spectacle of an organization producing nothing other than its own digestion of its own self. It consumed itself and produced itself at one and the same time. It was actually quite remarkable?a spectacle of human nature as intricate and self-contained as temple carvings in Angkor Wat. Even though UNESCO clearly had and still has a potentially sensible and significant human mission, it was a justified relief when the United States and the UK left the organization in l985 amid ominous discussions to legislate a New World Order for journalists. In essence, the point of this was to permit individual countries to decide who could write what about their communities in order, naturally, to protect their national autonomy. To say nothing of their dictators and criminal barons. After all, why should journalists from foreign countries, especially "developed" ones, be permitted to reveal their bigoted misunderstanding of national values and local customs by writing about what they saw and of what they thought? Who said Franz Kafka should be allowed to wander freely in Ruritania?

    In any event, like the Gore campaign, UNESCO would almost certainly have become far more efficient had it far fewer people within its walls. The same is true of the United Nations in New York and countless other organizations as well. The American presidency as an institution has grown so shamefully bizarrely in size that a presidential state visit becomes a holy procession with hundreds and hundreds of costly officials in tow. Each of them can no doubt justify their specific and vital function but cumulatively they generate a morbid reality of governmental prosperity gone mad and officialdom gone tumorous.

    It is as tempting as dark-chocolate candy to conclude that, always, far less would be much more and much better. But distinctions have to be made. The principle cannot prevail across the board. "Lean and mean" as a description of an organization may reflect an unnecessarily punitive restriction on legitimate activities of decent enterprises. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission is starved by Congress for funds and personnel as it tries to do nothing less vital to everyone including affluent tax-cutters than preserve the collective nest egg of the community and the integrity and transparency of U.S. investment and of the dollar itself. It lacks the computer facilities and sophisticated personnel to deal with a stock market changing more rapidly than ever during a period in history The Wall Street Journal has called "a golden age of financial fraud"?when two seemingly authoritative but ill-supervised banks, Barings and Kidder Peabody, were doomed by criminal white-collar adventure. Likewise, the IRS is supposed to collect taxes fairly and efficiently so that there's enough public money and taxes haven't to be raised. But it is also under severe pressure from a petulantly cheap Congress that appears to miss the point that if appropriate taxes were efficiently levied overall levels might be able to be lower. The lack of oversight of both investment and tax systems rewards irresponsible malefactors and outright criminals and punishes us all.

    Lean and mean in those particular bureaucracies is wrong. But in others it is a relief and refreshing. Eternal vigilance is the price of excellent organization.