Friday, August 17, 2007

A Brick in the Wall

The Office of the Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security, has looked at how far the US has progressed since 2004 towards being able to detect whether the nation was under a biological attack. Progress has apparently been disappointing. The idea behind it was simple. Since 2001 individual government agencies had been preparing to detect and respond to a biological attack, but all these efforts existed as data "islands". The idea was to create an information system that would tie these separate islands together so the system could be queried as a whole.

Since 2001, federal agencies collectively have spent an estimated $32 billion on electronic surveillance systems and various other IT initiatives to address bio-defense. ...Although these individual programs have helped in gathering and reviewing sector-specific data, the federal government has had no single system for consolidating and examining bio-surveillance across federal, state, and local lines.

The schematic below shows how the National Bio-Surveillance Integration System project was trying to tie together information from different agencies into one coherent environment. Standing as it was on the outside of the major bureaucracies, the result was that the project became nobody's child. The report says, "Although the program began with a clear mandate, strong support, and a strategy for accomplishing the presidential direction, for various reasons NBIS ownership has shifted among department organizations numerous times, with corresponding fluctuations in the program approach, priority, and accomplishments. In addition, NBIS has struggled since its inception to secure the staff needed to manage program activities effectively."

With the excitement of the initial mandate behind them there was encouraging progress. But as control over the project rotated among the agencies it inevitably fell into the lap of an agency with neither the interest or money to keep up the momentum. At that moment the interagency child became an orphan.

NBIS initially flourished under the leadership of the Science and Technology Directorate. ... Due to its transfer to the former Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP) Directorate in January 2005, the NBIS program lost momentum generated during the Science and Technology design study phase. The program appointed a new program manager, a contractor to oversee NBIS development, but this official had minimal assistance. Because the program received limited office space, the program manager was hindered in efforts to bring on board additional staff or detailees to assist with activities such as stakeholder outreach, contract management, and information analysis.

Once it had lost its path the challenge became to get it back on track again. Every now and again, a passing political comet would shed a fitful light on the darkened path. People would take a few steps back toward the road. Then the comet would pass and the darkness would resume it's Stygian reign. Extracts from the Inspector General's report illustrate some of the problems encountered. Money could not be found. People could not be hired. Independent agencies could not be strong-armed into cooperation.

Program officials said that prior to the President’s speech, they sensed no urgency by Preparedness leadership to promote a functioning NBIS program. However, following the President’s speech, the program received additional support in terms of office space and contract personnel. For example, an NBIS management official explained that the program was assigned office space in a secure location, affording program management not only ample room to work and house additional staff, but also the facilities needed to handle potentially sensitive bio-defense information. ...

However, the additional resources alone were not adequate to help move the program forward to contract award without further setbacks. For example, as the NBIS program prepared in early 2006 to issue a request for proposals for NBIS 2.0 development, the Office of Procurement Operations assigned a new contracting officer to the program. This official tasked the NBIS program to refine the proposal language, thereby delaying the contract by several months. ...

For example, it was not until May 2006, when the program was under the auspices of Preparedness, that a full-time DHS program manager was assigned. Prior to this time, for about one and half years, the program was led by a detailee, who encountered roadblocks in obtaining needed information and working through unfamiliar DHS processes to carry out assigned program management responsibilities. As an external agency employee, this official also had problems getting the hiring authority to bring additional staff into DHS.

There was even some dispute about which direction they were circling in. Nobody could say how far behind the NBIS was since no one had defined a way to measure progress.

Without a tactical plan to guide program directions and decisions, NBIS program managers have been managing in an ad hoc manner. For example, without clear program milestones, NBIS managers have been unable to track accomplishment of program activities or monitor progress toward meeting long-term goals. An NBIS official cautioned that the program must first define its “as is” and “to be” architectures before management can establish milestones for measuring program progress.

Meanwhile the programmers were at work. The question was what to work at. Owing to the changes in management the information system contractors were forced to design a system in which they were neither sure of what was coming in nor what was going out. Because no data sharing arrangements could be reached with the agencies, after the contractor had finished the software it had to be tested on the basis of data gleaned over the Internet. No real data could be found to input.

By this time, the contactor had begun system development and needed interagency bio-surveillance information to populate NBIS and test its operations. ... In the absence of interagency agreements, program officials have not been able to secure the federal data needed to test or develop the NBIS system. To proceed with some level of system development until the federal data is acquired, the program pursued open source information to populate the NBIS database. As a result, as of March 2007, the NBIS system contained only publicly available information, such as reports from the World Health Organization, the Organization for Animal Health, and the European Commission, which can be obtained via the internet.

The Inspector General's report provides a glimpse into how gigantic bureaucracies work. Those who wonder at how early warning of a biological attack on the nation can be left to such a constipated process should consider that many of the things our lives depend on -- national security, diplomatic representation, law enforcement, etc -- are provided in the same desultory fashion. Einstein once wrote that "the eternally incomprehensible about the world is its comprehensibility"; and perhaps the most miraculous thing about government is that it works at all. But like all miracles, it's better not to expect them to happen too often.


Blogger Pierre said...

It has been absolutely frustrating to watch the Bush administration bumble along in dealing with the Bureaucracies.

The CIA ran him into the ground as did the FBI and DOD. Apparently his love of Big Government means he has a blind eye to their inability to respond to our danger.

What the f#$% is going on at the FBI? Laurie Mylroie and others have been wailing about the Bureaucracies for awhile. Welcome aboard

8/17/2007 08:44:00 AM  
Blogger LarryD said...

Sigh - red headed step child.

Managing software projects is not rocket science, but it is amazing how many organizations violate known managerial principals when dealing with software devlopment. You'd think it was deliberate sabotage.

Bureaucracies, of course, are infamous for inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

8/17/2007 08:45:00 AM  
Blogger Alexis said...

Integration of intelligence can only work if there is no enemy mole using the network to discover our weaknesses.

One principal reason why our military is so difficult to spy upon is because of leadership at lower levels of the heirarchy. In other words, entropy within our decision making process makes it more difficult for our enemies to predict what we do. In contrast, agencies with top-down control, centralized and integrated intelligence, and complacent office cultures are easily infiltrated and used to the advantage of our enemies.

8/17/2007 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Of course, Bill Cinton's older brother, former Speaker of the House, Newt G. has already laid down the challenge on big government. He will grab issues, such as this, if and when he decides to run opposite Hillary, (who will love the chance to show her absolute hatred to the Clinton family--read men---via Newt...displacement I think), and will debate these realities if given the chance.

Till then, we citizens will lose, therefore, we all need to find out where to get our updated smallpox, etc. shots and where/what to do if and when our good friends from the "religion of peace" come into our back yards...which they will surely do if given the chance.

All it takes is a few infected suicide freaks to fly from different cities within the US to get us going, really hurt the economy, and of course spread death and destruction...just like cancer!

Bet me they don't have such plans in place!

8/17/2007 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Pierre said...

All it takes is a few infected suicide freaks to fly from different cities within the US to get us going, really hurt the economy, and of course spread death and destruction...just like cancer!

If you have sources who understand the implications of the above scenario you are afraid...very afraid. I am very afraid...not so much for me but for my children who will deal with the implications of our cowardice.

Kill a few million of them now so we don't have to kill all of them later. Because sure as the sun rises when we are attacked and see millions of our own die horrible deaths then vengence won't only be the lords.

The best analysis I have read so far on our situation with recommendations on what to do is over at SANE SANE WEBSITE

Lets roll...

8/17/2007 11:16:00 AM  
Blogger Yashmak said...

Recent stories of Imams issuing fatwas forbidding innoculation against diseases of varying sorts leads me to believe that biological attack would be the stupidest move Jihadists could possibly make. No highly successful biological attack on the US could possibly remain contained to this continent, not given the propensity for travel that Americans have.

Sooner or later, the Islamists would be coming down with the same sicknesses they sought to inflict on the infidel. . .a delayed destruction of their own making.

Would that stop them from attacking us in that manner? I doubt it.

8/17/2007 01:14:00 PM  
Blogger Brian H said...

As soon as I saw "rotated among the agencies" I knew there was simply turf warfare at work. Or broken learning-curve events not dissimilar from the sudden reversals in "cleared-held" areas in Iraq when a rotation occurs with a nervous new COIN-challenged commander rapidly undoing all the gains of the previous unit(s).

This is not, technically, "bureaucracy", btw. That means "rule by bureaus". This is more like "leaderless bureaus".

8/17/2007 01:42:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

The World that Works
and the World that Fails

8/17/2007 02:12:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...


8/17/2007 02:14:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8/17/2007 02:18:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

On the Front Line in the War on Terrorism
Judith Miller

Cops in New York and Los Angeles offer America two models for preventing another 9/11.
Al-Qaida in Hollywood?
A source of both frustration and pride within the LAPD, the “Hollywood case”—details of which haven’t yet become public—shows how good police work can break up terrorist networks. But this tangled saga also highlights unanswered questions that continue to surround the 9/11 plot.

The LAPD investigators decided to question Benomrane in jail once more, but they never got the chance: he was deported on the eve of their visit to see him (a textbook example of one part of government’s not talking to another). Benomrane, too, has disappeared. But using standard policing tactics and procedures, the LAPD investigators broke up what they believe was a cell that supported al-Qaida’s 9/11 mission in ways still not fully understood. “We did all the right things without knowing it,” a detective notes, calling the case the LAPD’s “coming of age” in counterterrorism.

“Only the police are close enough to the ground to be able to go after terrorists like this by using standard criminal investigations,” argues Stephan C. Margolis, who now heads the LAPD’s Anti-Terrorism Intelligence Section. “The FBI has 12,000 agents for the entire country, only some of whom do counterterrorism. Local and state law enforcement includes some 800,000 people who know their territory. We are destined to be frontline soldiers in what could be a very long and complicated war.”

The county, he points out, contains 85 percent of California’s critical assets.

Another constriction is L.A.’s byzantine political system, dominated by competing fiefdoms and myriad jurisdictions with overlapping responsibilities. The California Highway Patrol, for example, polices the freeways that dissect Bratton’s territory. The Port of Los Angeles, through which some 45 percent of the nation’s cargo passes, has its own police force. So do the area’s airports. The biggest, best-funded local law enforcement office in the city isn’t even Bratton’s LAPD; it’s the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which has a sworn and civilian force of 16,216. And Sheriff Leroy Baca, a savvy elected politician, enjoys a $2.1 billion yearly budget—twice the LAPD’s. Of its $1.2 billion budget, the

LAPD spends roughly $24 million on counter-terrorism;
New York spends $204 million.

"The Port of Los Angeles, through which some 45 percent of the nation’s cargo passes, has its own police force.
So do the area’s airports.

Reconquista Socialist Politicians will fix it,
just you wait!
Villagarosa for Governor!

8/17/2007 02:20:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

The Coming Urban Terror

Systems disruption, networked gangs, and bioweapons.

The gangs’ rapid rise into challengers to urban authorities is something that we will see again elsewhere. This dynamic is already at work in American cities in the rise of MS-13, a rapidly expanding transnational gang with a loose organizational structure, a propensity for violence, and access to millions in illicit gains. It already has an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 members, dispersed over 31 U.S. states and several Latin American countries, and its proliferation continues unabated, despite close attention from law enforcement. Like the PCC, MS-13 or a similar American gang may eventually find that it has sufficient power to hold a city hostage through disruption.

That G_d GWB has secured the border, and deported illegal felons!
Top priority stuff for our "adult" POTUS

Deport Them Now .com

8/17/2007 02:55:00 PM  
Blogger RoTapper said...

I will never understand the cry for more govt. after something bad happens. 9/11, Katrina, recent bridge collapse. Gov fails, so of course we need more gov.

They cry they have no money, yet were do our astronomical taxes end up. $32 billion on failed program here, $1 million on washers here.

I think the problem transcends Dems and Repubs. All of these agencies are constantly created, but none ever go away, they just get bigger. Their figurehead leader gets sacked, but the institution just chugs along like nothing happened.

8/17/2007 03:45:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

I had been a program manager for a multi-million dollar program for over a year before I realized that there was no one who could even tell me what all the hoops were I had to jump through. And then I found that new hoops were being created all the time without anyone bothering to tell me.

Back circa 1992 the US Navy said that it had figured out that it took something like 10 years to get a procurement program underway – but that they had figured out how to get the start-up time down to a mere 7 years by cutting corners. In response, a “watchdog” agency - I believe it was the DoD IG - said the Navy should be severely chastised for even thinking of such a heinous approach.

The process of making policy in DC has become so complex, contentious, interrelated and, worst of all, popular among the elites and elite-wannabes, that an essential element - that of considering resources – just cannot be factored in. The net effect of this is that for any given set of circumstances the Federal Government must be presumed to be utterly incompetent – because Washingon DC does not collectively believe in the very concept of Management.

8/17/2007 05:45:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

How long did it take the government to clean up the Senate Hart building after the anthrax attack? How long did it take NBC in New York? 3 months v. 2 weeks after the FBI forensic investigation was finished? Government is easily and often 10x slower or 10x more wasteful than the equivalent effort in the private sector. To say nothing of the private sector’s ability to create self-service solutions using various forms of automation that in government agencies are viewed with alarm as they threaten to upset a given congressional constituency, a jobs program by another name.

This weakness in government is pretty much independent of an administration I suspect. All government agencies are likely equally as broken and challenged at any given instant (wherever you take the temperature of a body, it’s pretty much the same). Where congress sets the environment and rules these organizations live by much more so than the executive which is why all of today’s agencies are pretty much disasters. Consider that the executive can't hire and fire arbitrarily more than a small fraction of one percent of federal employees.

One fix would be a return to patronage (at will employment), another would be short-term (say 5 year) sunset rules. i.e. give agencies 5 years to get whatever it is they need to do done and then disband having succeeded or failed (implicit in this is creating self-regulatory or market mechanisms that don't need more than congressional review). Let congress set up another agency somewhere else (at least 500 miles away) if not successful but still worth doing. Another would be outsourcing to competing suppliers with 5 year re-bid (always award two bids and separate by some metric, geography or age or something to get two roughly equal sized groups and/or work). Reserve for the government only the thinnest layer of management and review in each branch of government – e.g. the court of highest appeal, and only for criminal cases. In addition, move the seat of the federal government every 10-20 years to some destitute place in the country (Isleta would be a good choice), if only to shake off the fleas.

There are times I think this should be done for everything, including the military. Would anyone design the current military structure for today's threats? Goldwater-Nichols was a fine start, but it was barely a start, and since government is about compromise leading to consensus satisfying constituencies and maintained by process (v. a business-like reward for use of individual intellect and judgment), Goldwater-Nichols is all we are going to ever get. If there was nothing to preserve because it was gone, we could rebuild from scratch, easier, better, and there'd be a lot fewer permanent government employees and traditions and legacy behaviors holding us back.

President Eisenhower’s 1961 speech is worth re-reading. He observes that when the government employs many and spends big money the political process often create bad outcomes that seldom happen in the private sector (he's observing that checks-and-balances break down when the government itself becomes a political force/constituency). He even mentions the perversion of science (global warming) without naming it: The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.

I am attracted to Mr. Gingrich’s observations of how broken our 1800’s government is, as well as what appears to be Mr. Thompson’s promise to say “no more” to this foolishness.

8/17/2007 06:51:00 PM  
Blogger Cedarford said...

I agree with Legrand that the massive failure of moneys spent to better protect us speaks more to Bush incompetence and Congressional corruption to ladle out pork to "connected" constituents to blow than it does of the insipid Libertarian argument that "Gummmint" can't do anything as well as Big Corporations can.
Excellent "Gummint" institutions are everywhere. Coast Guard, NOAA, US Weather Service, The Corps of Engineers. The ones that aren't working right are the ones with bad management and which persist because of judges mandates or public apathy that prevents accountability.

Blaming a generic "The Gummint" is a way of Libertarians, and the 2 Party partisans to just blame it on forces other than their favorite fatcats (Libertarians) or politicians (Dems and Reps).....

Be that as is, the Bushies have squandered money like no other government in US history, if you excuse FDR for having a real existiental global war to fight. And so little of the truckloads of cash borowed from China and dropped off with Bush cronies has accomplished anything.

1. 90 billion in Homeland Defense pissed away on new fire engines for East Bumholia Tennessee, funding 85 earmarked groups in Districts with the heaviest Congressional clout to "study bioterror" and not talk to the other 45 agencies.

2. Not only are we unprepared for bioterror, a major city disaster like NOLA...we haven't even tried to start up programs where we train people in Muslim languages, culture so we can fight the information war. First responders tell me that 6 years after 9/11, no one, even in NYC, knows how a dirty bomb attack will be cleaned up. By civil defense recovery methods of quick decon with firefighters major players, or by shutting a big chunk of a city down 8 months to one year while hundreds of billions are spent on private contractors to "take their time and remove every speck."

1st Responders say they are clueless on what is expected of them after the 1st day and what the Bushies would do. And conclude that is because the Bushies have other priorities and don't care that much and will cross that topic when it comes up, like Katrina.

Gummint doesn't fail. Leaders and their minions fail. Bush is a failed leader.

8/17/2007 10:37:00 PM  
Blogger demosophist said...

"All it takes is a few infected suicide freaks to fly from different cities within the US to get us going, really hurt the economy, and of course spread death and destruction...just like cancer!"

A smallpox epidemic in the US would be very unlikely to stay in the US. Moreover, we'd be much more likely to figure out ways to cope with such an epidemic than would the world of Islam. Hence, using smallpox in this way would wipe out the attackers while leaving the attacked relatively unscathed.

A bio attack is rather unlikely, precisely because it's like firing a gun that's likely to blow up in your face.

8/17/2007 11:16:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Well said, C-4!

8/18/2007 06:37:00 AM  
Blogger El Baboso said...

Recent stories of Imams issuing fatwas forbidding innoculation against diseases of varying sorts leads me to believe that biological attack would be the stupidest move Jihadists could possibly make.

Or if you knew that a some of the brothers were getting ready to launch a bio attack, you may want to cull the weak in preparation, no? Especially if it was something tailored and there was no vaccine for it anyway. You can't think like a Westerner. We lose that way.

8/18/2007 07:50:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

How many times have any of us got up in the morning with a brilliant idea, like:
"I think I'll slit a young woman's throat in front of a planeload of innocent civilians so that my Buddy can drive us all into a burning inferno of death "
Or like Qutb, be outraged in Extremis by the loose morals of Colorado Farm Girls, Circa 1950?

8/18/2007 08:35:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

And there WAS the Anthrax thing after 9-11, wherever it came from.

8/18/2007 08:52:00 AM  
Blogger Boghie said...

Only the government...

Look at all those agencies involved. Sure, they all have roles - but, do all their requirements have to be in place in version 1 of the system. Nope...

And, the second step into the black hole seems to be the all-important 'Information Assurance' folks at the 'Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP) Directorate'. These will be the clueless clods who will demand written signatures on electronic documents. They will be the ones who will hire a new contractor each month - a person without a clue and without any sense of urgency. That person will have all the solid software and database architecture background of a former computer repair guy.

So, we end up with a ‘system’ in which all government departments get equal say. One which never gets to the point of defining its core. One which views its core as a wandering minstrel passing through various liege lords’ castles singing different, but always exciting, toons – because the contractor of the day views the ever increasing ‘requirements’ as the basis of a never ending cash cow. One which never takes the time to make the system adaptable to the expected and impending changes to the applications that feed it – ie. the interfaces will be hard-coded: but, there will be some IA document that promises that whenever some flak agency changes their system someone somewhere will be notified.

Just in time to hire another contractor with no corporate knowledge, no sense of urgency, and no understanding of the complex data structure or the thousands or millions of lines of code. Time to start over!!!

Yup, I have some experience in the process.

Only the government…

8/18/2007 09:05:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

re: Coast Guard, Corp of Engineers, NOAA, etc.

I'm sorry to say they are all suffering from the same disease, some less so.

(1) Coast Guard still has up-or-out (a form of merit-based selection) that is non-existent in the other civil service organizations. But many died in Katrina because the Coast Guard did not have interoperable communications with fire, police, and local government. To say nothing of their failure to interdict anything more than a small percentage of illicit shipping. One bright note wrt the CG is they are so low on the funding totem pole that they actually have a working IT system and infrastructure. Because rather than the traditional DoD and FBI-like requirements-from-hell (guaranteeing jobs-for-life for some contractor who has built something so unique they are irreplaceable) leading to project failure, they simply bought and installed commercial solutions just like any main street company does. Yes, they are arguably more vulnerable than any stateside DoD bureaucracy still using the equivalent of punch-cards, but the Coast Guard gets more done every day than 10 of their big-budget cohorts (who can’t carry their laptops around, or use wireless, or share data, or deal with Arabic.. they could barely deal with Cyrillic in its day).

(2) The Corps of Engineers should have dealt with and prevented what lead to Katrina levee and pump failures, and bridges whose failure would have interfered with navigation (the Minneapolis bridge was just downstream of a lock in the Mississippi), but because they are more jobs programs and cash-distribution mechanisms they reward their employees for "following a process" and not being aggressive or inventive (i.e. showing individual initiative, intellect and judgment).

(3) NOAA can't compete with commercial forecasters who called Katrina accurately well in advance, enough in advance that WalMart, Home Depot and others were able to preposition supplies and energy companies to minimize disruption. Fyi, (4) NASA is another disaster. They should have stopped competing with Disney years ago, declared success and sold off the museum pieces.

The list is endless. Note the individuals involved are mostly good people, working hard, with the best of intentions. But the system they are embedded in is perverse. Consider the electronic after-hours trading floors that make markets on the equivalent of two hefty PCs (one a real-time backup). Hundreds of millions of transactions, trillions of dollars. If the tax law could be captured in a few-page spreadsheet in black and white, no interpretation allowed, the entire IRS could be reduced to the same equipment, a web-service, and for checks and balances perhaps have returns over a certain size required to be countersigned by an auditor (to have obeyed the spreadsheet rules). Congress writes these rules, not the executive.

The founders set up a system with a "unitary executive" and they never imagined we would have the problem we now have of executive authority being divided among independent-in-fact if not in-law agencies where allocation of funds and many activities are specified and interpreted by their Congressional oversight committee ("aka Uncle Sugar") more than whomever sits in the Whitehouse. Special interests and the courts also conspire to further weaken the executive - e.g. agency personnel encourage a suit by an interest group, the go to court, then settle, then have a judge see that the terms are met. Often with economic effects, like higher taxes or tolls. Call this a form of legislation without representation.

Fyi, Left to their own devices, no government agency or guild would dream of interoperation - it attacks their rice-bowl, someday policemen might be able to do (worse, be required to do) firemen’s work, and v. v. This isn't a first, it's history (consider DoD services interop issues, to say nothing of interop between us and friendly nations). So there must be something in the nature of our system that causes this.

Government processes (and Congressional mechanisms for allocating rewards) work against any given transient administration. Ask any long term bureaucrat what they do when they get directions against what they think is the organization's best interest and in an honest moment they will tell you "Stall. Slow roll. Go passive-aggressive. We all know that we can out wait any new politically-appointed director. They have an average tenure of less than 3 years. They can barely find their way around in 18 months. The first real budget they own is after two years, and even then we set up 90% of the spend 3 years ago, so all they can influence is 10%."

In business "rocking the boat" (innovation) is eventually rewarded (even if it means destroying an old way of doing business – creative destruction), in government service, it’s often punished. Consider the terrible state of most Democratic party run state and city governments, the only way they can stay this broken is if disclosure has a history of being severely punished, and keeping quiet rewarded.

Our not-so-pure anymore "Federal System" adds to the problem. A state's representatives may fight like cats and dogs in congress over an ideological point, but they are in absolute agreement and lockstep when it comes to dividing the spoils and getting their state's share. And since congress is all about compromise leading to consensus, it's easy for everyone to agree on proportional allocation (congress knew about "affirmative action" long before it had a name). i.e. "I’ll support you on this if you support me on that, and at the end of the day we’ll both be able to represent to our voters that ‘we got our share’."

Some examples. (4) Ever look at the distribution of (supposedly merit based) NSF and NIH grants? It's surprising (how hard it is to get the numbers and how difficult they make answering this question) how uniformly the funds are allocated based on each state’s congressional representation with some thumb-on-the-scale for committee chairs and senators. (5) Ditto DHS funds. The Whitehouse had little to say about the allocations (thought to be abuse) noted above. Why did the Dems want to create homeland defense after 9-11? (6) Same reason as FEMA was pumped up 10x in the 90s. It's a redistribution machine, with at best a palliative affect ("take two aspirin and call me in the morning. I guarantee you'll feel better because we care and are doing something"). I could forgive them if they’d simply declare their agenda. But instead they lie and say this type of Maginot-wall is a substitute for true defense - a punitive offense exercised if not used to demonstrate its fearsomeness, regularly. "Don't mess with us or our interests or you and all you care about will disappear. No better friend, no worse enemy."

Want to reduce agriculture supports? Some in congress would agree, but first they ask "What will the non-farm states give up? How 'bout closing that shipyard? Or reducing the ability of eastern states to write off state-income tax on their federal taxes." (7) Not to pick on Mr. Inouye, but when Hawaii lost a battleship and its berth magically a "High Performance Computing Center" appeared. Alaska and Stevens are another example, but not unique. Small states are exceptionally challenged to come up with good cover stories for "getting their share" (the blessing and curse of having 1/50th of the Senate).

(8) Many years ago (when I was young and naive) I was asked to look at an ageing government owned facility that was providing some parts to another government program in 20+ year old technology. I thought it was expensive and Mr. Dirksen would have thought it expensive ("a million here, a million there, pretty soon you're talking real bucks"), but I suspect now it would be a rounding error in today's bureaucratic excesses. I recommended substituting and stockpiling current technology commercial parts (at a far lower cost), and closing the facility. The next week I got a call from the staff of the local congress-critter who said "How dare you threaten the livelihood of NN of my constituents and government employees, it not up to the organization to decide these things, but (me) congress." The facility is still open.

Two more of thousands of examples. (9) Even after it was clear that digital mechanisms were replacing paper, Mr. Gephardt had a very very very expensive government print shop that lacked work replaced (with an even larger facility) in Missouri in the mid-90s after it was destroyed by the big Mississippi flood. (10) Congress recently paid the difference between insurance and costs to restore a contractor-to-the-DOD's shipyard on the Mississippi after Katrina because of a handshake deal a decade ago during the defense downsizing where the contractor was going to consolidate shipbuilding in California, but was cajoled with a handshake guarantee of "don't worry about hurricanes, if you get hit, we'll make you whole." Again, Federal jobs and constituents trumped business, to say nothing of common sense. Fyi, I don't think anyone is in the wrong in these examples, it is simply the way the system works given what we currently reward (and punish), the nature of representative government, and our political system.

All which leads me to believe that no matter where you put the thermometer in the federal body, it reports the same temperature (or will in a few years given how the process works and Congress willing only to take the credit, never the blame). There should be no doubt as to why they folded on the recent security issue. Someone must have explained "either we can be responsible or you can. Choose." Call me a short-term pessimist and long-term optimist - so I'm seldom surprised whenever I'm asked to look at "yet the next challenge" at "yet the next" federal organization.

The fix? A federal system only works if it IS federal. Else you end up in this deadly embrace of constituencies and proportional allocation of spoils far beyond the dollars required to do only those things that a central government can do. We need to get the central government out of most jobs. Just stop doing them and see if anyone notices. Pay off the (unionized) federal employees to get them to leave and move from a net cost to society to a gain (odds are most will generate above-the-line-returns). Give the job and money to the states or counties or cities or NGOs (right, religious organizations), or heaven forbid, back to the taxpayers and let the magic of markets compete w/ those that would dictate, including majorities. For extra credit, calculate how much more wealthy the poor would be today (compared to, say, the European middle class) if we did not coerce membership in a government pension plan (social security and medicare). Compare and contrast our current entitlement costs w/ Hong Kong or Singapore lack-of-same and their rate of growth and wealth of their poorest. For even more credit, outline how entitlements pervert the immigration discussion to lose-lose, v. win-win.

We are fortunate that we are so rich today that most (perhaps an increasing number of) people can and do choose not to care or get involved (including voting), but "the fix" will eventually have to happen. If not because of enlightened (Congressional) leadership that can ease the transition (because good, hardworking (and often the most vulnerable) people are always hurt by this type of government interference in markets), then because we hit the wall and go broke. The sooner we start, the less tension will be in the spring (that we continue to wind-up past its breaking point).

Download and listen to this (uplifting) story of how a small state of around four million people recovered from the death spiral of utopian socialism (but only after hitting-the-wall).

8/19/2007 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger independentvoter said...

$32 billion is a lot to spend and have nothing to show for it.

I agree with Ari Tai, it's because of the wealth of the USA that we are rather complacent about this, but sooner or later, someone is going to have to fix this broken system.


8/25/2007 06:22:00 AM  

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