Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Great Moments in Government Compassion

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg has stood behind a policy to refuse private food donations to the homeless, on the basis that they might not meet the right nutritional requirements. That's right, you're living hard on the streets of New York, sleeping in doorways, begging for spare change, chugging mouthwash because it's the cheapest source of alcohol and hoping that you don't become the target for somebody's random violence. But according to Michael Bloomberg, the real threat to your life expectancy is the salt in that bagel you're being served. Problem solved!

Ace claims that this policy suggests that New York may not have a genuine problem with real poverty after all.

He may well be right, but I don't think you can conclude this from the story.

It seems entirely plausible to me that some pinhead from the food police would refuse donations even if people really were going hungry. This is in fact entirely consistent with the incentives of bureaucrats everywhere - the only thing that matters is following the rules, no matter how nonsensical.

In an ordinary business, employees tend to be given some discretion in their choices to solve customer problems. This is because a private company has to leave customers satisfied or it goes out of business. As a result, it makes sense for management to encourage employees to have some initiative, in order to deal with unexpected problems that arise so that the customer goes away happy.

But the government never has this problem. No matter how pissed off you are when you leave the DMV, this doesn't affect the DMV's viability, or the paycheques of its employees. Because there's no profit, it's hard to measure if the organisation is doing better, or the contribution of individual employees. It is however easy to measure if you happened to break a particular rule. If in doubt, follow the rule. The end result is this kind of lunacy. If you allow the food to be given to the homeless and you gain nothing, but run the risk of some other bureaucrat punishing you. If you refuse the food, the homeless suffer, but nobody will blame you personally for following the rules. In the extreme case where an article gets written, it doesn't mention the individual who made the decision - the problem is just with the rule.

Individual government workers have no incentive to look at the larger perspective. Hopefully that's what their superiors are meant to do. Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg has a long history of monomaniacal pursuit of browbeating people into eating healthier. As Mark Steyn noted:
That’s the very model of a can-do technocrat in the age of Big Government: He can regulate the salt out of your cheeseburger but he can’t regulate it on to Seventh Avenue.
But even if he weren't the certified nitwit that he is, Mayor Bloomberg would have a hard time undoing every stupid, hidebound, butt-covering, slave-to-the-rulebook decision being made by New York City officials. It's a game of whack-a-mole that he'll inevitably lose no matter how hard he tries, let alone when he's instead wearing his mole cheerleader outfit.

The bureacrat initially follows the rules mindlessly because that is what his incentives dictate. Cognitive dissonance being what it is, the bureaucrat doesn't want to admit that he's following stupid policies that hurt people only because that's what the rules say - that would make him a coward and a pinhead.

As a result, it's easier for him to convince himself that the rules are in fact just, that the application of the rules is the actual end in itself, and that the world works better if he leaves the judgment calls to somebody else and follows the rules, no matter how bad the immediate impact.

And thus the stupidity gets internalised. Even if that means turning away food for the homeless.

The scorpion bites the frog because that is its nature.

Update: As if to prove the point, here's a story about a council sending a main to prison for not properly putting up siding on his home.

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