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Amor Mundi: The Good Bureaucrat

The Good Bureaucrat

Bernardo Zacka is interested in what a good bureaucracy might look like. For one thing, he argues that bureaucracy can slow down political change and temper political populism.

“So what does good bureaucracy look like? If you think about any public good—infrastructure, defense, the environment, the market—chances are there lurks in the background a bureaucratic agency charged with drafting regulations, monitoring compliance, and enforcing penalties. Bureaucracy is often thought of as the instrument that we deploy in the service of the public good. But can we also speak of bureaucracy as a public good in its own right? What is its proper role in the everyday functioning of a democratic state, and how can we enable bureaucrats to live up to such a role?”

As Zacka writes, the inquiry into good bureaucracy is “especially relevant and primed for attention now, at a time when people have lost trust in their government and its policies.” He wonders if there is a “sensible rationale behind red tape, technocracy, and an independent-minded administrative apparatus.” His argument is that bureaucracies, when they function well, strive for important values of efficiency, fairness, and responsiveness. But bureaucracies, Zacka writes, often fall short of their goals.

“To say that bureaucrats must attend to a plurality of values is not to say that they are always successful in doing so. Any organization would be hard pressed to be efficient, fair, responsive, and respectful at once—let alone one that is chronically understaffed, underfunded, and forced to operate in a hostile political environment.

Bureaucrats often have no choice but to make difficult tradeoffs between different dimensions of value. In such conditions, it is proper to feel conflicted. It would be worrying, in fact, if one did not.

But while moral conflicts of this kind occur occasionally in our ordinary moral life, three features of frontline work in public service make them particularly hard to bear. The first is that bureaucrats experience these value conflicts relentlessly, since the demand for public services never abates. The second is that any half-measures or compromises can have serious consequences for clients. By accelerating the pace of work, for example, a caseworker might not build an intimate enough rapport for a client to open up about sensitive topics such as domestic violence. Conversely, by slowing it down, other clients might be late on receiving a check they desperately need.

Navigating such conflicts is distressing for bureaucrats because, as a frontline worker, you are personally implicated in the process. As I learned from taking over DeShawn’s role as a receptionist, it is not the “bureaucratic state” that lets a client down, but you. As a street-level bureaucrat, you are the face of the institution—the immediate cause of clients’ despair, frustration, and anger, and the first to witness it.

It is hard not to feel complicit and not to blame yourself. You start wondering whether you might in fact be the one failing clients. However hard and conscientiously you work, you cannot shake off the thought that you might have been able to do more or better. How long can you think of yourself as a competent and dedicated public servant when you are forced to flout that ideal daily? Knowing that the problem is structural in nature is little consolation when you are the one who has to make the tough calls, and when you are seen as such by those who bear the consequences of your choices.

Over time the psychological pressure builds and, if left unchecked, takes its toll. Some are able to put up with it by compartmentalizing and distancing themselves from their actions. Others burn out. A great many, however, respond as social psychologists would have us expect: through cognitive distortions that simplify the moral landscape and thereby reduce the sense of conflict they experience. Since they cannot live up to the demands of the role, they narrow their understanding of these demands so as to be able to live up to them.

Frontline bureaucrats often pick one dimension of the role and dedicate themselves unreservedly to it, to the exclusion of others. Some come to think of themselves as caregivers, devoting themselves to particular clients regardless of the consequences. Others become fixated on upholding program requirements and making sure that no one takes unfair advantage of existing provisions. And others become absorbed in seeing clients as rapidly as possible to maximize the number of those they can assist. Moral specialization along these lines emerges as a coping response to the pressures of everyday work. It reduces the sense of conflict that one experiences, at the cost of a reductive understanding of one’s responsibilities.

Public service agencies thus find themselves in a bind. The proper implementation of public policy depends on their capacity to foster a workforce attuned to a plurality of values. And yet, the nature of everyday work at the frontlines of public service rewards narrow specialization.”

Another problem with bureaucracies is that they are, by their nature, impervious to democratic control. Hannah Arendt understood the power of bureaucracy but she also saw bureaucracy as the “rule of nobody.”

“In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”

In writing about the student protests of the 1960s, Arendt concluded that much of the violence was a direct result of the rise of bureaucracy. Because bureaucracy insulated government from the people, student protesters rightly concluded that free speech and free assembly were politically irrelevant. “Huge party machines have succeeded everywhere to overrule the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact.” Thus, “the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence.”

Zacka wonders if perhaps the inertia that bureaucracies provide is a public good. By resisting change, bureaucracies provide a buffer against populism and the excesses of democracy. In the age of Trump, he writes, “The very attributes of bureaucracy that had earned it condemnation from across the political spectrum—its alleged inertia and inefficiency, questionable claims to expertise, and lack of responsiveness to political control—had now become virtues.”

What Arendt points to, however, is that violence is the cost of such bureaucratic virtue. As bureaucracy disempowers the citizenry of a democracy, the easiest response to the failures of argument, persuasion, and debate is the turn to violence. Which might suggest that far from tempering the populist spirit as Zacka suggests, the magnitude of modern bureaucracy may be one essential cause of our increasingly populist and violent response.

—Roger Berkowitz

Corruption and Popcorn

Hannah Arendt warned against responding to corruption with satire and cynicism. It is all too easy for elites to see corruption as simply further evidence of the decay of standards and thus to laugh knowingly at further evidence of moral decay. Masha Gessen—who will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center’s 10th Annual Conference Crises of Democracy—explores the dangerous fun that can be had at watching corruption in action.

“Here is one way to take stock of the ways in which this year has changed us. Consider three stories of alliances—or misalliances—unfolding in three different important institutions in this country. One involves Congressional Democrats and the president in Washington; the second is a story of political troublemakers descending on Berkeley; and the third involves political actors welcomed and not welcomed by Harvard. These are stories of new alignments and battles over legitimacy. All three showcase shattered expectations, both institutional and personal, and represent new and profound failures of moral compasses.

“At the moment it’s the Donald, Chuck, and Nancy show,” chuckled Congressman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, speaking at a luncheon in New York City last week. He said it as if it were a good thing, if a strange one; he added that things did need to get done. It’s been less than two weeks, and it’s not clear how much has been achieved—an agreement on the debt ceiling was followed, a week later, by mixed messages on DACA—but the spectacle of the Senate Democrats’ leader laughing with Trump and bragging to colleagues that the president likes him has grown almost familiar. The New York Times wasted no time in announcing that Trump had “swerved left” (whatever such an old-fashioned description of political direction may mean in the case of the president). The country got out the popcorn and settled on the couch to watch a season of jolly deal-making.”

The Poet's Voice

Luc Sante remembers the poet and my Bard colleague John Ashbery, who passed away earlier this month:

“Ashbery’s was marked above all by a calm, discursive voice, going along at a walking pace, often seeming to have been caught in midstream, maybe half-heard from outside through the curtains. That voice could occasionally sound explicitly poetic or expressionistically fractured, but more often—and more consistently as time went by—it sounded conversational, demotic, mild, even-toned, deep-dish American. Its apparent placidity allowed for all sorts of things to appear bobbing happily in its current: recondite allusions, philosophical asides, foreign idioms, schoolyard jokes, forgotten cultural detritus of all sorts, even the occasional narrative or analysis or argument.

Much of his work gives the impression of having been piped straight to the surface from his unconscious, although it certainly passed through a powerful poetic engine that determined line breaks and measured flow and regulated music. His reading voice maintained that imperturbable meandering pace, never succumbing to declamation or melodrama or the pregnant pauses of needier poets but issuing a steady stream of words in unexpected patterns, so that young poets would attend his readings not just to hear him but to furtively scribble the images and lines his had touched off in their own fugue states.”

Required Reading

Giles Scott, making an argument that could apply just as well to college professors, wants high school English teachers to rethink how they approach reading:

“I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it. Who, what, when, and where, of course, are essential. You gotta figure out who’s sleeping with whom before you ask why. There’s a brother involved? What? No. Wait! They’re on a train? If that part’s hazy, the next stop becomes SparkNotes and PinkMonkey, and you might as well hand out the 7-11 freezer list. But how to truly turn them off? Ask them to annotate. The a-word: to add notes to (a text or diagram) giving explanation or comment. To say they “hate” it not strong enough. The most common disclaimers being about how it takes them out of the story, how if they stop they can’t remember what happened, that it takes too long, that it’s not enjoyable anymore. I’ve had students tell me, with genuine feeling, that reading’s been ruined for them—forever. Well, yes, if “reading” is that thing they do at bedtime with that cup of cocoa, and if that’s the thing ruined forever, then, no, I’m not sorry. How many students do trig curled up in bed without a pen or pencil?

So the task has to be to get them to see reading as something a little more combative, which is not to undermine scanning and context. I love scanning and context, reading for the sheer drama of turning the page, for the drama of occupation, of escape—especially on a beach, or hungover, or sitting in 24E on a flight without a functioning TV. But in a high-school English class, the skill of reading as an intimate, assertive thing stands as the thing I’m more interested in—the premise being that if reading were less of a spectator sport maybe we’d inhabit a world better informed, more critical—and critical in a reflective rather than a reactive sense—a world shaped more collectively by thoughtfulness, by magnanimity…

If the ability to read, and think, critically is the primary currency secondary education needs to invest in, then the disfigured mathematical percentage of how many students read how much becomes less important. I’m not sure it really matters if students read all of The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The House on Mango StreetMacbeth, etc. Of course it’s nice if they do, and it’s nice if they go out into the world with a complex sense of Gatsby’s dream, of Janie’s epiphany, of Esperanza’s journey, Macbeth’s predicament, etc., but I think it’s more important that they know what reading looks like, that they know it as an act of meaningful aggression. We’re not in the business of creating English majors, nice as it would be to fill the world with such people. But until Birnam Wood do come unto Dunsinane, I’ll take empathetic, critical thinkers as a stop-gap. Reading in high school is not about, or shouldn’t be about, numbers of pages; it should be about a way of thinking, a way of seeing. For that, we can focus on certain passages, the certain, crucial passages that most books build to—the golden bricks. As teachers, we can fill in the rest of the building. It’s the skill of reading itself that’s the important thing, perhaps the only thing.”

Capitalists in Academe

David V. Johnson provides an expose of the influence of money in academia, focusing on the rise of privately funded policy centers run by “edupreneurs.” As public funding for education has dried up and as tuition dollars fail to pay the costs of private universities, policy research has become a political weapon and a source of needed cash. Johnson shows how conservative, liberal, and issue-oriented philanthropists have funded and influenced broad swaths of independent policy institutes on campuses across the country.

“It would be no exaggeration to say that the world of academic research centers and institutes, especially insofar as they deal with profitable industries such as energy, health care, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and technology, is thoroughly awash in—indeed, wholly made possible by—corporate cash. The point is not only that this corporate money enables compromised research, such as Syngenta-funded studies seeking to establish that its weed-killer atrazine is not dangerous to human health and the environment, or Coca-Cola-funded research that blames the rise of obesity on anything other than diet and highly sweetened carbonated beverages. There is also the research that this money restricts, and even silences—the studies whose conclusions big-money funders may find disagreeable.

What’s the bottom line? Nowadays the big-money philanthropist doesn’t just want his name on the building; he wants control over what happens inside. This is not really “philanthropy”—the provision of public good without expectation of reward, out of (from the Greek) a “love of mankind.” These donors are instead looking for and getting great deals: money in exchange for policy recommendations and contacts favorable to them and their interests. At a time when universities are desperate for money, this cash-driven set of research mandates effectively turns professors and administrators into clients, who dare not criticize or challenge the funder’s views. For as anyone in philanthropy will tell you, the smartest person in any room is not the person with the highest IQ or best credentials. It’s the donor.”

Consumers in Academe

Tom Nichols looks at the consumerist orientation of colleges and argues it is failing our students.

“The pampering of students as customers, the proliferation of faux “universities,” grade inflation, and the power reversal between instructor and student are well-documented, much-lamented academic phenomena. These parts, however, make up a far more dangerous whole: a citizenry unprepared for its duties in the public sphere and mired in the confusion that comes from the indifferent and lazy grazing of cable, talk radio, and the web. Worse, citizens are no longer approaching political participation as a civic duty, but instead are engaging in relentless conflict on social media, taking offense at everything while believing anything.

College, in an earlier time, was supposed to be an uncomfortable experience because growth is always a challenge. It was where a student left behind the rote learning of childhood and accepted the anxiety, discomfort, and challenge of complexity that leads to deeper knowledge — hopefully, for a lifetime.

That, sadly, is no longer how higher education is viewed, either by colleges or by students. College today is a client-centered experience. Rather than disabuse students of their intellectual solipsism, the modern university reinforces it. Students can leave the campus without fully accepting that they’ve met anyone more intelligent than they are, either among their peers or their professors (insofar as they even bother to make that distinction).

This client model arose from a competition for students that has led to institutions’ marketing a “college experience” rather than an education. Competition for tuition dollars — too often drawn thoughtlessly from an inexhaustible well of loans — means that students now shop for colleges the way adults shop for cars. Young people then sign up for college without a lot of thought given to how to graduate or what to do afterward. Four years turns into five and, increasingly, six or more. (A graduate of a well-known party school in California described his education as “those magical seven years between high school and your first warehouse job.”)

A limited diet of study has turned into an expensive educational buffet, laden mostly with intellectual junk food, but little adult supervision to ensure that the students choose nutrition over nonsense. Faculty members often act as retailers for their courses rather than educators. As a professor at an elite college once said to me, “Some days I feel less like a teacher and more like a clerk in an expensive boutique.”

These changes weren’t sudden. They have happened over decades.”

Origin of the Genre

Vann R. Newkirk II considers the legacy of The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien’s extraordinary, perfect, and, best of all, short, masterpiece:

“Modern fantasy and its subgenres, as represented in Martin’s work, might be positioned as anti-art in relation to Tolkien. In that way, Tolkien still dominates. While the watchword of the day is subversion—twisting tropes, destroying moral absolutes with relativism, and making mockeries of gallantry and heroism—subversion still requires a substrate. So although fantasy creators in all media have devoted most of their energies in the past eight decades to digesting Tolkien, so in turn Tolkien has become part of the fabric of their works. There’s a little Bilbo in Tyrion, a bit of Smaug in Eragon’s dragons, a dash of Aragorn in Shannara’s Shea Ohmsford, and a touch of Gandalf in the wizards of Discworld.

That’s why, on this week’s anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit and of the entrance of Tolkien into the fantasy genre, it’s important to reread and reconsider his works, and his first especially. Although the short and whimsical book is considered lightweight compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s still in many ways the best that literature has to offer. Tolkien is first a linguist, and it’s not only his creation of elvish, dwarvish, and orcish languages out of whole cloth that impresses, but also the way he toys with English and illustrates the power of language itself to create. Ever a good author surrogate, Bilbo’s true arms and armor aren’t his trusty half-sword Sting or his mithril shirt, but—as Gollum would find out—his words and riddles..

The internal and external quests of The Hobbit are perhaps especially important today. In a time when young men in particular seem disaffected, unmoored, prone to violence and radicalization, and are dying at accelerating rates from “deaths of despair”—suicides and overdoses, mostly—the central lessons of the book aren’t found in the fantastic elements, on the backs of Eagles, or in the scope of Tolkien’s maps. Rather, the important lessons are found in the development of Bilbo and his dwarf companions Thorin, Balin, Fíli, and Kíli: the dignity of humanity, the virtue of generosity, a respect for life, a duty to do good, and the ways in which brotherhood can be used to move men toward those ideals. In a world today where nuclear doom—for which The Ring can be read as a metaphor—hangs over every country, where efforts to work for common good seem to crumble, and where inequality and hegemony seem likely to persist in perpetuity, perhaps those quaint values are more crucial now than ever.”

Posted on 24 September 2017 | 8:12 am

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