Defeating the Washington Monument Syndrome

Bureaucrats defend themselves against proposed reductions in what they believe they have coming to them by immediately threatening to close down the most popular and/or most vital service they provide. The US Park Service became famous for it and gave the phenomenon its name through its habit of immediately closing down the immensely popular Washington Monument whenever a government shutdown occurred or threatening to close it down when budget cuts were discussed. It’s a species of blackmail, simple to operate, but even simpler to shut down, if you understand it and have the guts and the foresight to prepare.

All government services provide various levels of benefit to the public, from essentials like police protection and national defense down to museums on the history of condiment and bridges to nowhere. At the same time they distort, to a greater or lesser degree the private sphere. Sometimes this is a net good (police departments distorting the private gang system) and other times it’s not so good (we’ve yet to recover from disruptive urban renewal bulldozing of black neighborhoods in the 20th century). All these activities have to be funded by some sort of tax or fee and the taxes too have various levels of pain and benefit associated with them. The taxes also distort the private sphere (sales taxes suppress consumption, inheritance taxes suppress thrift, luxury taxes shift buying yachts to Canada).

It’s perfectly possible for any individual and for our society in general to list out taxes and spending, from least justifiable to most in two lists. Politicians occasionally do this and try to reign in various forms of government stupidity. The Washington Monument Syndrome consists of bureaucrats taking threatened spending cuts and applying the cuts to the wrong end of the list at key moments before there is a popular consensus on cutting spending, disrupting spending control plans.

The solution to this syndrome is simple, ban it. Remove civil service protection from government workers who engage in the practice. Follow through by getting these blackmailers out of government service when they try their tricks anyway.

We need to change the sequence of events so that the consensus of what’s most valuable is arrived at first. Then when stark economic reality shows up and revenues aren’t there to cover expenses, we already know where all the cuts would land. Bureaucrats who significantly deviate off the list and purposefully pick painful targets for cuts will be exposed for what they have always been: saboteurs of the will of the people, emotional blackmail artists holding popular programs hostage.

Ideally you would develop the cut lists in good times as an exercise in civic responsibility and first execute the list in bad times so spending cuts do the least harm and tax cuts the most good. As a political reality, things are never that neat. Good and bad times are never universal. Probably the best time to do it is in the honeymoon phase of our next Democrat president, when the media’s in the tank and blowing kisses at the new administration. It gives the opposition something to do and answers the charge of “how to pay for” tax cuts. The people decide what they want and the government organizes and gives voice to their sometimes contradictory desires.

It also puts the shoe on the other foot in terms of government economic analysis. Static analysis of tax cuts, inaccurately taking into account their growth effects, would lead to steeper cuts in spending than necessary. Besides being economically illiterate (which it always was), that sort of analysis would become a politically perilous thing to do because it would lead to more people losing services.

Another follow on effect is an opportunity for privatization. Certain services will lose their secure funding, and become episodic. We’ll fund them in good times but they’ll repeatedly face the chopping block in bad times. Private philanthropy could step in and ensure steady funding through an endowment so the job gets done without this government spending yo-yo. This splits the actual “bleeding heart liberals” off the socialist coalition as it becomes clear that sometimes shrinking government is a better way to actually get something done for the poor and the powerless.

12 thoughts on “Defeating the Washington Monument Syndrome”

  1. The solution to this syndrome is simple, ban it. Remove civil service protection from government workers who engage in the practice. Follow through by getting these blackmailers out of government service when they try their tricks anyway.

    I am reading the Chicagoboyz, right? How can you get the government or public who tolerate the current behavior to ban something they don’t mind?

    An aside, the Washington monument was built with private dollars and labor.

  2. We need to change the sequence of events so that the consensus of what’s most valuable is arrived at first.

    A website might be the best way to do this. Set up a site to break down spending and let people and their representatives record their preferences long before any cuts need to be made. I would suggest a system in which every person (probably every elected official) has, say, a hundred points that they distribute across the various spending priorities in order to indicate the relative value they attach to each choice.

    You could start the program out as an exercise in journalism. Just give politicians the chance to register their priorities. Do it long enough and it would become standard practice.

  3. Probably the best time to do it is in the honeymoon phase of our next Democrat president, when the media’s in the tank and blowing kisses at the new administration.

    I wouldn’t count on a Democrat president anytime in the near future.

  4. I agree with Jack Diederich. The NPS got away with closing the Washington Monument because doing so benefited the Clinton Administration. If it were otherwise and NPS administrators were foolish enough to shut down a major national tourist site, a phone call from Clinton or his Interior Secretary would have reversed the closure and probably caused career problems for the NPS people. And even if the Administration had no direct leverage against the Parks bureaucrats, which I doubt, it would have been a simple matter for Administration officials to spread stories in the press blaming the bureaucrats for the unfortunate closed-parks situation which the Administration, representing the American people, was tirelessly working to rectify. The bureaucrats would have gotten the message quickly.

    I doubt that any Democratic administration would willingly give up such a useful political tool.

  5. Politicians have little incentive to stop rent seeking-they get paid off by the beneficiaries. There should be people paid to cut gov’t spending or authority. Allow people to sue gov’t agencies on behalf of the public and allow a jury of adults(defined as people who pay taxes and are not on the public teat)by a majority to end a gov’t program or agency and impound and return its appropriation to the treasury.Of course if someone gets 1,000,000,000 back to the treasury, I see no reason they can’t be cut a sizable seven figure ( or more) check; they would genuinely deserve it. Imagine shutting down the Civil Rights Commission,NEH, FEC etc. You name it.We got along very well pre Teddy Roosevelt, before everything became a Federal Case.

    The devil is in the details of course,but the point is that electoral politics is failing to protect us from “our” gov’t. There are better ways allow the exercise of civic responsibility.

  6. There is an equally insidious version of the Washington Monument tactic at the state and local level. That is to put Washington Monument types of measures on the ballot for new taxes; for example, locally we just saw a funding measure for 911-type emergency-respone-handling equipment. How can the voters be against such a crucial program?

    Of course, what happens is that the other uses of tax revenues do not get scrutiny, and the pressure lessens to drop or trim existing programs in order to pay for worthy new ones or improvements in more valuable programs.

  7. seeing or not seeing such monuments is no big deal for me, though I have been to most of them, but the comment that the Democrats like big govt is not valid when we note that under the present GOP leadership (for the pst 7 years) our govt is bigger than it has ever been.

  8. Jack Diedrich – You might as well ask how can we get those stupid farmers to stop overplanting themselves into ruin as you deride that new-fangled commodities futures market.

    The problem is an information problem at heart. Bureaucrats lie to protect their budgets and threaten dire consequences that are not real. Free marketeers generally make exceptions to their love of the private sector for acts of fraud and other lies.

    As an aside, pretty much all major US monuments are built with private labor and dollars and then donated to the government to maintain. It’s a US tradition I support heartily. I remember dropping a few dollars into a box to fund the WW II memorial a few years back.

    Shannon Love – A website covers so much territory but yes, I agree that it would have to be something electronic. I think it would be much more useful to view it as a database with multiple data entry pathways. You could do phone trees for the low tech inclined and social networks for the trendy, plain web forms for those who prefer them and include BI analysis toolsets for the data nerds (and yes, I am a data nerd).

    TF Vol – Optimist

    Johnathan – The DoD got away with telling the Clinton administration that it took two weeks to fly helicopters from the FRG to Kosovo and that they needed multiple weeks of training after that before they were deployed for combat missions. Defying presidents isn’t just for the Parks Service. The CIA seems to have gotten a taste for it recently for instance and I don’t think anybody really believes that the politicians are fully in control of State or have been in decades.

    Renminbi – The current opportunities for graft are so huge that a political party could have a multi-decade run in power based on the premise of reducing graft and abuse by hundreds of millions of dollars every year and throughout that run feed lustily on the opportunities for personal enrichment they haven’t quite gotten around to yet. I’m not talking about reformers who promise but don’t deliver but rather reformers who actually deliver more honest government with every Congress and who deserve re-election on that basis.

    It’s the most stable shot at power either party has right now but both seem too stupid to assemble a winning party coalition to run, win power on the principle, and (most importantly) execute their promises faithfully. Gingrich Republicans came close but couldn’t hold on for very long.

    Linc – You’re absolutely correct.

    Fred Lapides – Please don’t take my post as an endorsement of the GOP right or wrong. I’ll vote in November but will likely leave the presidential ballot blank. Rather take it as an analysis that the GOP, when desperate, will often turn towards small government solutions and they won’t be more desperate than after a 2008 blowout during President Obama’s media honeymoon.

  9. Slightly off topic, but I MUST RANT!

    The bureaucratization of academic medicine is interesting. Okay, it’s painful more than interesting, considering I’ve been working in teaching hospitals these past eight years after fellowship. There seems to be money for shiny glass building, marble lobbies and Starbuck-ian cafes, marketing departments, directors of diversity, and managers of this and that, but, oddly enough, not enough money for more staff.

    I have recently been told that because of national fire protection agency rules, which we must follow to be accredited, I must sit in a microscope room, 10-12 hours a day, with the door closed. No windows in the room, no window in the door that must be shut, and only one way out is through the door which must remain closed. Meanwhile, the open plan lab next door, which is separated from me by a second fire door, is full of chemicals on benches and on worktops. And the techs sit right next to chemicals without fire retardant gear, don’t they? Look, I’m sure there is some perfectly valid reason for the rule, but for heaven’s sake! I feel like a veal in a cage!

    We have the marketing department putting up signs and flatscreens running pro-hospital propaganda that would make a communist regime proud. I would be angry about it all, except that I am resigned, sheep-like, to all of it and am currently sitting and weeping quietly over the layers of administration. Just give in, just give in, just give in, says a voice in my head, but my heart says No! Sigh.

    We docs who actually bill and make money are so terrible, aren’t we, with our complaints? Perhaps we could just fire all the docs and nurses and send the patients straight to the marketing department? They can sort it all out.

    *I’m not actually weeping, of course :)

  10. Oh, my point about the above rant is that the private business sector seems to be adopting government levels of bureaucratization. Scary!

  11. I remember Samuelson’s Eco text thinking the mixed economy was cool. What really happens is the gov’t contaminates the private sector; medicine is a good example.Another is the subprime mess-think Community Reinvestment Act. Small market failures the private sector can do on its own,but for the big stuff gov’t. is indispensible.

  12. Back in the 70s/80s this was known as the “Firemen First Syndrome” as cities faced with budget cuts targeted fire and police services in order to extort addition taxes from the citizens.

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