Post image for Washington’s China Syndrome

Washington’s China Syndrome

by nkronos on April 11, 2011

In the 1979 film “The China Syndrome,” Jack Godell–played in a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance by Jack Lemmon–barricades himself inside a nuclear plant control room because company owners will not respond to his findings that the plant has bad pipes and will, in the event of a scram (emergency shut down) become unstable. The utility’s president, determined to force Godell from the control room before Godell can spill the beans about the faulty plumbing to a television crew, orders an intentional scram, thus almost precipitating the very thing Godell feared.

Despite all the problems at Japan’s Fukushima plants, during the past week events in Washington, DC, more closely resembled the climactic scene of the movie than did any nuclear reactor . While those in charge of the American political system instigated a near “scram” of the federal government in a game of civic brinkmanship, their unserious leadership–led by Barack Obama and Harry “Cowboy Poet Laureate” Reid–only highlighted the dangerous situation we’ve come to and how poor our capacity to deal with it.

Mickey Kaus via Chris Moody has a laundry list of evidence that no matter how badly all the government’s indicators are signalling “Danger, Will Robinson,” those sitting in the easy chairs at the control panel evidence no belief that things are about to blow sky high. The following jobs all wait to be filled at the federal government:

  • $115,000/year to run the Facebook page for the Department of the Interior.
  • $155,000/year to make sure the Peace Corps complies with Equal Opportunity Employment standards.
  • $180,000/year to do the same thing at the Department of Transportation.

In fact, the federal government is currently advertising 294 jobs at the USAJobs Web site alone that pay more than $100,000 annually. Moreover, keep in mind that these salary figures are for government jobs where take-home compensation is typically less an indicator of the position’s true worth than it would be in the private sector. After all, Obama himself draws only $400,000 per year (which means the salary structure for the federal government is such that the President of the United States is worth only about four times what a Facebook page designer is).

Kaus wonders why all the focus on entitlements when such discretionary absurdities continue. Partly it’s just math: eliminating every single job on that list will not save the government even $1 billion annually. Second, and more importantly, though, I think Kaus underestimates the power of the entrenched bureaucrats. Not only would torching these jobs not save much money, but it would incur a similar high political price as going after entitlements.

Surely not, you say: after all, entitlements affect millions of potential voters. As Wisconsin evidences, however, government workers not only have an acute awareness of when the political class threatens their livelihoods, they are also in the best position to do something about it. Call me cynical, but whistle-blowers and other examples of functionaries not playing ball result when big shot politicians forget to appease subordinates. Lest you think I over-state the case, consider two quick examples:

  • W. Mark Felt, AKA “Deep Throat,” who was passed over by Richard Nixon twice for nomination to direct the FBI. Felt’s leaks to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped bring down the Nixon presidency.
  • Linda Tripp, who was a hold-over from the George H. W. Bush administration and unpopular with the Clintonistas. Like Felt, she was able to use her position to go after her much more powerful enemy, ultimately contributing to Clinton’s impeachment. Tripp, after all, convinced Monica Lewinsky to hang onto the infamous blue dress.

The state battles with rank-and-file government employees evidence how saving money on staffing challenges even the boldest leaders. Likewise, despite high unemployment, federal workers were furious that Obama froze their salaries for one year as part of appeasement to get the lame-duck deficit stimulus through. (I think “deficit stimulus” describes it most accurately as that is all we seem to be stimulating.) That sense of entitlement permeates all the way to the highest levels of professional politicians; observe through the examples of Charlie Crist, Arlen Specter, and Lisa Murkowski (second-generation!) how careerists try to hang on to their meal tickets long after those tickets have expired.

The situation is not unlike Czarist Russia in that a permanent-seeming over-class–mostly useless in its function–drones on, believing itself secure from rebellion in this case by bribing just enough underlings with just enough pollen to keep the hive from uproar. Pollen, however, is running in short supply these days. Unfortunately I cannot remember the source (Jake Tapper?), but recently I read a revision of the famous remark from JFK’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you…because it can’t.”

That is what is going on with these continuing resolutions and inability to pass a budget. Congress has kicked the can down the road until we are bouncing along on gravel, rather than asphalt. And the kicks are carrying the can a shorter and shorter distance.

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