The Bureaucratic Impulse

Paul Greenberg

11/10/2012 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Business hasn't been all that great the past four years in America. But, never fear, our president has noticed -- even if it's taken him a while. His solution: a new U.S. secretary of business.

That's right. A whole new federal department would consolidate and coordinate the current six federal agencies dealing with trade and commerce so American businesses would need to contact only one, over-branching organization for help. Voila! Problem solved.

The proposed change is supposed to simplify matters. Why do some of us suspect it would only complicate them?

Maybe because that's been the general history of government expansion in recent years. Look at the growth of federal jobs during the Obama years compared to the shrinking employment numbers in the private economy.

Now one more government agency would be added to the mix. It's all supposed to help American business. ("We're from Washington and we're here to help.") If this administration were serious about wanting to help, it would have got serious some time ago about cutting the taxes and red tape that burden American business, especially small business. Not add another layer of bureaucracy to all that.

Besides, doesn't the country already have a secretary of commerce with full department to match? Is this a reform or just duplication? Here's hoping the president was just rolling out another campaign ploy the other day -- an instant solution to a problem he could no longer ignore, at least not before Election Day. Let's hope so. Because this brilliant idea sounds more like an awful one.

But it's characteristic of this president's approach to government policy. If your only tool is a hammer, you may wind up pounding away at everything in sight. Barack Obama's first if not only response to every economic problem is another new, expanded federal program or agency, with all the expense, patronage, taxes, new hires and general waste that any new federal program brings in its complicated wake.

There's got to be a better way, but it never seems to occur to this administration.

Ditto, the problems of American education. Are our schools failing the next generation of Americans? Are we spending more on basic education and accomplishing less than almost every other industrialized nation?

Why, just turn out 100,000 new teachers, and that ought to do the trick. No need to go into bothersome details like whether this army of new teachers will be educated or just certified. Just turn on the spigot and out will come 100,000 of them. As if creating teachers were as simple as producing widgets or any other uniform industrialized product.

The proposal does have some obvious political advantages, like 100,000 new members for teachers' unions. But beyond that, it raises more problems than it offers solutions. It'll certainly burden school districts and state governments, and the taxpayers who support them, with more health insurance and pension plans to pay for. With no guarantee that more teachers will equal better teaching.

To quote Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas' department of education reform:

"Unless the next teacher-hiring binge produces something that the last several couldn't, there is no reason to expect it to contribute to student outcomes." Why not? As the professor explains, "Most people expect that more individualized attention from teachers should help students learn. The problem is that expanding the number of hires means dipping deeper into the potential teacher labor pool. That means additional teachers are likely to be weaker than current ones." And their students may prove even more poorly educated.

The idea that there is some royal road to improving education, one that requires only certifying more and more teachers every year (not necessarily educating them) has proven one of the more attractive fallacies of recent educational policy. It's especially attractive to politicians looking for simple solutions to offer a gullible public. Politicians like our president.

But as the late great H.L. Mencken once pointed out, "there is always a well-known solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible and wrong."