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September 23, 2013

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Sounds remarkably like the SOP in the Soviet Union and (to some degree or other) in the satellites. China too of course (given that their first emperor was a total control freak that wanted to know everything and insisted on being involved even in the most marginal decisions in the remotest village they just keep up the tradition).

Scott Adams (Dilbert) quoted an email in one of his books with the following story: In a company the superiors increased their demands for written status reports on projects the more the closer the deadline came. In the end they wanted several of these per day. The writer of the email claims to have solved the problem by writing a short program that produced these reports automatically by use of a template and partially random content. According to him he got praised and presented as a role model by his superiors for being the only one to keep up with the status reports.

Btw, all your links are broken because they have the ObWi address in front of the one you intend to link to.

my fault. Fixed

I wonder what kind of fakery goes on in the monitoring of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons material.

My experience (as compared with what you describe here, as well as the Vietnam-era tales my uncle, then a supply clerk, recounted to me) agrees that the modern Army is a better one, and a more professional one... but even if it's doing it less now, it's still routinely in the practice of telling itself what it wants to hear. It's still a large bureaucracy. I think there's more top-down visibility at this point (automation makes a big difference), and more transparency in general. I wonder, though, if this will not change for the worse as it transitions from an Army at war back to a garrison Army, especially considering how much the last ten years of war have done to shake the professionalism of the organization. A lot of good Soldiers got out, and a lot of bad ones stayed in longer and at a higher rank than they'd have been able to w/o the increased manning needs and accelerated promotions. Having said this, the Army is hardly unaware of this and is taking measures to tighten standards at all levels... but I'm not overly optimistic. I tend to expect reduced transparency and more self-delusion from the bottom up...

A few more characters like Yossarian and dr. ngo (did you ever sign a piece with the send-off "I yearn for you tragically") and war will be a distant memory, a thing of the past.

Why, if dr. ngo had been strategically placed as a clerk in the armed forces leading up to the Iraq fiasco, he might have had, by some astute shuffling of paperwork, Dick Cheney believing our people and bombs were actually sent over there (certainly George Bush would have bought the whole thing, cowboy-walking up and down the White House hallways, hitching one gonad, and waving dr. ngo's fake dispatches around as proof of mission accomplished), when really they were just sidetracked off on unused railroad spurs and sailing around in circles in both oceans for the duration.

No one killed, especially the Iraqis.

We could still have parades, but alas we would have missed out on all of the cool prothesis technology developed as a result of our misadventures.


Cynical dishonesty in order to "get along" is not limited to the military. This same phenomenon is how much of the financial crisis happened. Each mortgage that was issued based on lies accepted by a low level mortgage broker, each failure to record a transfer of title, each dishonest credit assessment - much of that was done by low-level people, and it's all the same thing as creating false reports in the military.

People go along to get along. There are a million examples of everyday acts of dishonesty and even brutality that characterize organizations in both the public and private sectors, where people are just trying to do what they think is required.

But to say that this is an integral part of our culture is to throw up our hands and decide that any kind of collective effort is bound to be so riddled with fraud and misconduct that it's futile. I don't believe that. dr ngo, this statement bothers me:

But whenever I hear our leaders arguing that we should attack Panama, or Nicaragua, or Bosnia, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria, because WE KNOW what they are doing, I cannot help but wonder: how do WE KNOW? How do we know what “WE KNOW”? And why should we, the public, believe the government story any more this time than we foolishly did in Vietnam?

First of all, forget about leaders, why should we believe our own eyes, or each other, we who are so readily complicit in lies and deception? Second, why aren't we demanding that people be accountable to the truth, even in small details? Third, who are "our leaders" and why do we think they're all the same, and don't we attempt to elect trustworthy representatives?

It seems that if we can't trust anything, we are all walking around in our own individual fog. Obviously, we can't blindly trust everything, but without some degree of trust, especially in those we ourselves have supported, we might as well become libertarian hermits. My inclination is that it's better to try to improve the system than to abandon all trust.

Although our orderly room was actually completely strack (blessings be upon you, First Sergeant Maurice Jackson; you were one of the most fiercely competent people I've ever known) --
"Operational Readiness" in my Field Artillery battalion in 1973-1975 in Furth Germany had the same degree of Potemkinism that Dr. Ngo reports from Fort Dix five years earlier. We were required to maintain complete preventive maintenance and operation logs for every major piece of equipment, and we retroactively fabricated any that were missing in the week prior to an inspection.

I think some industries, particularly defense contracting, has this obsession with status deeply ingrained. It's interesting to observe how much this changes from program to program under one roof, and how much a function of which customer is being served it is.

Army and Navy in particular seem to obsess about Earned Value and Cost Accounting to a larger degree than to Air Force customers (although this may vary from one USAF program to the next). I have known people on Army and Navy programs who were bright and capable engineers, whose entire jobs had been subverted to tracking earned value. Not generating value; just tracking and reporting. Navy customers obsess about that and various trivia like: exactly how many states in your Kalman Filter?

Those things are Items of Concern in addition to performance metrics. And performance metrics aren't necessarily things that actually affect net performance. Sometimes they are metrics that don't make a difference, only at one point in time someone, somewhere, thought they did. But now that they've been cast into the requirements set, they will be mercilessly tracked and compliance enforced, even if it turns out that subsequence analysis proves that those metrics can be assigned different, less restrictive requirements.

It's not a matter of being right or wrong. It's a matter of what you agreed to, and making sure that gets delivered on. Even if it doesn't make sense anymore.

All in all, I'd prefer to work Air Force programs. Those tend to see more in the way of engineering getting done by the engineers.

Corporate cultures are funny, too. I have heard stories about engineers getting called at a parent's funeral by their employers, asking them when they'll be returning to work. Needless to say, some companies are to be avoided. One guy I know personally was pulled over by the state police while on vacation and asked to call into work. This was in the 1980s, when hardly anyone had mobile communications.

Some military confessions. Going to a Southern university, a good number of friends ended up in the military. In some recent trips back home, I've run into them and I have to admit, I may have screwed up not doing the same. Many of them were very good at languages, and so ended up getting more language education, they did their time, some for a shorter time, others until retirement. The ones who got to retirement are in their 50's with their military pension and they were smart enough to do graduate work while they were in the military, and are now working in jobs that are interesting but aren't super well paying, but with their military pension they have a really good life. I realize that they hit a sweet spot before the end of the Cold War, and so weren't involved in combat, and there was no way to know that would be the case, but I find myself jealous.

Concerning dr ngo's story, one of the things that this kind of experience give you is a realization that there are ways around bureaucracy and patience and careful thought will reveal how to do it. It is something I really only discovered in my late 30's, it would have been nice to have realized it earlier. Not mentioning any names, but some may take away from this that bureaucracy is something that needs to be removed from the realm of human interaction, but my take is a bit more benign, just that one can't get away from bureaucracy, so you want to really really keep it away from where the decisions are life and death.

That was a very interesting post dr ngo.

I'm curious about the nature of this pervasive institutional lying. Does it affect the branches of the military that deal with nuclear weapons? Is it a function of all large organizations? Or only ones in conditions of conscription?

one can't get away from bureaucracy, so you want to really really keep it away from where the decisions are life and death.

This might be a difficult task if one supports any military at all, not to mention hospitals. Large corporations, educational institutions, and other entities come to mind as having a significant effect on people's lives. Bad bureaucracy isn't a given. Bureaucracies can be made better with truth as a touchstone.

Large corporations, educational institutions, and other entities come to mind as having a significant effect on people's lives.

Certainly, and when those kinds of institutions have to make decisions on people's living and dying, they tend to screw them up. Any number of people have had a significant effect on my life, but that doesn't mean that they had to make decisions as to whether I would live or die. By their very nature, bureaucracies promote second guessing and re-evaluating the criteria for success. Done enough, and things like 'collateral damage' are standard operating procedure. The military that serves its purpose best is one that is never used.

I was Navy myself (1989-1994) and saw some of this CYA paperwork and organized lying.

I do think you see less of it in deep-water navies, largely because the ship has to actually get underway. If you have a material deficiency at sea, it tends to bite you in the ass.

Certainly, and when those kinds of institutions have to make decisions on people's living and dying, they tend to screw them up.

Is the EPA one such institution? It collectively decides whether thousands of people live or die every year. Does it have the same kind of pathology that dr ngo described? Does a large teaching hospital?

Depressing as it is, I have to conclude that humanity's real talent is not in such areas as philosophy, technology, or artistic expression, but rather in BUREAUCRACY.

I blame the Sumerians.

I have maybe a slightly different approach to bureaucracy. I've worked in big engineering organizations. My spouse works for a major computer chip maker. She's a designer on a project on which several thousand engineers must work together. There is a lot of bureaucracy. Lots of rules, many of which are kind of dumb, lots of meetings, many of which are pointless or absurd, lots of convoluted intergroup coordination. But what is the alternative?

This product requires the company to shell out a few billion dollars. It has to work. Or the company disappears. How can you possibly coordinate the efforts of thousands of people while spending billions of dollars without bureaucracy?

It seems to me that bureaucracy is just the word we use for what happens when humans have to coordinate large groups of people to work together on tasks with complex interactions. So militaries certainly qualify. Large corporations definitely do. The criminal justice system, absolutely. Any hospital, surely. I don't know what it means to talk about all these endeavors as irredeemably flawed or to talk about keeping them from life and death decisions.

Not sure if St Vincent's is a large teaching hospital, but there you go.

The EPA is charged with protecting the environment. It sounds like you have been going to the Bellmore school of logic.

If you go into an ER, and you are given priority, my impression, from my brushes with them, is that bureaucracy is pretty low on the list. Get it done and paperwork comes later. I believe policing should work the same way, and if you have regimes where you mandate a certain number of arrests or demand that X percentage of the crimes be cleared, you are going to run into trouble.

Of course, everything might have life or death consequences. The untreated abcessed tooth can kill. This is why you set up a bureaucracy to help everyone get treated rather than one that aims to reduce care.

But history suggests you want to keep some distance between figuring out how many vehicles you have in the motorpool and how many dead VC you have produced for the week. I'm not sure why that is so hard to understand.

The dictionary definition is "Management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures". When you are dealing with life or death situations, I don't think you really want fixed procedures. I think it's an interesting question whether one wants or requires hierarchical authority in those kinds of situations, but does one really want 'fixed procedures'?

Net/net, have large bureaucracies like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid had a favorable or deleterious effect on the live/die equation.

a la Turbulence, (and lj, I think Turb's point was precisely yours regarding the Bellmore school of logic; though I won't be surprised to be admonished that I have no idea what anyone else is thinking ;) ) given the drift of the conversation, one would expect the EPA to add lead to paint (maybe the lead lobby will make a comeback after the EPA's bureaucracy is cut to the bone by the sequester), rather than stipulating its removal, and fudge the paperwork.

Come to think of it, the last bit is precisely what happened in many instances during the Bush Administration, except that they needed to bring in private sector bureaucrats to do the fudging.

The rule formulated by one bureaucracy, the federal Government, to disallow certain choices by another bureaucracy ... hospitals turning away the uninsured from emergency room care and treatment ... is a lifesaver or a life-shortener?

In the small bureaucracy of the family unit (each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, no doubt because the requisite paperwork for happiness was submitted in an untimely manner), before medical insurance, public safety nets and/or privately purchased, was available, the sick or disabled child in many cases was at the mercy of the purser in the family, who made a bureaucratic decision to discontinue care.

Given the debate over legal abortion, is a large bureaucracy like the government likely to save lives or increase death by restricting abortion services, as opposed to leaving the decision to the one-person bureaucracy of the individual?

I'm trying to figure how to measure the life-sustaining or life-depleting efficacy of a military bureaucracy -- efficient as opposed to dysfunctional as presented here, when the entire point of a military, when used, is to send folks towards the front lines closer to death, as opposed to f^cking up the paperwork and sending folks home to safety by mistake or by clever dr. ngo machinations.

And, yes, I understand that proper paperwork filed promptly and truthfully about the state of an aircraft carrier's hull will save lives in the midst of all the killing.

If it wasn't for the silly military bureaucracy, there would be no novel, Catch 22, and instead of Yossarian having a deadly flapdoodle bureaucracy covering its butt by defining sanity and insanity inside out and upside, you might well have a strictly efficient and forthright bureaucracy and therefore, instead of the novel, a mere one-sentence report from Joseph Heller stating that "Yossarian was ordered to fly missions until he was dead, and he did."

" Obviously, we can't blindly trust everything, but without some degree of trust, especially in those we ourselves have supported, we might as well become libertarian hermits."

How about "trust, but verify"? Or better yet, just do the verifying and award the trust when it's earned.

On how bureacracies know stuff, I was struck by how the US government claims to know the exact number of people killed by the gas attack in Syria, when they're so damn fuzzy about the number of civilians they themselves have killed in other wars (when the numbers aren't simply set at some very low level.) Truly an impressive display of efficiency, or something.

Not sure if St Vincent's is a large teaching hospital, but there you go.

That's sort of my point. Large teaching hospitals are definitely bureaocratic. And oftentimes they screw up in all sorts of ways.

So, what is the alternative? Never have an accident? Never go to the hospital?

There's a huge amount of medical intervention that you can't do except in a large teaching hospital. If bureacracy is unworkable, does that mean we have to forego large teaching hospitals altogether? Or what?

The EPA is charged with protecting the environment.

The EPA is charged with a complex balance of interests, including protecting the environment and not stifling economic growth. So when they decide whether to delay new mercury emission regulations, they're literally deciding whether a bunch of people are going to live or die. They have a fair bit of discretion (note how often environmental groups sue them to force real changes).

It sounds like you have been going to the Bellmore school of logic.

I don't follow. I think the EPA has an enormously difficult and incredibly important role in society. Precisely because their job is difficult and important, it is a matter of life and death. The EPA is responsible for saving millions of lives over its history, and small changes in how it operates can easily kill or save thousands of lives every year.


But history suggests you want to keep some distance between figuring out how many vehicles you have in the motorpool and how many dead VC you have produced for the week. I'm not sure why that is so hard to understand.

I don't know what you're trying to say here at all. Institutions have to figure things out and distribute information. They usually work better if they do those things better....

The dictionary definition is "Management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures". When you are dealing with life or death situations, I don't think you really want fixed procedures.

This seems...wrong.

Licensing doctors is a fixed procedure. You can't practice medicine without a medical license. Do you think we'd be better off in a world where anyone could walk into an ER and start practicing medicine?

Beyond that, there are lots and lots of fixed procedures in medicine. Everything from how to intubate a cyanic patient to heart massage to setting a broken bone or ordering an MRI is a fixed procedure.

And medicine is absurdly heirarchical: the attending physicians have complete control over residents who have complete control over interns and they're all mostly superior to the nurses who have their own heirarchy. There are few places on Earth more heirarchical than a modern ER.

I think it's an interesting question whether one wants or requires hierarchical authority in those kinds of situations, but does one really want 'fixed procedures'?

A few years ago, I showed up at the ER. My neurologist relatives told me that I should insist that the attending order an MRI. He took one look at me and said that was completely unecessary and that, paranoid and worried relatives aside, there was no medical basis for ordering a $10K diagnostic test that would almost certainly show absolutely nothing. He said he had a fixed rule preventing him from ordering an MRI unless certain criteria were met (which I didn't meet of course). Was that fixed procedure bad? It seems pretty important if we don't want to bankrupt our entire society on medical costs.


One area of medical practive that I find interesting is the gender gap for treating certain conditions. If you take a middle aged man and woman and send them to a doctor with identical symptoms indicating heart disease, oftentimes, the man gets treated according to the standard criteria (EEG, stress test, maybe statins and a nutrtitionist) while the woman gets told "meh, it is probably stress, you should relax a little and take some aspirin maybe". This seems like an area where more fixed procedures, or better adherence to them, would be really useful, no?

A friend of mine is a doctor who works at a large teaching hospital. She also does research on the side on reducing medical errors. It turns out that every year, lots of people die because medical staff don't follow fixed procedures correctly. For example, the number of central line infections that can be easily prevented by following a simple checklist is just completely absurd.


Maybe there's a bit of a cultural schism here. If you spend your whole life in academia or teaching, you might not develop the same perspective as people who work in more technical fields, where one person's mistake on a completely unrelated and relatively insignificant corner of a project can completely doom the entire enterprise.

When a 5th grade teacher screws up and fails to teach one particular concept correctly, that's not the end of the world. Some kids will pick it up from their older-siblings/parents/friends/textbook/other-classes. Students in general are robust and flexible. But many problems in life aren't quite so forgiving. If medical staff placing a central line don't follow the checklist and end up giving a patient an infection that kills them, that's a big deal, even if the central line was a tiny insignificant thing compared to the heart transplant that had brought the patient into the hospital in the first place and that went off without a hitch.

It seems to me that bureaucracy is just the word we use for what happens when humans have to coordinate large groups of people to work together on tasks with complex interactions. So militaries certainly qualify. Large corporations definitely do. The criminal justice system, absolutely. Any hospital, surely. I don't know what it means to talk about all these endeavors as irredeemably flawed or to talk about keeping them from life and death decisions.

This remark by Turbulence seems completely correct to me. Bureaucracy is not a bad thing (although, certainly, standards can be flawed, and some bureaucratic procedures need constant reevaluation). What dr ngo describes is corruption. Corruption is a bad thing. It's depressing that so many people here believe that widespread corruption is inseparable from bureaucracy. I don't believe that.

It's depressing that so many people here believe that widespread corruption is inseparable from bureaucracy.

I'd say there's corruption - as defined by a given bureaucracy - in attempts to get around that bureaucracy, which can be completely benign if the bureaucracy, itself, is flawed and detrimental to the mission at hand.

There's also corruption built into some bureaucracies (man, I hate typing that word!) intentionally. People make rules to enrich themselves or secure their positions, those rules having no benefit to or, worse, being a drag on an organization.

Bureaucracy can be good or bad, but needs to be looked upon critically. It isn't necessarily inseparable from widespread corruption, but it's fertile ground for it.

It seems to me dr. ngo has looked upon a particular bureaucracy critically based on his personal experience. Given that it was within the United States Army, his criticisms and concerns are, at the very least, noteworthy, no? Also interesting, perhaps?

He said he had a fixed rule preventing him from ordering an MRI unless certain criteria were met (which I didn't meet of course).

Bureaucracy is fixed rules, but are fixed rules, in and of themselves, bureaucracy? I don't think so. Also 'he said he had a fixed rule'. I have a fixed rule about dealing with facebook invitations, does that make me a bureaucracy?

Perhaps it isn't clear, but in the context that I am talking about (and I think dr ngo is as well), it is paperwork and recording procedures to justify what has been done and what will be done (note that dr ngo's first example is retroactively doing the minutes to justify a decision that has already been made). You don't agree with the dictionary definition I gave, that's fine, but if you want to claim that bureaucracy is the equivalent to 'fixed rules', then I'd have to say that this ain't the bureaucracy that I'm talking about.

Interestingly enough, the other definitions are "Administration of a government chiefly through bureaus or departments staffed with nonelected officials [and] The departments and their officials as a group" and "The administrative structure of a large or complex organization" Both of these definitions would seem to exclude the doctors and staff at a teaching hospital, as well as police walking a beat or teachers in front of a class. This isn't, I suppose I have to add, suggesting that I therefore mean that doctors can do anything they want and can never act as administrators, but it represents the point I was trying to make briefly, which is that there should be a separation between the bureaucracy and the practitioners, be they doctors or teachers. Or perhaps soldiers, which is why I suggested that the best thing is to never put people in that situation if it can be possibly avoided.

In the example of medical licensing, you license physicians and set them up so they go out and do their job. You retroactively look at their work to make sure they still should be practicing medicine. I hope we can agree that this implementation is, in some way, bureaucratic rather than quizzing me on my stance towards fixed procedures (short version, good if they work, bad if they don't). Do you implement procedures and fixed rules right before they start working on a patient? I don't believe you do, though guidelines, etc can be set out. Still, rather than order them, you encourage them. I have linked to this Atul Gawande New Yorker article before, but what applies here is that in the attempt to reduce costs, there is a dance between what doctors do and what John Wright wants them to do.


“Customization should be five per cent, not ninety-five per cent, of what we do,” he told me. A few years ago, he gathered a group of people from every specialty involved—surgery, anesthesia, nursing, physical therapy—to formulate a single default way of doing knee replacements. They examined every detail, arguing their way through their past experiences and whatever evidence they could find. Essentially, they did what Luz considered the obvious thing to do: they studied what the best people were doing, figured out how to standardize it, and then tried to get everyone to follow suit.

They came up with a plan for anesthesia based on research studies—including giving certain pain medications before the patient entered the operating room and using spinal anesthesia plus an injection of local anesthetic to block the main nerve to the knee. They settled on a postoperative regimen, too. The day after a knee replacement, most orthopedic surgeons have their patients use a continuous passive-motion machine, which flexes and extends the knee as they lie in bed. Large-scale studies, though, have suggested that the machines don’t do much good. Sure enough, when the members of Wright’s group examined their own patients, they found that the ones without the machine got out of bed sooner after surgery, used less pain medication, and had more range of motion at discharge. So Wright instructed the hospital to get rid of the machines, and to use the money this saved (ninety thousand dollars a year) to pay for more physical therapy, something that is proven to help patient mobility. Therapy, starting the day after surgery, would increase from once to twice a day, including weekends.

Even more startling, Wright had persuaded the surgeons to accept changes in the operation itself; there was now, for instance, a limit as to which prostheses they could use. Each of our nine knee-replacement surgeons had his preferred type and brand. Knee surgeons are as particular about their implants as professional tennis players are about their racquets. But the hardware is easily the biggest cost of the operation—the average retail price is around eight thousand dollars, and some cost twice that, with no solid evidence of real differences in results.

[snip]

These have been hard changes for many people to accept. Wright has tried to figure out how to persuade clinicians to follow the standardized plan. To prevent revolt, he learned, he had to let them deviate at times from the default option. Surgeons could still order a passive-motion machine or a preferred prosthesis. “But I didn’t make it easy,” Wright said. The surgeons had to enter the treatment orders in the computer themselves. To change or add an implant, a surgeon had to show that the performance was superior or the price at least as low.

I asked one of his orthopedic colleagues, a surgeon named John Ready, what he thought about Wright’s efforts. Ready was philosophical. He recognized that the changes were improvements, and liked most of them. But he wasn’t happy when Wright told him that his knee-implant manufacturer wasn’t matching the others’ prices and would have to be dropped.

“It’s not ideal to lose my prosthesis,” Ready said. “I could make the switch. The differences between manufacturers are minor. But there’d be a learning curve.” Each implant has its quirks—how you seat it, what tools you use. “It’s probably a ten-case learning curve for me.” Wright suggested that he explain the situation to the manufacturer’s sales rep. “I’m my rep’s livelihood,” Ready said. “He probably makes five hundred dollars a case from me.” Ready spoke to his rep. The price was dropped.

Wright has become the hospital’s kitchen manager—not always a pleasant role. He told me that about half of the surgeons appreciate what he’s doing. The other half tolerate it at best. One or two have been outright hostile. But he has persevered, because he’s gratified by the results.

Note that rather than 'order' or 'require' or 'demand', the key verbs are 'accept' and 'persuade'. If you have, as you say, been on the inside of a bureaucracy, you know that persuasion is a key aspect to getting a bureaucracy to do things, but I don't see any definition of a bureaucracy has claiming that persuasion is an essential part of the definition.

The article also talks about Armin Ernst, who is a doctor managing ICU units for 10 hospitals over a multistate area

Ernst says he’s not telling clinicians what to do. Instead, he’s trying to get clinicians to agree on precise standards of care, and then make sure that they follow through on them. (The word “consensus” comes up a lot.) What I didn’t understand was how he could enforce such standards in ten hospitals across three thousand square miles.

If 'not telling me what to do' were part of the standard definition of a bureaucracy, it would be a lot easier to handle, but I don't think it is, though maybe it is for you. It might be helpful if you could give us your definition of bureaucracy and then I might be able to understand what your problem is with what I have said.

Of course, good doctors are going to try and follow the most up to date recommendations. That's what those fixed procedures are. But you seem to be suggesting that the answer is to somehow order people to follow these fixed procedures, severely punish those who don't follow them and then everything will be fine. The shootings will continue until morale improves.

I think that when you create a regime like that, you tend to get a lot more CYA behaviour, with precisely the problems that dr ngo pointed to. Of course, doctors, who, as you note, have a high status in society, are more removed, but it seems to me that as soon as you start applying bureaucracy to frontline practitioners, this behaviour occurs and you select people for their ability to follow the bureaucratic line rather than their abilities as a teacher or a police officer. Hence my one line about life and death situations.

To address sapient's assertion, no, this is not corruption. (at any rate, dr ngo was drafted, so I'm not sure what he would have to do to be guilty of corruption in that circumstance. I guess you could argue that by doing these paperwork sleights of hand, he was getting out of fighting in the Tet counteroffensive, but I don't really see it)

Though piling on a huge amount of paperwork requirements onto a group of workers and then firing those who are unable or unwilling to deal is a time tested way for employers to fire workers. The counterattack is, of course, work to rule, but the fact that work to rule exists and is a powerful weapon for labour activists kind of underlines my point about keeping bureaucracy somehow separate from where the action is, be that in the operating room, on the streets, at the chalkboard or on the battlefield. Which is again why I suggested that we want to be at a point where we don't have soldiers on battlefields.

At any rate, I've already violated at least one of my fixed rules, so that will be all I have to say to this. TTFN

Given that it was within the United States Army, his criticisms and concerns are, at the very least, noteworthy, no? Also interesting, perhaps?

Both noteworthy and interesting. I certainly appreciate the post. I'm not sure that his criticisms and concerns are based on substance though.

Let's scrutinize the particular instances of falsification that dr ngo describes:

A committee was required to sign off on expenditures from a company fund. Instead, someone spent the money without committee authorization (or possibly with authorization, but without the required formalities) on something that probably would have been approved. If soldiers are required to give part of their paycheck to their company, shouldn't there be a procedure to ensure that someone doesn't pocket or mismanage the money?

It happens all the time, not only in the Army, but in corporations, that expenditures are retroactively authorized. What dr. ngo did to "authorize" the expenditure wasn't a huge moral failing, and it wasn't hugely corrupt: it was apparently just creating a paper trail to document what was thought to be a legitimate decision. However, it wasn't honest: certainly forging people's signatures is something that is usually frowned upon.

Same idea with the "morning report" which should have been verified by the signature log. The bureaucracy required a duplication of effort in order to make sure things were right (understandable in a world where people were expected to be getting killed sometimes in large numbers). Instead of keeping careful records, they manufactured the duplication. Again, this was a minor dishonesty. The forgery wasn't good, by any means, and given the stakes of getting it wrong, maybe the duplicative procedures should have been followed. But it didn't really represent deception; rather, it was correcting the paper trail.

As a citizen, I don't condone the falsification of documents that occurred here, although I believe that relatively harmless "correcting" of paper trails is pretty common, not just in bureaucracies, but in small businesses. I wonder what would have happened if people had insisted on being truthful, rather than fudging the paperwork.

Neither of these examples, though, support dr ngo's concern that the Army was "lying to itself" in the sense that anyone was deceived about actual facts. What it does show is that people at all levels are willing to engage in small acts of corruption in order to get by. Whether these same people become solidly truthful when they find a non-bureaucratic job is something that we'll never know.

So there's no substance here, including at any of the links provided?

As questions began to arise over the success or otherwise of the US mission in Vietnam and the validity of the “body count” and other metrics by which it was measured, it soon became clear to most people that from General Westmoreland on down (and on up, for that matter) there was considerable deception going on, a point made by virtually every competent journalist (e.g., David Halberstam The Making of a Quagmire or Neil Sheehan A Bright Shining Lie) and critic at the time and ever after. Just a month ago there was yet another a long thread on this theme in Crooked Timber “Vietnam and Historical Forgetting” prompted by Nick Turse's recent book, Kill Anything That Moves.

"Neither of these examples, though, support dr ngo's concern that the Army was "lying to itself" in the sense that anyone was deceived about actual facts. What it does show is that people at all levels are willing to engage in small acts of corruption in order to get by"

It sounds to me like there was a lot of deception about actual facts--it's just that it's trivial deception about unimportant facts, done to stay out of trouble.

No doubt when asked how many VC were killed, everyone in Vietnam was scrupulously honest, never making numbers up or counting dead civilians as VC.

Similarly, in Afghanistan or Iraq or Yemen or Pakistan, no doubt the US government maintains scrupulous records on every civilian killed, by its forces or the enemy, just as they did in Syria following the recent gas attack.

Bureaucracies public and private are unavoidable. I'd also expect them to be dishonest in wartime and perhaps in other situations when honesty wouldn't be politically expedient. Where is the incentive in a large bureaucracy to say "We're really screwing up and hurting a lot of innocent people?" Most of the time it isn't there.

hairshirthedonist and Donald Johnson, to anyone who actually read what I wrote, I was referring to the bureaucratic "cover-ups" that occurred on dr ngo's watch. The larger lying that occurred regarding Vietnam wasn't a matter of bureaucratic ineptitude or corruption or wacky army stuff. That was lying by people who actually knew the truth. Do you really want to blame that on bureaucracy?

That observation that dr ngo makes about information needing to come from the bottom up and therefore not being perhaps what you think it is is used by Jack Vance to brilliant effect in "Dodkin's Job." I highly recommend it for an amusing take on this phenomenon.

I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the comments so far, and the attempts to distinguish specific events from larger patterns. I've engaged in the latter for much of the past half-century, and have some unsystematic thoughts on the topic. (I believe that there are some people - let's call them "sociologists" - who try to analyze organizational behaviors systematically. But just as Jewish men [I was told] prayed daily "I thank God He has not made me a woman," so I am repeatedly grateful that the powers that be did not make me a sociologist. ;} )

Where I quibble somewhat is over the attempt to distinguish neatly "bureaucracy" and "corruption" from their alternatives. Every organization - every grouping of people beyond the tiniest set - has to have RULES. Not only do I have experience of the US Army and various universities, but I've been in (and/or observed) choirs and sports clubs and committees and other groups, some unnamed, that are based on the principle, or come to realize, that there have to be rules. Robert's Rules Of Order, or bylaws, or the infield fly rule, or S[tandard] O[perating] Procedures, or adat (customary law) or whatever: something that tells people what to do and not to do, who gets to vote and who is excluded, and what forms have to be filled out in the process. It is generally considered an advance in civilization when the "rule of law" replaces the "rule of men," in which the presumed righteousness of the ruler allowed him (or, rarely, her) to make arbitrary decisions as s/he went along.

And alongside these rules are always, from the outset, another set of rules or procedures establishing who is in charge of enforcing the rules and who has the power to waive or amend or violate them, and what happens when such power is (ab)used.

Thus we have "bureaucracy" in a broad sense - some more specific, narrower usages have already been cited - which is in charge of implementing the rules, and we also have, simultaneously, practices of not fully implementing those rules, which may be "corruption" or may instead be considered flexibility, usage, adjustment to reality, etc. Variations from the "norm" may be based on personal greed, or some sense of higher justice and the greater good, or just convenience or laziness, but they exist in all organizations as surely as friction affects in every (non-vacuum) object in motion. To assume that somewhere all the rules are always followed is like assuming the absence of friction, which is what makes "perpetual motion" machines work on paper - and not in the real world.

Observers and critics, poets and playwrights and philosophers, have therefore for centuries mocked at or railed against those who implemented all Rules without either discernment or common humanity. But few actually believed that the only alternative was a world without rules: "Do Your Own Thing." (St. Augustine, more than a millennium before the hippies, produced an interesting variation of the latter: "Love God and then do what you will.")

It's not that I have any solid objection to what I did as an army clerk being called "corruption," though I feel no shame about it. Had I been asked to cover up something worse (e.g., actual defalcation of company funds), I don't know what I would have done, and am glad I never had to find out; sometimes military service has the uncomfortable characteristic of forcing us to discover things about ourselves we didn't wish to know. In these cases I broke the rules; it seemed like a good idea at the time; no harm was done.

It's just that I'm not sure that calling it "corruption" adds much to our understanding of the basic dynamics of the systems involved. Organizations have to have rules, these rules are imperfectly implemented, sometimes for the better, other times not so much. Analyzing this is, in my perception, more of an art than a science (much less a "social science"), not one that can be advanced by trying to draw a clear line between "corruption" and honesty (much less between "bureaucracy" and other ways people are organized to implement whatever rules they have chosen.)

I've got more to say - heck, I've been pondering this for a very long time - but this is enough, if not too much, for now.

hairshirthedonist and Donald Johnson, to anyone who actually read what I wrote, I was referring to the bureaucratic "cover-ups" that occurred on dr ngo's watch.

Well, okay. You wrote this:

Neither of these examples, though, support dr ngo's concern that the Army was "lying to itself" in the sense that anyone was deceived about actual facts.

These examples may not prove anything about the Army lying to itself on larger matters regarding the Vietnam War. But I would say they support his concerns, in that they are consistent with the organizational culture he later describes. I'd guess he could write a lot more that would be even more supportive, but might not have the time for a fully comprehensive and exhaustive documentation of his experiences in a blog post. Just a guess, of course.

Things seems to have gotten confused, so let me clarify. LJ, you wrote If you go into an ER, and you are given priority, my impression, from my brushes with them, is that bureaucracy is pretty low on the list. I believe this statement is wrong. It is wrong based on the definition of bureaucracy that you supplied, namely the one that requires hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures. In modern ERs, there are many offices, a great many fixed procedures, and an enormous amount of hierarchical authority. So, based on your definition, the claim that bureaucracy is insignificant in moderns ERs is wrong.

I hope that clarifies things.

'he said he had a fixed rule'. I have a fixed rule about dealing with facebook invitations, does that make me a bureaucracy?

He was specifically talking about a rule imposed by the hospital, not one of his own invention. As in, his superiors in the hierarchy had established a fixed procedure that he was bound to follow.

You don't agree with the dictionary definition I gave

Um, I don't? This is news to me...what are you talking about?

if you want to claim that bureaucracy is the equivalent to 'fixed rules'

I want no such thing. I don't know why you think I would.

Both of these definitions would seem to exclude the doctors and staff at a teaching hospital

I think that's incorrect because Doctors have a supervisory role in hospitals. They supervise residents and interns and they supervise nurses and physician assistants and physical therapists. There's a reason that PAs or nurses often say "I'll need to get the doctor to sign off on that".


You wrote a lot of other words, and I thank you for them, but given the weird miscomprehensions and hostility that I've seen so far, I think I'll pass on further discussion for a while, at least until after work.

That was lying by people who actually knew the truth. Do you really want to blame that on bureaucracy?

On this, I'd say "to blame that on bureaucracy" goes too far. I think we're talking about a contributing factor in the deception that went on regarding the war. And I think, particularly as Westmoreland was concerned, the good doctor pointed out straight-up lying. No need to say it's all because of bureaucracy. But it helped.

Bureaucracy can be good or bad, but needs to be looked upon critically. It isn't necessarily inseparable from widespread corruption, but it's fertile ground for it.

Well, it's human. It will tend toward self-preservation, self-justification and self-aggrandizement. Over time, there is a pretty much universal tendency to entrench. There is virtually no incentive to be more efficient, to do more with less. In the public sector, there is only the mildest economic pressure to downsize, economize, etc. Military personnel do not have civil service protection, nor do employees in the private sector. We downsize our active duty and reserve military. The private sector downsizes. The rest of gov't, not so much.

The real concern is that gov't will overstate its successes and understate/deny its failures and we don't have an effective means of timely and informed fact checking.

Sapient: "That was lying by people who actually knew the truth." (Emphasis added.)

Did they indeed? I know a lot of people said what they said (in Vietnam) with utter contempt for the truth, but that doesn't mean they "knew" it. My suspicion, as I tried to explain, was that often they didn't, because they couldn't. What they "knew" was what they were told, and what they were told by people who were also implicated in the system, and got their own information from other unreliable sources.

Westmoreland actually lied in saying that there were only X number of NVAs in SVN, whereas his own sources said there were more. But that doesn't mean his own sources provided "the truth." And in the case of the "body count," the "truth" was far more elusive - in that case we have extensive (if anecdotal) evidence that these "counts" were fabricated from the bottom up, so that no amount of sifting and sorting in Saigon, where they eventually arrived, could ever be sure even of approximating the truth.

Sapient (earlier): " I wonder what would have happened if people had insisted on being truthful, rather than fudging the paperwork."

Good question. (Sapient, I'm really not trying to pick on you. It's just that you're raising points that prompt me to think about issues from a slightly different angle. Thanks. )

In this case (Ft. Dix, 1968) nothing much would have happened, if by "people" you mean the few of us involved in these particular deceptions. The company would have received black marks, and those held responsible - the CO, the 1SG, and the chief clerk - would probably have been denied further promotion. Which wouldn't have mattered at all to the CO and the clerk, both of whom were getting out of the Army as soon as their enlistments were up; I'm not sure how close to retirement the 1SG was. I'd have been sent on my way to my next assignment as soon as possible; it wouldn't have been worth anyone's effort to "bust" me from E2 to E1! There wouldn't have been any major investigation or court martial because nobody cared that much, unless there was some ulterior motive for Making An Example.

(I later heard that after he left the Army my CO became a Black Panther. I suppose if he had become enough of an annoyance to the FBI they might have tried to dig dirt out of his military past and could have questioned him about this. If they'd asked me, I'd have lied as a matter of conscience.)

If by "people" you mean the US Army, or Americans in general, then you are positing an alternative universe with which I am not familiar.

I know a lot of people said what they said (in Vietnam) with utter contempt for the truth, but that doesn't mean they "knew" it.

Let me rephrase then: They lied. As you said about Westmoreland: He lied.

We all know that there's a difference between big lies and little lies, black lies and white lies, etc. We all have lied; at least, there are few of us who have never told a lie, or have never done a harmlessly dishonest thing. So my point isn't to say that dr ngo was evil when he engaged in a practice that represented a prevalent attitude about rules and truth-telling.

That said, when people decide for themselves that it's fine to engage in minor fraud, it tends to break down standards of honesty. So I completely agree that when that happens, and an entire culture seems willing to prevaricate, it becomes a cancer. And I take the point that maybe the "leaders" were incapable of knowing the truth since truth was not to be found.

To me, that completely explains why it's so difficult to prosecute "war criminals" when everyone is complicit: when public records are fraudulent, when the voters elect people with reason to know generally what's really happening, even if they don't know "the truth", when "the truth" is unknowable, and when everyone makes their own rules.

By the way, a lot of regulations in government have the color of law - they're not just bureaucratic procedures that someone made up as a management tool to annoy underlings. That doesn't change my opinion that the minor fraud here was probably harmless, but it's kind of weird how readily people were willing to do it.

That doesn't change my opinion that the minor fraud here was probably harmless, but it's kind of weird how readily people were willing to do it.

Not really.
It seems to me that it's just people trying to make sense of a system which imposes onerous and fairly arbitrary administrative burdens without providing adequate training in how to (and probably insufficient time in which to) meet them. Add the incentive of likely punishment for being honest, and it's not surprising at all.

Bureaucracies can only work effectively when there are people in positions of authority who are (and/or a system in place which is) prepared to ask awkward questions, and who do not (which does not) discourage equally awkward answers.

When LJ says My insight, I felt, was far more profound: No One Knows, he might have added: And No One Wants to Know - which is a less tractable problem.

Weird it was, but that was life in the Army.

Always stressful - especially Basic Training (just completed), which was deliberately designed to break down civilian recruits physically and psychologically in order to build them back up as soldiers. I, several years older than most of my cohort, was relatively impervious to most of the more obvious psychological ploys (*), but by the same token found the physical training and lack of sleep tougher than my younger colleagues, which also affected my psyche.

Institutionally, 1968 may have been a nadir. Not only was the war not going well (even if one believed we were "winning," it was taking a lot longer and with more troops than we had been told), but the Army was expanding so fast that the trainers themselves were often untrained in training. We had officers and NCOs that in more stable times would have still been getting seasoning or instruction in how to run a training company, just as in VN there were "shake-and-bake" lieutenants in combat command who had no business being there.

In the process, corners got cut, as I had already learned. In Basic Training I was one of the last in line for qualifying on a long, wet day at the rifle range. (February in New Jersey can be bleak.) They were trying to hurry it up so that the whole company would qualify that day, which meant that when my lot got up to the line, instead of firing one group of shots prone (easiest), then kneeling, and then standing (progressively harder), we were told to fire them all prone. So I wound up exceeding all expectations, including my own, and technically I became an "expert" rifleman, in spite of the fact that I had never fired any weapon before. (FWIW, I have never fired a rifle since, but in my brief time in AIT I did get to fire a machine gun, with tracers, which was more fun than I expected. I briefly experienced the addictive joy of firepower.) So without any initiative on my part I had learned that the rules were there to be bent, and in my brokedown state I resolved to bend them to my advantage.

All that being said, it was still remarkable (weird?) how readily everyone acceded in the minor deceptions (fraud?) described in the OP. It wasn't that men were overcoming their scruples about forging signatures, etc. It was as if we had none, at least not with regard to what we saw as trivial cases and meaningless rules. The utter pervasiveness of this attitude, more than my own individual frailty, is what led me toward the vision of ubiquitous "lying" in the Army at that time.

Projection of this scenario to later times and other institutions is, of course, much more speculative, as several of you have already pointed out.

(*) The most obvious pyschological pressure in BT was expressed in challenges to recruits' masculinity: "Sound off like you got a pair!" "What are you, a pussy?" etc. A few years earlier this might have got to me; by 1968 I had come to know that there were far better ways of proving my virility than trying to do more push-ups than other recruits.

a system which imposes onerous and fairly arbitrary administrative burdens

Signing in and out is onerous? Having a committee of five sign their names to an authorization of expenditures of most of the money in a fund is onerous? Okay, maybe it was inconvenient, but do you not see the reasons for it? And onerous?

I should probably stipulate, if it's not clear, that there were undoubtedly some scrupulously honest men in the 1968 Army, who always told the truth and dared the consequences. If there is a Judgment Seat they, and I, and Westmoreland will all be weighed there by a power that DOES know The Truth, and be rewarded or condemned accordingly.

Institutionally, however, this made little difference. If, say, half of your information comes from men of absolute integrity, and the other half from those who will say whatever they think you want to hear - and you do not know which are which - nothing can be relied on as "true."

it's kind of weird how readily people were willing to do it.

In dr ngo's case, we're talking about a young draftee with a stateside assignment. Even if it was a bit far fetched, I'm sure the thought "don't make waves and don't piss anyone off lest ye be sent to die in Vietnam" occurred to him, at least in passing. I really can't fault anyone for keeping their head down when the consequences of standing up might be a ticket to Vietnam.

First, Nigel, I should quickly note that this is dr ngo's post, but I'm the one posting it.

Turbulence, for reference

You don't agree with the dictionary definition I gave

Um, I don't? This is news to me...what are you talking about?

Turbulence, I will confine myself to this small part of what you wrote

You quoted me saying
The dictionary definition is "Management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures". When you are dealing with life or death situations, I don't think you really want fixed procedures.

and you replied

This seems...wrong.

Apparently, you are disagreeing with the last sentence and not both sentences. But I'm not sure how I would have known that as the phrase 'This seems ... wrong' could apply to the entire quote. (I'd also note that saying something is 'wrong' puts the onus on the interlocuter to prove that it is 'right', whereas saying 'my take on it is this' or 'instead of that, I think' leads to a more amenable discussion) But if you agree with the dictionary definition, which is

"Management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices

then you might see why I disagree that this applies to the operating room or an ER. There is a reason why there is an 'attending physician' is where the buck stops. Please note that I am not saying you are 'wrong', but that my take on this is different from yours. If you want to try and expand on your take, be my guest, but if you want to tell me that I'm wrong, I'm sure I can find people closer to home to tell me that.

It seems that your notion of fixed procedures is something like 'a series of steps that should be taken in the case of X'. I was emphasizing the notion of 'fixed' in the sense of 'undeviating' or 'not to be altered'.

There may be some term in logic for describing the difference between a series of best practices that 'should' be carried out and the same series of options that 'must' be carried out ("That's a x39721ar scalpel doctor, you know you have to use a y3947bt!") Again, this is what makes work to rule so powerful.

Finally, I hope that this suggestion will not be taken as part of the 'weird miscomprehensions and hostility' (cause I'm not really sure what makes a miscomprehension "weird") but if you spent less time interrogating what I said and stated what you felt, this whole conversation thing might go a lot better.

Finally, to everyone else, I think that this research article about counterproductive behavior as protest and this article about the 3 types of organizational cultures may be of interest

Okay, maybe it was inconvenient, but do you not see the reasons for it? And onerous?

All paperwork is onerous - particularly for those who have not been properly trained.

If, say, half of your information comes from men of absolute integrity, and the other half from those who will say whatever they think you want to hear - and you do not know which are which - nothing can be relied on as "true."

Again, that situation likely results from a failure of leadership.

Most people do not possess absolute integrity; nor are many natural and inveterate liars. Place most people in an organisation which encourages and rewards truth telling, and they will generally do so. If you reward and encourage those who tell you always what you want to hear, that is how most of your subordinates will behave.

Institutionally, however, this made little difference. If, say, half of your information comes from men of absolute integrity, and the other half from those who will say whatever they think you want to hear - and you do not know which are which - nothing can be relied on as "true."

Isn't this true generally? Of what we rely on every single day? It seems like suicide is appropriate if we can't trust (to a certain extent) our perceptions and judgments. Obviously, sometimes we are wrong, but usually not?

I was 12 (and had a father overseas) in 1968. My family was against the war. The mindset of the soldiers, the reality of the draft, the fact of the war's increasing unpopularity - none of that is lost on me. But blaming "bureaucracy" is misguided, in my opinion. It's why liberals have become leftist teapartiers.

I really appreciate your insights dr ngo - and I'm not in any way, shape, or form making personal attacks. But when there's a corrupt system, it's not because it's a bureaucracy. It's because it's a corrupt system. When everybody lies, and nobody trusts the rules (the law), sure - it's depressingly screwed up. But it doesn't have to be that way. And maybe each one of us is a little bit culpable.

Nigel, I should quickly note that this is dr ngo's post,

Apologies to both of you for my inattention.

I really can't fault anyone for keeping their head down when the consequences of standing up might be a ticket to Vietnam.

Just to reiterate, I'm not faulting. The narrative seems to indicate that the first forgeries were dr ngo's idea, not him keeping his head down, but even so, I'm not faulting. I don't know what the consequences would have been if the absent committee members' signatures weren't affixed. As to people signing in and out, maybe somebody should have asked people to sign in and out? Again, not a federal offense by any means, but still ... not that hard.

No worries, Nigel, and if I remember correctly, you are in (and from?) the UK. I think that the view of bureaucracy is subtly different there and it would be very interesting to tease out those differences.

I don't think you really want fixed procedures.

and you replied

This seems...wrong.

Ah, I see your confusion now. I didn't object to the dictionary definition, I objected to your statement that I don't think you really want fixed procedures in a life and death situation. I don't quite get your confusion, because if disagreed with the dictionary definition, then most of my comment would be completely nonsensical...why would I point out well modern hospitals fit the definition if I thought it was wrong?

then you might see why I disagree that this applies to the operating room or an ER. There is a reason why there is an 'attending physician' is where the buck stops. Please note that I am not saying you are 'wrong', but that my take on this is different from yours. If you want to try and expand on your take, be my guest, but if you want to tell me that I'm wrong, I'm sure I can find people closer to home to tell me that.

I'm a bit confused here...are you suggesting that large hospitals are not bureaucratic? I have a bunch of friends and family that work in the medical field and that statement seems...incompatible with what they've told me or what I've read. Moreover, if you think large teaching hospitals aren't bureaucratic, what was the point about your comment regarding St Vincent's? If you think that hospital isn't a bureacracy, then why bring it into the discussion?

Really, I think you might want to rethink comments like that one. It was very short (I'd suggest you flesh out your ideas more), and it had an insult that was premised (I think) on a misreading. I still don't know what your objection was to my EPA point; just that it was Bellmorian. You needn't explain the insult though.

I was emphasizing the notion of 'fixed' in the sense of 'undeviating' or 'not to be altered'.

I guess I've never seen or heard of any organization that has completely undeviating procedures in this sense. Every organization, including the US military in the Vietnam war, had channels for bending procedures. Sometimes official channels, sometimes just an institutional culture in which rule enforcers bend certain rules and choose to look the other way. Sometimes it is a matter of standing before a review board and saying "I made the best of a bad situation that the rules didn't anticipate". Note that dr ngo even pointed out that people inspecting his unit were surely clued in to what was going on.

The idea of completely fixed procedures and undeviating in any large organization seems a bit daft to me really.

if you spent less time interrogating what I said and stated what you felt, this whole conversation thing might go a lot better.

But then wouldn't I'd be guilty of more Bellmore logic?

It comes down to this: what are the incentives in the system? If the system rewards lying (aka CYA), then that is what you will get. If the system rewards telling the truth, then you will get that.

The reason you see more truthful reports in the various situation noted is that they all involve something concrete and visible happening eventually. So if you lie, and the ship doesn't sail or the engineering doesn't produce something that works, it's going to be obvious, even without inspection. That rewards telling the truth (even if that is not warmly received initially) over lying.

If, on the other hand, the report is something that is hard to check, the system is going to reward telling people what they want to hear. And then, somewhere down the road, those in charge will be shocked (shocked!) to discover that gambling is going on here [in Rick's Café Américain].

So the question for every bureaucracy becomes: How do we reward people for telling us things which are true, but we would rather were not.

the view of bureaucracy is subtly different there

Indeed - but it's past midnight, and I am losing the ability to concentrate.
I guess we have a somewhat ambivalent attitudes - for example towards the NHS versus, say, the European Commission; or the Civil Service versus ... the Civil Service.

I think there is an automatic and understandable skepticism about any large organisation, but rather more important is the purpose of the particular organisation, and how well or badly it might be fulfilled.

Anyway, sleep beckons.

So the question for every bureaucracy becomes: How do we reward people for telling us things which are true, but we would rather were not.

Again, that's a good question, but not one for bureaucracy. It's true for all of us, every day.

Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.

Franz Kafka

Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs - these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration.

Max Weber

If only they were around today to read Delbert.

I don't quite get your confusion, because if disagreed with the dictionary definition, then most of my comment would be completely nonsensical...why would I point out well modern hospitals fit the definition if I thought it was wrong?

I think it is because you replied to me, saying

Is the EPA one such institution? It collectively decides whether thousands of people live or die every year. Does it have the same kind of pathology that dr ngo described? Does a large teaching hospital?

'does a large teaching hospital?' is a comment that could have been fleshed out a bit, one would think. Again, explaining why you think a large teaching hospital is like the Army, but has to deal with life and death, so is a counter example to what dr ngo was pointing out would have been helpful. This is the start of this discussion here, so again, explaining what you are thinking rather than listing a bunch of questions and have me guess at what you mean is not ... optimal.

As I pointed out, there is (ideally) a separation between what I think of as the "bureaucracy" of a teaching hospital and the provision of care. As you note, the medical profession is one of the most hierarchical, so the doctor always has the option to make his or her own decision. They can be reviewed after the event, but having the paperwork dictate the mission has caused problems. It's not a question of 'bending' rules, it is a question of letting the person you put in charge do the job they are supposed to do.

This isn't to diss bureaucrats. Some of my best friends are bureaucrats. I have to deal with a bureaucratic system in a different language and a different culture, and while I have my frustrations, I realize that educating about 10,000 student over the course of 4 years, with the task of graduating them, and taking in a new cohort, and all the other assorted requirements demands a group of administrators and some fixed procedures. Sometimes, these procedures are bent. And conceivable, some of those administrative decisions may have a powerful effect on a student's (or a patient's) existence. But, by arguing that because these exist, of course bureaucracy has to deal with life or death seems a lot like Brett arguing that the Dems bear responsibility for the government shutdown because their refusal to accede to Republican demands.

bobbyp quotes Weber, and that notion of a 'strictly bureaucratic administration' is one that underlines my thought that there needs to be an area where the Weberian bureaucracy doesn't reach. Sorry that I did not flesh that enough for you.

But blaming "bureaucracy" is misguided, in my opinion. It's why liberals have become leftist teapartiers.

I really appreciate your insights dr ngo - and I'm not in any way, shape, or form making personal attacks. But when there's a corrupt system, it's not because it's a bureaucracy. It's because it's a corrupt system.

I don't think it's that simply by virtue of being a bureaucracy, the army, or anything else, is corrupt, or that bureaucracy, by its very existence, is "to blame." (And what "system" is corrupt? Isn't the system, in large part, the bureaucracy?)

The post regards a specific bureaucracy at a specific time contributing to a specific set of problems. It also regards how bureaucracies in general can go wrong, or at least have their quirks.

Again, that's a good question, but not one for bureaucracy. It's true for all of us, every day.

If it's true for all of us, every day, why isn't it a good question for bureaucracy? And why doesn't that question apply in a particular manner to bureaucracy that is, in its details, different from all the other aspects of life to which it also applies, for all of us, every day?

"That was lying by people who actually knew the truth. Do you really want to blame that on bureaucracy?"

To some degree, yes. Under normal circumstances the average person is not going to be involved in operations that kill hundreds of thousands of civilians--these sorts of things happen in wartime when people are part of large armed bureaucracies and there will be incentives to lie. The same goes for the rest of our foreign policy, to the extent that it involves harm to innocent people.

Incidentally, if you really want to read some examples of bureaucratic screwups, in the latest New Yorker Louis Menand has a review of a new book about all the times during the Cold War when both the US and the USSR nearly started WWIII by accident, and various other hijinks, which, while not involving full scale war, might still have killed lots of people on a more local scale. (I think the idea that a nine megaton bomb would wipe out all of Arkansas is a little exaggerated, but certainly the fallout plume would cover several thousand square miles.)

Here's the link to the New Yorker review--

link

It's not anti-bureaucratic, exactly--in a way it's a call for really tight bureaucratic control over nuclear weapons. After reading the review I think no missile should ever be fired without fifteen forms filled out and signed in triplicate by officials based in underground bunkers thousands of miles apart. The apocalypse can wait.

I'm not sure if there's a bureaucratic solution to the problem of falling sockets hitting a liquid-filled Titan II with a 9 megaton warhead.

A quote from the review--

"Henry Kissinger called the siop a “horror strategy.” Even Nixon was appalled by it. Schlosser says that when General George Butler became the head of the Strategic Air Command, in 1991, and read the siop he was stunned. “This was the single most absurd and irresponsible document I had ever reviewed in my life,” he told Schlosser. “I came to fully appreciate the truth. . . . We escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

Call me a leftist tea partier for not being fully trusting of large and extremely well armed bureaucracies. I don't mind.

I wonder if there is something else at work about the dropped socket wrench story. That was in 1980, well after the cold war. During the cold war, I would tend to believe that being attached to the SAC was actually a prestigious assignment, but, as has been evidenced by the stories of security and discipline lapses recently, it no longer is.

This isn't to disagree with the madness of nuclear war, but there is a particular problem when a bureaucracy continues, but parts that were considered prestigious become dead ends.

I guess I've never seen or heard of any organization that has completely undeviating procedures in this sense

You've clearly never dealt with the VAT department of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

It's not anti-bureaucratic, exactly--in a way it's a call for really tight bureaucratic control over nuclear weapons.

Uh huh. Exactly my point. You don't believe in the military, Donald, which is fine, but it's a different argument.. It has nothing to do with bureaucracy - it has to do with the fact that you don't want a military at all.

If it's true for all of us, every day, why isn't it a good question for bureaucracy?

Because bureaucracies don't lie. People do. Because corporations aren't people. People are. Because "legal entities" don't have moral compasses. People do.

Well, it's pre-VAT, but I once had a happily irregular dealing with Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs. It was 1965, and I was returning to England (where I was a student at the time) from the Continent, having stretched my budget to the absolute limit, i.e., I had just enough cash left after the ferry from Calais to get me back to my lodgings.

Along the way I had acquired a very nice Italian chessboard, tesselated stone, which had cost about 25 GBP, as I recall. Being a law-abiding person in those days, I declared this to the customs official, who then told me that I had duty to pay on it - not a great deal (maybe 5 GBP?), but more than I had. I told him this and asked what I could do: perhaps leave it there and come back another day to redeem it when I had the money?

At this point he decided to re-examine the chessboard and informed me that in his expert opinion I had been misinformed as to its value. It was not worth more than 10 GBP, and as such was not dutiable. I was free to take it home, which I gratefully did.

I suppose that by certain criteria his behavio(u)r in this situation was "corrupt." I prefer to think of it as kind, a kindness this American has not forgotten 48 years later.

Quoting Turbulence:

"I really can't fault anyone for keeping their head down when the consequences of standing up might be a ticket to Vietnam."

Sapient responded:

"Just to reiterate, I'm not faulting. The narrative seems to indicate that the first forgeries were dr ngo's idea, not him keeping his head down, but even so, I'm not faulting. I don't know what the consequences would have been if the absent committee members' signatures weren't affixed. As to people signing in and out, maybe somebody should have asked people to sign in and out? Again, not a federal offense by any means, but still ... not that hard."

Fair points, and I appreciate your reluctance to "fault" me. But the fact is that I wasn't all that young (24 by the time of this incident, with two college degrees in hand) and I was under no direct pressure to participate in this deception, much less to invent it. (Standing up and denouncing such shenanigans, however, would have been crazy.)

I was trying to "keep my head down" in general, yes, and part of this involved making myself useful (but not conspicuous), yet someone of different moral standards could have done otherwise than I did without appreciable risk, except that of routine reassignment. Probably in due course to Vietnam, but that wouldn't have been the first stop, and in any event it was a risk we all ran those days. (A year later I actually got orders for Vietnam, but was fortunately able to convince the Pentagon they had made a mistake.)

I accept moral responsibility. However I also felt, and still feel, that what I did was not wrong (and in this I part company from the many soldiers who sadly found themselves in situations where they had to do real wrong or risk real loss). The money had been spent properly; there was no particular reason our company commander should be penalized for a bureaucratic oversight; and there was no existing culture of honesty that I was challenging or jeopardizing by my actions. I'm certainly not claiming I did "right," either; I was neither heroic nor saintly. It just seemed like a good idea at the time (and in retrospect), a fitting episode for the era.

As for responsibility for the sign-up sheet, this was simply beyond our administrative capacity to maintain at the time. We might blame those in charge - especially the 1SG - but as I've previously noted (and Nigel implied in one of his comments) they were not really trained or qualified to run this kind of operation, and in better times would not have been in charge.

You suggest that these requirements are not "not that hard" (or "onerous," in another comment) but they are if you don't know what you're doing. It's probably not "onerous" for a qualified mechanic to overhaul an automobile transmission, but if I was required to do it, without training or close supervision, it would certainly be so for me. (On the other hand, if you ask me to edit a manuscript for publication, then Robert is one of your parents' siblings.)

Several commentators have referred to organizational culture and the need for the right kind of leadership to sustain the practice of telling the truth within an organization. I don't disagree. But this was the US Army in 1968, and as someone famous once famously said, "You go to war with the army you have." Whether the culture and leadership have significantly changed since then is for others to say.

Well, it's pre-VAT, but I once had a happily irregular dealing with Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs

I am delighted to hear that, and cannot see such behaviour as 'corrupt' by any criteria I recognise. Corruption surely involves an element of personal gain or partiality; this was a random act of kindness ?

HMRC today is not renowned for its user friendliness, though they are now making some efforts to improve. The administration of VAT is free of any such suggestion of customer focus, maybe because it is an engraftment of an external set of bureaucratic rules (European, FWIW) on to a home grown institution.

Call me a leftist tea partier for not being fully trusting of large and extremely well armed bureaucracies. I don't mind.

There is much to criticize in SIOP; however, doing so today is old news. SIOP took its hits years ago. Like pretty much anything else, there are two sides to every story. The Single Integrated Operational Plan would only go into effect AFTER commencement of a nuclear exchange. Since no one could predict when and how a first strike might be delivered, no one could know with any assurance how much of the command and control structure might remain after an initial exchange--or even before any counter launch by the US--SIOP was developed to overcome those very real operation flaws.

I'm not the first one to say this: the easiest job in the world is that other guy's. No SIOP critic has come up with a better plan.

In hindsight, from a Western, progressive viewpoint, the idea of putting a country's nuclear war-fighting on what essentially amounts to autopilot seems horrendous. But then, 'horrendous' is the perennial default of Western progressives whenever the use of force is discussed.

SIOP's audience was not the editorial board at The Nation. It was the Soviet Union and to a much lesser extent the PRC. From a deterrence standpoint--which is what the whole nuke thing was about--having the credible capability of continuing to fight even if a lucky first strike decapitated US leadership and thoroughly degraded operational communications was a valuable tool.

Now, a fair question in hindsight was whether there was ever any meaningful risk of the Soviets initiating a nuclear exchange. Nothing I've seen or read indicates that was ever considered a remote option by Soviet leadership, much less a viable option. Hindsight is awesome.

As for the revelation decades later of a bunch of nuclear near misses, color me skeptical. As Doc N rightly says in his piece, he evaluates everything he reads by who writes it and what the purpose is. That is a good rule for anything, particularly revelatory books/articles and most especially statistics.

One reason why I am skeptical is that we have bazillions of conventional bombs, artillery shells, hand grenades, etc that get handled a lot more, moved, dropped, transported, fired a lot more and all of this in a huge range of applications, from tanks to helicopters to ships. The accident rate is miniscule. As inept and corrupt as our military is, that is no doubt a miracle of well beyond Biblical proportions. Or, despite obvious bureaucratic failings, they actually have some idea of what they are doing and how to go about it.

" the fact that you don't want a military at all."

Not true. Not relevant either, but not true.

"As for the revelation decades later of a bunch of nuclear near misses, color me skeptical"

Actually, it's not revelatory, though I understand the author and the publisher of a recent book on the subject might want to make it seem that way. But I think I've heard of all these stories years ago and in some cases decades ago. The bombing of South Carolina is old news, the accident in Arkansas I'd heard about, the near misses with nuclear war are old news--I'm not sure if there's a single incident I've seen recounted which are genuinely new accounts. Maybe the accident in New Mexico was new to me. Some of this stuff I remember reading about in books when I was a kid literally decades ago.

"It has nothing to do with bureaucracy"

I was annoyed by the "you don't want a military" irrelevancy and forgot to respond to this. Of course it has to do with bureaucracy. You're so frightened of anti-government rhetoric that you refuse to see something when it's right in front of you. Bureaucracies are often--not always, but often--incompetent. They often deal with mistakes by trying to cover them up. The incentive structure often works that way. It's funny that McKT is so suspicious of government bureaucracies in one context (domestic policy), but is so reverent of them in another. I think we're more likely to spot the incompetency of a government or a business when it hits us here at home--we're less likely as American civilians to notice what might be happening in some overseas war and we only hear about nuclear screwups if they are unavoidable news items, as misplaced nuclear bombs often tend to be.

Wikipedia's list of military nuclear accidents--

link

I don't have time to look for a link on near misses with nuclear war.

The money had been spent properly; there was no particular reason our company commander should be penalized for a bureaucratic oversight; and there was no existing culture of honesty that I was challenging or jeopardizing by my actions. I'm certainly not claiming I did "right," either; I was neither heroic nor saintly. It just seemed like a good idea at the time (and in retrospect), a fitting episode for the era.

As for responsibility for the sign-up sheet, this was simply beyond our administrative capacity to maintain at the time.

My original point was less about the morality of skipping bureaucratic procedures as it was about this: if these actions were understandable and excusable, and not really "wrong" (which I agree that they probably weren't), then they don't really correlate well with this conclusion:

The other important lesson was this: the United States Army was lying to itself – systematically, routinely. As questions began to arise over the success or otherwise of the US mission in Vietnam and the validity of the “body count” and other metrics by which it was measured, it soon became clear to most people that from General Westmoreland on down (and on up, for that matter) there was considerable deception going on, a point made by virtually every competent journalist (e.g., David Halberstam The Making of a Quagmire or Neil Sheehan A Bright Shining Lie) and critic at the time and ever after. Just a month ago there was yet another a long thread on this theme in Crooked Timber “Vietnam and Historical Forgetting” prompted by Nick Turse's recent book, Kill Anything That Moves.

In other words, A does not equal B. Soldiers who engaged in petty bureaucratic work-arounds did not have anything to do with the "bureaucracy's" responsibility for wrongdoing in Vietnam. Because the wrongdoing in Vietnam wasn't "bureaucratic". It was a result of decisions made by leaders, and a failure to follow the law at all levels. Blaming the "bureaucracy" is a cop-out.

About to walk out the door--just to be clear, sapient, I'm on your side on most domestic issues. I'm sure that whatever problems there are with Obamacare, part of the press will, if anything, exaggerate them. But that doesn't mean there aren't problems with bureaucracies. Who doesn't know this? Apparently you.

I'd also comment some on what you said about war crimes in a couple of places above, but don't have time.

Because bureaucracies don't lie. People do. Because corporations aren't people. People are. Because "legal entities" don't have moral compasses. People do.

Okay. So there's no interaction between the structure and culture of a bureaucracy and the behaviors of the people working within it, and there aren't countless case studies pointing out failures in bureaucracies to account for people's moral compasses or to encourage them to point in the right direction. It's as though bureaucracy is just a meaningless concept not worth considering, since people are just people and organizations aren't.

Blaming the "bureaucracy" is a cop-out.

What about noting it as a contributing factor?

What about noting it as a contributing factor?

Because it isn't.

Some organizations are poorly run (by management). Some organizations' management don't train their people. Some people in organizations resist change. The very worst thing about "bureaucracy" is that actual people hide behind it to camouflage their own malfeasance.

Louis Menand has a review of a new book about all the times during the Cold War when both the US and the USSR nearly started WWIII by accident, and various other hijinks, which, while not involving full scale war, might still have killed lots of people on a more local scale. (I think the idea that a nine megaton bomb would wipe out all of Arkansas is a little exaggerated, but certainly the fallout plume would cover several thousand square miles.)

Although this is a fairly well-written article, little of it is news to people who have been paying attention. But it's not completely accurate. For instance:

And the missile was armed.

No, it was not in fact "armed". Armed has a particular meaning which is not the same as equipped with a warhead. The arming sequence for a nuclear missile has to be completed in order for it to be considered to be armed.

It had an operational warhead on it would have been more precise, if less alarming.

If it had detonated, most of the state of Arkansas would have been wiped out.

No. A 9 Mt weapon is just nowhere near powerful enough to do damage to an entire state. Little Rock likely would not even have seen damage. The real hazard here is fallout from a shallow underground burst, which would have rendered a swath of fallout path uninhabitable for decades, possibly.

My last criticism is: the most serious nuclear accident I am aware of never was even mentioned. This is not a criticism of the book (which I have not read); it's a criticism of the article.

My last comment is this: the notion that in 1995, that the Russians mistook a weather rocket for a Pershing missile (the last of which had been crushed four years prior) doesn't pass the laugh test. That it was a rocket launch isn't an outlandish suggestion, but the idea that the Russians could possibly have mistaken it for one of our missiles, launched from a location where our missiles had never, ever been sited, identified as a general type that had all been dismantled in front of their very eyes, and initiated a counterstrike based on that assessment is fairly silly.

Which is not to say that people have never done fairly silly things. Just that I give the authors (those of the book and the article about the book) little credit for getting the facts straight.

The Wikipedia article on this incident says that it was instead mistaken for a Trident missile, which is more plausible if still silly. To be fair to the former Soviet military, the Black Brant XII had never before launched from that location, nor had anything that large and fast launched from there previously, that I can see.

I can't remember the guy's name but there was an anthropologist who said that countries always behave worse than the individuals in the country. In fact, if I remember right, he said that nations behave like three year olds. The basic thesis was that the morality of individuals got screened ot of the decision making somehow so that nations were all id.

Could be the same dynamic works in corporations and bureaucracies.

Of course this is an over-generalization; here are examples here and there of corporations, bureaucracies and even nations behaving morally if no altruistically.

But, in general, I think he's right, particularly in the case of corporations. Corporations tend to have the same moral values as a drug dealer. Whatever the private morality of the individuals involved, the corporations' morality is to make as much money as possible for as little investment as possible, something for nothing being the ideal. Other considerations don't matter.

Which is part of why Citizens United is so toxic.

So back to the subject; perhaps, in a bureaucracy, the moral compasses of individuals are frozen by the bureaucracy's code of get-the-work-done and cover-your =ass. And that's because the collective goal of the organization is to provide a ladder for individual ambitions and those individual ambitions are best served by conforming.

The Washington Post has an article about the Norwegian rocket incident link

Postol, a physicist quoted in the article, thinks the rocket might have been interpreted as a Trident missile.

As for the New Yorker, I've never been that impressed by their much vaunted fact checkers, but the mistakes here don't take away from the overall point. A Trident, not a Pershing. I was annoyed by the claim that a 9MT warhead would wipe out Arkansas, but a 15 MT Bravo test covered, I think (without checking) 7000 square miles with a lethal dose worth of fallout. Only a fraction of an Arkansas. But I was living in Memphis at the time, so it might have got me.

Actually, the more serious issue there would be whether the warhead could have gone off--I'll defer to slarti or others on that. Slarti seems skeptical.

Some organizations are poorly run (by management). Some organizations' management don't train their people. Some people in organizations resist change. The very worst thing about "bureaucracy" is that actual people hide behind it to camouflage their own malfeasance.

The problem with our back-and-forth, sapient, is that you write things like the above, which I can agree with entirely, but that I can't see in any way how it makes your point or refutes anyone else's. The longer the discussion goes on, the less I understand what you're on about.

So, finally, I give up, which I probably should have done several comments ago.

Sorry.

I would not defer to me, because I have zero expertise on e.g. W-53 warhead immunity to blast, or hydrazine/NTO explosions. Most of my commentary you should consider to be speculation not informed by years of experience.

It's telling though that later warhead designs moved to less sensitive compositions. Possibly, prior near disasters were influential.

It's amazing we never nuked ourselves by accident, given the crudity of earlier weapons.

Slarti seems skeptical.

Slarti seems skeptical for a reason. The chance of an accidental explosion or a renegade pilot was very much a part of US strategic planning, and most likely Soviet planning as well. Nukes are designed to not be armed and thus capable of detonation without specific orders and protocols with cross checks and verifications. After all of the procedural fail safes are exhausted, then and only then does the physical process of arming, i.e. making capable of detonation, being. Nukes rely on conventional explosives for detonation purposes and you can't disarm those in a catastrophic event such as a plane crash; however, you can and we did deploy unarmed nukes that posed no risk of accidental explosion as a result of plane crash or what have you.

Also to follow up on Slarti's other observations: when you have an author making objectively wrong statements about 'armed' and 'destroying most of a state', you have someone who is either ignorant or mendacious. Either way, not a reliable source.

I would characterize it more as "sloppy", which I too am guilty of.

But we want more from our journalists, no?

In fact, if I remember right, he said that nations behave like three year olds.

Off topic, but I can't resist.

Laura's comment made me think: and some political parties behave like two year olds: their approach to dealing with the world is to just scream NO! about everything.

Nukes are designed to not be armed and thus capable of detonation without specific orders and protocols with cross checks and verifications. After all of the procedural fail safes are exhausted, then and only then does the physical process of arming, i.e. making capable of detonation, being. Nukes rely on conventional explosives for detonation purposes and you can't disarm those in a catastrophic event such as a plane crash; however, you can and we did deploy unarmed nukes that posed no risk of accidental explosion as a result of plane crash or what have you.

I don't really have much disagreement with the general sentiment of the above. We built in as many safeguards as we knew how to, at the time. However: I think that we failed to fully anticipate what could happen when these weapons encountered unintended situations such as plane crashes.

Later designs had more sophisticated interlocks designed in, as well as less sensitive explosives that were less easy to initiate externally. I think we're far safer around these weapons than we were previously, which by implication means that they were far more dangerous to have around than was thought, when they were first deployed.

The fact that we never had a weapon go unintentionally high order was (I would guess) five parts preparation and a part or two of luck, with a dash of a relatively small number of incidents where significant danger of a high-order event was present.

A few more opportunities and things might have turned out much more regrettably.

It was a result of decisions made by leaders, and a failure to follow the law at all levels. Blaming the "bureaucracy" is a cop-out

I don't think that's true.

The military was then and had (always?) been a large bureaucracy. An organisation made up of conscripts selected almost at random has no option to be anything else if it to be manageable.
One of the founding principles of that particular bureaucracy is obedience to orders. There is of course, the caveat that those orders must be lawful, but the former principle is drilled into soldiers on a daily basis; the latter not so much, if at all.
On top of that structure, MacNamara superimposed a bureaucracy based on statistical analysis, which substituted data for judgment. Simple measures like kills ratios and body counts were wildly unsuitable (even had they been trustworthy) for managing a complex situation like Vietnam - with the results that we are still debating.

I think sapient's point, as far as I can ascertain, is that the moral responsibility for actions belongs entirely to the individual. While in some respects that is an admirable stance, and I would agree with his (inferred by me) aim of encouraging individual responsibility, it seems to me to be at odds with reality.

In an army, particularly a conscript army, it takes a degree of moral heroism and unusual confidence in their own judgment for an individual to refuse what s/he believes to be an illegal order. The moral responsibility lies with those in charge - but the point about bureaucracies is that the consequences (intended and unintended) for policy decisions, moral or immoral, are enforced by the bureaucratic system, which in most cases is amoral.

Of course we now seem to have notions of responsibility arse about face (as we say over here), and punishment is more often visited on underlings, rather than those setting policy.

Sapient is taking the viewpoint that there are no systemic causes for bad behavior, only individuals acting badly. I'm guessing that sapient is appalled at the decades of anti-government propaganda that has drilled into our heads that market forces always produce the best outcomes and government can only screw things up. Sapient, in turn, overreacts to this by claiming that bureaucracy as such never creates incentives where ordinary people might feel pressured to do bad things. No, it's just that we need better people.

I think some of the Wall Street crowd makes the same argument--just a few bad apples spoiled an otherwise flawless system. (Or they just find a way to blame government). Supporters of communism also made the same argument--Animal Farm would have been a utopia if only there had been more comrade horses like Boxer and fewer cynical donkeys like Benjamin. Which doesn't mean sapient is either a Wall Street lover or a commie, just that the argument looks similar.

Nigel: moral responsibility for actions belongs entirely to the individual.

Donald: Sapient is taking the viewpoint that there are no systemic causes for bad behavior, only individuals acting badly.

Actually, I'm not denying that a "culture" is created when human beings interact in an organization or in a common enterprise, or that various forms of "groupthink" don't develop. However, I'm skeptical of blaming "bureaucracy" for major failures of policy. I've worked in organizations that employed inflexible people in management - it's definitely annoying and counterproductive, and makes one question whether one can make any difference at all. But isn't that a failure of management?

Let's look at some other situations:

We've talked endlessly about drone warfare. Many of the people who complain that drone warfare puts way too much individual decision-making in the hands of very few people are the same ones complaining here that too much bureaucracy was what contributed to the moral failures of the Vietnam war. In fact, it has often been argued here on this blog that the reason the CIA shouldn't be directing drones is because the military has procedures and levels of accountability [bureaucracy] that protect against "mistakes".

Also, let's look at the mortgage crisis. We were appalled to find out how many thousands of notarial signatures were forged, and procedures (such as recording) ignored as to so many mortgage papers. Honestly, I seriously doubt that any of the people forging and failing to record ever anticipated that their actions would result in the kind of instability that finally occurred. But part of the fallout from that crisis came from ignoring "bureaucratic" requirements.

Organizations are a mixed bag, and it's sometimes hard to get things right. Doing anything on a large scale presents the possibility of doing things wrong on a large scale. And, as I said to begin with, most people do what's necessary to get by, to get a paycheck, and in the case of Army life, to avoid more dire consequences. So I'm not pointing fingers at people's individual moral position. Certainly, it's understandable that people are lulled into certain behaviors when "everybody does it," and certain "sins" seem less grievous than when a person behaves perversely as to his or her "culture".

Still, blaming "bureaucracy" instead of management, or policymakers, or individual actors who encourage the culture is a really bad habit. It implies that it's impossible to organize large numbers of people to do good and creative things. It's good to ward off bad organizational practices, for sure, so it's certainly worth thinking about what they are.

I wish I had a better memory for references. A million years ago in grad school I took an statistics for idiots class. The goal of the class was to help people develop a bullshit detector when it came to reading research articles, so we read and evaluated the research base of lots and lots of articles from professional journals.

And I remember one article the gist of which was that systems don't matter; people do. The context was school reform. The thesis was that programs that look outstanding are only outstanding as long as outstanding people are running the program. As soon as the outstanding people move on, the program degenerates.

I don't remember if the research for this article was bullshit or not, but the thesis resonates with my experience.

Which is not to say that bureaucracies don't take on a life of their own or develop collective personality disorders. But I think that leadership counts for a lot.

Still, blaming "bureaucracy" instead of management, or policymakers, or individual actors who encourage the culture is a really bad habit.

I don't understand why you think the things people should be blaming are somehow wholly separate from the bureaucracy, or why you think that blaming management, policymakers or individual actors is mutually exclusive of pointing out bureaucratic problems. It's like saying you shouldn't "blame" a shooting victim's death on a gunshot wound when it's the shooter's fault, after someone notes that the victim died from a gunshot wound.

It implies that it's impossible to organize large numbers of people to do good and creative things.

"It" doesn't appear to be an argument anyone is making AFAICT.

It's good to ward off bad organizational practices, for sure, so it's certainly worth thinking about what they are.

Oh. So we agree after all. What was all the fuss about?

I'm reading this book of stories and one essay at the moment:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einstein%27s_Monsters

Just by way of saying that I'm so relieved that only part of Arkansas was nearly vaporized.

The real question is how will The Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy? I mean, the regional governors are not that reliable and we're all sitting in a death trap.

Oh. So we agree after all. What was all the fuss about?

Can you identify the bad organizational practice that dr ngo was referring to? Was it the pervasive lying and fraud? No, he felt that the conduct was, in his case, fine. Was it too much paperwork? Was it too little training? Did he have a remedy for it?

No, he just attributed it all to some vague incurable disease called "bureaucracy".

Can you identify the bad organizational practice that dr ngo was referring to?

As questions began to arise over the success or otherwise of the US mission in Vietnam and the validity of the “body count” and other metrics by which it was measured, it soon became clear to most people that from General Westmoreland on down (and on up, for that matter) there was considerable deception going on...

Why?

No one knew because dishonesty was baked into the system, even stateside, even where there was no particular political or bureaucratic pressure, even in an army scarcely at war. It was a system designed – perhaps unintentionally – to generate “correct” answers to all questions, rather than truthful ones. We had lied to ourselves so often, so long, that we had no idea what the truth was.

And?

Because whoever he was, he would have to depend on information from underlings who got their own information from those further and further down the food chain until it got down to those (like me) who understood that their function was to tell their superiors what they wanted to hear. All the way, all the time. Without this understanding, the whole military enterprise would have ground to a halt. The Vietnam War was merely a conspicuous, embarrassing, and tragic example of this universal tendency.

No, he felt that the conduct was, in his case, fine.

I'd have to say that his most direct, personal experiences are described to lay the groundwork for an exposition of a larger problem. They are consistent with the bureaucratic, cultural problems in the army that contributed to the pointless continuation of the Vietnam War, even if what he did, within his unit, didn't figure into said continuation.

No, he just attributed it all to some vague incurable disease called "bureaucracy".

"All" of what? I still can't figure out where you're getting this.

I'll stick up for sapient a little bit, although I'm not totally convinced. I enjoyed dr ngo's story about small time deceit. And I understand his larger point about the systematic deceit at all levels of army. But I'm not sure how they connect together. The people he dealt with (and he himself of couse) seemed like honest decent human beings. The whole point of falsifying records was that when it really mattered, when the company was buying stuff, they had acted honestly.

Which direction is causality supposed to go? Is the idea that the army was so suffused with dishonesty that lying about the pool table was easy? Or is it that soliders had to lie about trivial stuff like the pool table and so the entire institution developed a culture of systemic lying about things like the progress of the war?

I don't find the explanation of 'bureaocracy's are fundamentally dishonest' to be terribly compelling or terribly useful. It feels like the two step of terrific triviality. Of course they're dishonest, all humans and human organizations are dishonest; that point is too trivial to take notice. The stronger version, that we should forbid bureaocracy from being involved in life and death decisions (no military, no hospitals, no paramedics, no airplanes [have you seen the checklists that pilots have to deal with?]) is too absurd to even consider.

I think wj nailed it when he pointed out that bureaocracies where the end result is easily verifiable (product works or fails, patients die at a comparable rate to peer hospitals) are much less susceptible to the sort of pathology that dr ngo describes.

I don't quite understand why he maintains that no one knew what the truth was. In the examples he gave of the lying that went on in his own vicinity, everyone knew what the truth was. He maintains that everyone knew that Westmoreland and many others were lying, but how did they know that, if no one knew what the truth was?

Nobody actually counted the bodies perhaps? but everyone (even the American public) caught on to the fact that villages were being burned and atrocities were being committed. How much truth was needed?

The secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia - plenty of people knew that it was going on, so the truth there was known as well.

By 1968, not every fact was known by the general public, but plenty of people were beginning to know plenty of truth, and by 1973, they knew plenty more.

Are we talking about names and identities of victims? At that massive scale, no one could know the "truth", not because of bureaucracy or lying, but the way massive casualties were being inflicted.

Not sure what we're talking about when we think that no one knew the truth.

Maybe a better candidate than bureaocracy or individuals is the army's "can do attitude". The military culture is not one in which people are accustomed to saying "no, sorry, we can't do that". So if all your generals are inculcated in the "can do semper-fi" culture and they can never tell you "no, we can't do that", you're going to get stuck in quagmires where the military keeps trying harder at doing the impossible. In such a situation, how can you expect any kind of honesty, regardless of the bureaocratic structure or lack thereof?

Yingling touched on this a bit in his A failure of generalship article regarding Iraq a few years ago.

He maintains that everyone knew that Westmoreland and many others were lying, but how did they know that, if no one knew what the truth was?

The truth that "everyone" came to know was that Westmoreland and others didn't know the things they claimed to know. Even in claiming to know, they were lying. If what they were claiming to know happened to be true, it would only by dumb luck (and no one would even know if that happened).

since nobody has yet brought up this classic ;-)

“The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots. If you are not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one. All the shortcuts and economies and common-sense changes that your native intelligence suggests to you are mistakes. Learn to quash them. Constantly ask yourself, "How would I do this if I were a fool?" Throttle down your mind to a crawl. Then you will never go wrong.”

Herman Wouk - The Caine Mutiny

The stronger version, that we should forbid bureaocracy from being involved in life and death decisions (no military, no hospitals, no paramedics, no airplanes [have you seen the checklists that pilots have to deal with?]) is too absurd to even consider.

Setting aside the standard tactic of reductio ad absurdum and its underlying dishonesty, this restatement raises the issue of how life and death decisions should be handled. Since the originally raised example was hospitals, one should note the rise of patient advocates. Of course,everything requires some bureaucracy, as we no longer live in tribal situations where we can have additional information about the skills, abilities and trustworthyness of the people we need to call on, so there are now patient advocacy coursework, there are calls for patient advocacy licensing, etc. But at the interface where the bureaucracy impacts with individuals, there is a need for some countervailing force. While the student in the classroom isn't going to plump for a 'learning advocate'. ('I'm sorry, I think you should be teaching irregular verbs now rather than continuing to review the regular conjugations'), the patient is. I think it is a comment on the US where the patient advocate is most often called on to deal with the financial aspects of the system, in part because those financial aspects have become 'life or death' (though I realise that being reduced to penury because of medical debts is not 'death'. As always, think on the bright side of life)

Of course, in the military (which prompted my original observation), there is not really any countervailing group at the interface, unless you count the other side carrying guns. Ideally, the IRC might do this sort of thing, but for some reason, attempts at distinguishing between civilians and combatants in the heat of battle don't seem to work. Certainly, rules of engagement are supposed to protect civilians, but we then have the same sort of chicanery which some have rightly been upset about. Hence, trying to have armies not fight was the main thrust of my original one phrase closing.

The real question is how will The Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?

He must don the skin of the sandtrout.

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