Saturday, 13 May 2017

In which Professor Mazzucato discovers government is useless

Various people had a bit of a laugh about a tweet from economist Mariana Mazzucato moaning about the officious nature of the UK Home Office.

The humour came, of course, in that Professor Mazzucato is a popular advocate of the argument that it's the state that drives innovation with the private sector toddling along behind making profits from all those clever things government has done (I oversimplify but not by much). The Professor's entire opus is about how government is brilliant.

I am, however, a little more interested in what this Tweet tells us about government. Mostly it tells us that, when it comes to administrative functions, government is rubbish. This doesn't matter when all it represents is some inconvenience and annoyance to an economics professor but it does matter when the issue in question is whether a family has any money at all. The other day, I was told that a housing association was giving out food parcels to some of its tenants because of the delay between getting an assessment under the new universal credit (or indeed, on occasions, other benefits) and actually getting any money. This isn't because the benefit isn't enough but simply a case of government being unable to process simple administrative tasks efficiently (and yes I know the system is complicated but that's about getting the right boxes filled).

We encounter example after example of this administrative uselessness, most of it annoying and delaying rather than life threatening and all of it reminding us that huge bureaucracies operating without either adequate scrutiny or any competition are, in truth, the very antithesis of innovation. Government, the acme of monopolistic bureaucracy, has always operated this way - in 'The Castle', Franz Kafka summed how this governmental incompetence is married with arrogance and a lack of self-awareness to great the impenetrable barrier of bureaucracy:
“Surveyor, in your thoughts you may be reproaching Sordini for not having been prompted by my claim to make inquiries about the matter in other departments. But that would have been wrong, and I want this man cleared of all blame in your thoughts. One of the operating principles of authorities is that the possibility of error is simply not taken into account. This principle is justified by the excellence of the entire organization and is also necessary if matters are to be discharged with the utmost rapidity. So Sordini couldn’t inquire in other departments, besides those departments wouldn’t have answered, since they would have noticed right away that he was investigating the possibility of an error.”
What Professor Mazzucato, a highly regarded denizen of Britain's Castle and an advocate of its greatness, has discovered is that the system will do what the system does, will do that slowly and badly, and regardless of your job title will treat you with the same impersonal disdain you thought was reserved to common sorts on benefits. Your form will sit in a pile, will be processed in due course and will be returned if it is incorrect or incomplete. And there is no option to expedite matters by buying the mayor an expensive cup of coffee.

In the end government is useless. Then we revolt. And, as Kafka said about revolution:
"Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy."


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