The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

If you don't believe sports has something to teach you about life

Check out this discussion of the NFL's byzantine rules in Salon. King Kaufman's Sports Daily: Why Does Football Have Such a Complex Rules Book?

"Good question. A capital-letter-eschewing oedipus has an answer, pointing out that 'soccer is governed by only 17 laws, the first six of which are essentially administrative ... However, it's this byzantine codification that gives Americans something they pride themselves on doing: creating unnecessary government.'

Case in point: The various American soccer bodies, which govern youth soccer, high school, college, etc., have added complicated rules on top of the FIFA set that works for the rest of the world.

'It's an American concept to complicate something as simple as sport so that you create a field of 'knowledge experts' who have something to be experts on,' oedipus writes.

I don't know if it's native to the Colonies to complicate things up, but it's certainly the prime directive of the NFL, the most bureaucratic, technocratic operation in North American team sports. "

It's not government that is corrupt and inefficient by nature. It is the way a people approach their government which helps determine the degree to which inefficiencies and inanities dominate the business of government. Because Americans are so afraid of their government and so terrified of "waste, fraud, and abuse," they saddle public action with complex reporting requirements and rules of behavior. When you don't want partisanship & cronyism to dominate the hiring process, you develop complex civil service rules that prevent managers from flexibly employing the best candidates. When you are terrified that civil servants will appropriate resources and steal, you make them go through a central administrative purchasing agent that must approve every purchase and make you follow a rigorous set of procedures. When you emphasize the democratic process and the right of Congress to oversee every step of the bureaucracy, you get a system dominated by cautious bureaucrats who won't take any initiative not pre approved by Washington politicians. Americans emphasize process over results - hence we have a rules-based, process oriented system. And we rarely get the results we want. We see this in the overwhelming bureaucracies of our public schools. In the myriad forms of the public health system. In the list of requirements for public programs like welfare.

The football example and the anecdote from soccer chillingly reminds us that our love of rules pretty much gets in the way of getting the government we want -- flexible and efficient and responsive to immediate challenges.

For more on this topic check out my favorite bureaucratic tome -- James Q. Wilson's Bureaucracy which begins with the example of the the French fighting the Germans in World War II. Despite our collective perception of the vaunted German fighting machine, Wilson informs us that the French had more tanks, more soldiers, and more weapons than the Germans. What they didn't have was the initiative based system under which German officers were allowed to make decisions on the fly and held accountable only for results. The French, by contrast had a hierarchical system in which they had to check on every decision with the very top so their units were less mobile and less reactive. We like to think that decisions take a long time in the public sector because that is the way of things. But they don't have to. We design public systems this way in our legislatures.


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