Friday, December 9, 2011

Ectomorphic government

Also from NPR this morning, an example germane to the spurious debate of big government vs. small government and what makes it spurious, in a report (only the sound file, no text, available online so far) on the MSHA report on the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. As the radio report (from Howard Berkes) makes clear, the agency report makes it clear that the agency shares reponsibility in a major way for the disaster with the company that ran the mine, but the agency never actually says it. That is, they knew all about the mine's problems with ventilation and gas buildup and danger of explosions well in advance of the explosion that killed 29 people, but they didn't succeed in doing anything about it. This is a case of government that is neither too big nor too little but too fat (apologies to anybody who feels that this line of metaphor is prejudicial to the plump, but I really need it). MSHA was clearly big enough, but it wasn't effective:

MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin said in the year before the blast, his agency issued more violation orders at Upper Big Branch than at any other mine. It shut the mine down 48 times that year but had to let it reopen when problems were fixed. The agency lacked the power to close mines permanently — and still does. 
"We thought we were keeping accidents from happening," he said.
 The thing is, given the reality of constant change, it is stupid to assign government any particular predetermined size. It is a good thing the US constitution did not stipulate that there should be 20 senators, 59 representatives, and four cabinet officers (these are the numbers for 1789), because it would have taken an awful lot of amendment to keep up. The size of government should depend on what you want it to do, and that will not be a permanent matter either; you want it to do more in hard times and crises, less when troubles ease.

But whatever its size, it should not be too big to work properly. It should neither be endomorphic, heavy and sluggish, nor ectomorphic, frail and inadequate. MSHA should have had the muscle to shut Upper Big Branch down, or failing that to fine it into submission. How big it needed to be is just wonkery--I wouldn't presume to judge.

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