Budget? What Budget?

     About three decades ago, a reporter for Reason magazine asked a sitting Congressman of conservative inclination, “Will Congress ever pass a budget that’s even one dollar less than the previous year?” The Congressman replied flatly “No.”

     Well, at least he was candid. And as the years since have demonstrated, he was a realist as well. But there have been times when a federal budget actually declined. Thomas Jefferson oversaw at least one such event. Warren Harding presided over another. So we know that it can be done.

     Perhaps not this year, though:

     It’s encouraging that many in Congress are focusing more on our unsustainable fiscal situation and want a plan to improve the nation’s fiscal outlook. When it comes to developing a budget blueprint, however, it is important to select an achievable fiscal goal rather than merely an aspirational one. Unfortunately, due to continued borrowing over the past several years, the desirable fiscal goal of budgetary balance has become much more difficult to reach, and it is highly unlikely it could be achieved in a decade or less, particularly if revenue, defense, and other parts of the budget are excluded from the solution. We recommend Congress adopt an aggressive but achievable fiscal goal in its budgets and any fiscal deals.
     In this analysis, we show that in order to achieve balance within a decade, all spending would need to be cut by roughly one-quarter and that the necessary cuts would grow to 85 percent if defense, veterans, Social Security, and Medicare spending were off the table. These cuts would be so large that it would require the equivalent of ending all nondefense appropriations and eliminating the entire Medicaid program just to get to balance.

     This is strong evidence that the federal bureaucracy – the largest and most visible component of the Deep State – has taken over the federal government in its entirety. Those millions of bureaucrats, and their fellow-travelers at the state level, vote more consistently than any other cohort of any specification. And doubt it not: they want federal spending to keep increasing, no matter where the money has to come from (Cf. “Money Laundering 101”) Only a continuous increase in federal spending will support their aspirations:

  • To salary increases;
  • To promotions and the acquisition of subordinates;
  • To security in both employment and retirement.

     A lengthy citation from Parkinson’s Law will illustrate this dynamic:

  1. Officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals;
  2. Officials make work for each other.

     [W]e must picture a civil servant, called A, who finds himself overworked. Whether this overwork is real or imaginary is immaterial, but we should observe, in passing, that As sensation (or illusion) might easily result from his own decreasing energy: a normal symptom of middle age. For this real or imagined overwork there are, broadly speaking, three possible remedies. He may resign; he may ask to halve the work with a colleague called B; he may demand the assistance of two subordinates, to be called C and D. There is probably no instance 4 in history, however, of A choosing any but the third alternative. By resignation he would lose his pension rights. By having B appointed, on his own level in the hierarchy, he would merely bring in a rival for promotion to Ws vacancy when W (at long last) retires. So A would rather have C and D, junior men, below him. They will add to his consequence and, by dividing the work into two categories, as between C and D, he will have the merit of being the only man who comprehends them both. It is essential to realize at this point that C and D are, as it were, inseparable. To appoint C alone would have been impossible. Why? Because C, if by himself, would divide the work with A and so assume almost the equal status that has been refused in the first instance to B; a status the more emphasized if C is A’s only possible successor. Subordinates must thus number two or more, each being thus kept in order by fear of the other’s promotion. When C complains in turn of being overworked (as he certainly will) A will, with the concurrence of C, advise the appointment of two assistants to help C. But he can then avert internal friction only by advising the appointment of two more assistants to help D, whose position is much the same. With this recruitment of E, F, G, and H the promotion of A is now practically certain.

     Seven officials are now doing what one did before. This is where Factor 2 comes into operation. For these seven make so much work for each other that all are fully occupied and A is actually working harder than ever. An incoming document may well come before each of them in turn. Official E decides that it falls within the province of F, who places a draft reply before C, who amends it drastically before consulting D, who asks G to deal with it. But G goes 5 on leave at this point, handing the file over to H, who drafts a minute that is signed by D and returned to C, who revises his draft accordingly and lays the new version before A.

     What does A do? He would have every excuse for signing the thing unread, for he has many other matters on his mind. Knowing now that he is to succeed W next year, he has to decide whether C or D should succeed to his own office. He had to agree to G’s going on leave even if not yet strictly entitled to it. He is worried whether H should not have gone instead, for reasons of health. He has looked pale recently— partly but not solely because of his domestic troubles. Then there is the business of F’s special increment of salary for the period of the conference and E’s application for transfer to the Ministry of Pensions. A has heard that D is in love with a married typist and that G and F are no longer on speaking terms— no one seems to know why. So A might be tempted to sign C’s draft and have done with it. But A is a conscientious man. Beset as he is with problems created by his colleagues for themselves and for him— created by the mere fact of these officials’ existence— he is not the man to shirk his duty. He reads through the draft with care, deletes the fussy paragraphs added by C and H, and restores the thing back to the form preferred in the first instance by the able (if quarrelsome) F. He corrects the English— none of these young men can write grammatically— and finally produces the same reply he would have written if officials C to H had never been born. Far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No one has been idle. All have done their best. And it is late in the evening before A finally quits his office and begins the return journey to Ealing. The last of 6 the office lights are being turned off in the gathering dusk that marks the end of another day’s administrative toil. Among the last to leave, A reflects with bowed shoulders and a wry smile that late hours, like gray hairs, are among the penalties of success.

     Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a genius; moreover, he said what others could not or would not say. He deserves a memorial as massive and majestic as Nelson’s Plinth. More Americans should acquaint themselves with his observations and his reasoning.


1 ping

    • Dan on January 17, 2023 at 6:40 PM

    The desire to hold public office is always a front for the desire to rule.

    The desire to hold government employment is always a front for the desire to loot the Treasury.

  1. Egad. Your opening paragraphs brought back unpleasant yet revealing memories. Do you, Fran, remember “The Concord Coalition, founded in 1992, is a non-partisan organization that advocates putting the national debt on a sustainable course and protecting future generations.”

    I, in my mid-forties, was invited to one of their participatory forums at Occidental College. We were divided up into 20 tables of about 8 each. It did not take me long to recognize that at least one of the 8 at my table was a plant. He had more “info” at his hand than anyone else.

    At the end of the forum, not a single table was able to reduce the budget.

    Since I knew who founded Occidental, I was not at all surprised at the setup. I have no knowledge of how other coalition funded forums went, but almost certainly it was done so as to convince both sides of the aisle back in DC that actual rebellion was under control. The results of the 1994 mid-term election may have appeared to belie that report, but in retrospect, Bill Clinton’s 1995 speech that contained “the era of big government is over,” was simply more hog-wash.

    Does anyone else reading this recall that boondoggle of a coalition? It should come as no surprise that even though his name is not associated with it, its formulation began under the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush, just about the same time that Agenda 21 was formulated.

  1. […] functions at all, being overloaded with administrators and bureaucratically mandated overheads (cf. Parkinson’s Law again). Its grandees ceaselessly seek ways to “reduce the burden” – translated from the […]

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