“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”: tales of a mid-level bureaucrat of the apocalypse

For my last 20 years of gainful employment I have been a public sector employee for all but two of them, having spent only 16 months of my life employed in the private sector to the exclusion of the public sector. Most of that public sector work has been as a knowledge or IT worker in public, academic and government libraries, but I currently work in a library adjacent field running an electronic content management system for the Department of Labor.

Doesn’t that sound boring? It should be [on paper]. An electronic content management system is sort of like an ILS [integrated library system – the digital catalog] but instead of circulating books to library patrons it circulates bureaucracy for government workers. Doesn’t that sound boring? OMG it is so boring, except that the largest part of the bureaucracy that my system circulates is records related to unemployment claims, appeals, and payments. Maybe you have noticed that in recent months unprecedented unemployment claims have been filed in our great state and across the country as a whole. No? Well, it’s a thing. And it has made my boring job very exciting [horror movie exciting, not birthday party exciting].

I am not about to talk about databases and information architecture, have no fear. However, please know that every single click of every single button on a government website has a vast network of convoluted tunnels on the back end that some person put there [probably a long time ago with a piece of software or data table that is no longer current] and then likely they retired in the last five years without ever writing anything down for future persons, so that in a time of historically unprecedented usage there is literally no living person who can maintain, scale, or reliably build upon the information infrastructure that current exists.

Every day my job is wondering whether or not the new thing that I built a part of is going to play nicely with the other new things that my other counterparts built and trying not to get crushed under the weight of the knowledge that mistakes in our interconnected computer systems are the difference between people not getting payments for unemployment that will literally result in their getting evicted, choosing not to eat dinner so their kids can eat, losing all their savings or their business, and the cascading down-stream affects that not getting paid regularly can cause in a country where many people are one paycheck away from destitution.

I sit inside my house all day staring at a monitor array and keyboard that when connected to my brain through my fingers is one part in an interconnected network of humans and machines that serves as the last doorway someone can walk through to prop up their livelihood and the economy. So, you know, no pressure.

I understand that I cannot be very effective in my job if I am always considering the repercussions of my every keystroke. That way lies madness. But I am little envious of healthcare workers in a strange way because they get to help people by keeping them alive, which I know is horrendous but also very concrete. I get to help people by making sure that a series of well-timed processes run every day and by frantically building new infrastructure to enact legislation that I may or may not agree will alleviate the suffering of millions of people.

INTERLUDE. In my youth I had imagined that I might be a botanist and get to spend my adulthood in the rainforest researching plants that could cure cancer à la Sean Connery in the 1992 film Medicine Man. Objectively, this is not a great film, but I saw it when I was young and it was my first exposure to the idea of field research, which I found romantic. By the time I was old enough to enact my dreams of being a field researcher I realized that it was mostly hunting for funding that the NIH didn’t want to part with so that pharmaceutical companies could charge people exorbitant rates for drugs that their tax dollars already paid for, and I passed. The moral of the story is that there is no job for people who care about being good, there are only a series of compromises that you have to make and live with every day when you’re watching toothpaste dribble down your chin in your bathroom mirror. Now I just want to be a farmer, but how to pay those bills?

When Ronald Reagan said these fateful nine words [“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”], as a prelude to dismantling the welfare state for the “good” of the country, he was drastically overlooking the passion and dedication of thousands of government workers. It is hard to get up every day and have your underfunded salary be enough motivation to do good in the world, especially when you know that the good you do is fractured by a political system writing rules based on opinion polls derived from voters who have spent a generation being told that government is a wasteful construct that picks their pocket.

A distinction that is important to make here is the difference between politicians, government and government workers. We use these words interchangeably because it suits a purpose [that isn’t very good].

Politicians are like celebrities and we all as voters should be wary of any person who wants to stand up in front of a crowd of people and promise them things that it takes thousands of people to accomplish. They cannot help but lie even in service of the truth.

Government is a system of institutions made of humans [government workers] who enact policies and operating procedures in accordance with laws created by politicians. They exist in a distributed bureaucracy designed to diffuse risk of abuse of power that often results in diffusion of responsibility. Government is not nimble, it does not react quickly to change, and it lacks resources to pivot to new synergistic [I mean corporate buzzwords are pretty meaningless] solutions to complex problems.

Government workers are the average working people, often not fantastic risk takers, who majored in something “useless” like English and for a variety of reasons understand that they do not have the temperament or opportunity to succeed in the private sector and therefore have to be contented with being underpaid and understaffed which is intended to be balanced by being compensated with two things few private sector workers can hope to achieve: a pension and affordable health insurance. If they begin as idealistic workers intent on making positive changes they have to choose between being ground down into a cynical numbness by the gears of bureaucracy or burning out [the tightrope I personally get on every day].

Understand that being a person who works in government does not mean I am unaware of why people criticize the government. I get it. However, I do not understand people who think that the answer to the inefficiencies of government is less government because the only replacement they offer for government is the private sector. This is because, fundamentally, government does things that are completely unprofitable and the private sector has a for-profit obligation to its shareholders.

In the ongoing conversation about dismantling the Post Office, for instance, proponents of privatization barely focus on the fact that it is very expensive to get mail to rural people. In logistics, that last hop from shipping to delivery is the most expensive, because it cannot be scaled for efficiencies. The Post Office is only able to provide rural delivery because they are required to do so, adding a shareholder profit requirement sinks the Post Office.

Consider that every need government meets is one that, like the “last mile” of mail delivery, has been deemed too expensive to leave any profit for shareholders. Then pause to consider how privately held [or publicly traded] companies can meet the same needs as government and still make a profit.

They can’t.

American healthcare is a great example of this. Much ink has been spilt about American healthcare, by real experts not just people who read a lot and write blogs, and the tl;dr for what’s wrong with American healthcare is that life is a slow collapse into death and there is no way to not incur exorbitant costs while prolonging life and avoiding suffering. Healthcare isn’t supposed to be profitable because no one gets out of this thing alive. Healthcare is a money pit. The only way to make it profitable is to exact income from humans who will get sick and die [premiums] and then refuse to cover most of the costs of the procedures that will help them be less sick and die later [denial of claims]. So healthcare is profitable only if you pay for a service that you are later denied as soon as it gets too expensive for shareholders to profit.

Which brings us back to unemployment. Our system is designed to support workers who have lost their jobs for a variety of reasons, but it wasn’t really designed to support all workers all at once. Our economy requires that most people be working and getting paid so that they can buy stuff. Our unemployment system is designed with the foundational belief that there are enough jobs out there for everyone and everyone’s default setting is to have a job, but the process of changing jobs can leave gaps in wages that depresses the economy so we need to prop up those between-jobs people for short periods of time. We sort of believe that if you don’t have a job and if you don’t have enough savings to weather the between-jobs period of your life that you are pretty irresponsible and should feel a little shame for not planning ahead. So we make the process of filing for unemployment fairly embarrassing and shame filled, as if the goal isn’t to make sure people have money because that money is already required in the economy.

Maybe you see some gaps with the underlying assumptions of unemployment. Like what if there are not enough jobs for everyone? Or what if those jobs don’t pay enough for people to contribute to the economy or save enough for retirement? Those are not imaginary gaps. Because the government has been steadily moving forward assuming these things as if they are true for the last 40-or-so years, we should not be incredibly surprised that in an environment where those assumptions continue to prove false all at once [like a pandemic] that the unemployment system is not equipped to deal with the actual problem we are facing.

Unemployment is not actually the best tool to keep people solvent and keep the economy afloat. But because politicians have made it clear they are not going to give us anything else [except that $1200 check they wrote you in the spring and maybe a few other things if you are fortunate to be a homeowner or a business owner] it is sort of all most people have. And then they lose their health insurance and/or their childcare.

So every day I get up and work my goddamnedest to prop-up unemployment even knowing that it is not the best solution for our country. And I try not to lose heart because as I look around I do not see the private sector coming to bail us all out [remember, we the American tax-payer actually bailed them out]. I don’t even see some Henry Ford-level reasoning coming from the private sector [Ford paid his workers at a rate that would allow them to buy his cars because he understood – for all the he was a bigot and a racist – that he could not get rich if people were too poor to buy his stuff]. Instead I see a damn mess and a lot of talking heads [and libertarians on the internet] who seem to think that this demonstrates why government doesn’t work.

What it really demonstrates is how we have strangled government and made it ineffective by limiting the resources to which it is entitled under the guise of the “free” market. Meanwhile the private sector gets fat on our bailouts with no accountability to tax payers and citizens.

The private sector, through lobbyists, owns politicians almost unilaterally and will continue to do so until campaign finance reform is enacted and Citizen’s United is overturned. This is what people say when they mean government is corrupt. Politicians write laws for lobbyists and then government workers have to apply those laws. I, as lone government worker, can’t just do what many other countries have done and pay people to stay home during a pandemic. I just get fired. I do not have enough power by design. It is not a problem that I don’t have the power, but it is a problem that some individuals – who have never been democratically elected – do have that power.

The government has been stolen from the people by special interests and something needs to be done. Do not – for a second – think that the best solution is to remove all checks from the power of those special interests. Because without the cabal of bureaucrats who exist out there working tirelessly every day for you, it gets worse. Do you think I would get paid half of the Silicon Valley salary for my skills if I didn’t care about people? That is the most anti-capitalist choice I could possibly make. Why would I do that?

So the next time you find yourself on the internet talking about or talking to someone who thinks government is the problem, consider what you would put in its place.

In the interim, you’re welcome. I’m from the government and I’m here to help.

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