FA: America in Decay
America in Decay
The Sources of Political Dysfunction
The creation of the U.S. Forest Service at the turn of the twentieth century was the premier example of American state building during the Progressive Era. Prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, public offices in the United States had been allocated by political parties on the basis of patronage. The Forest Service, in contrast, was the prototype of a new model of merit-based bureaucracy. It was staffed with university-educated agronomists and foresters chosen on the basis of competence and technical expertise, and its defining struggle was the successful effort by its initial leader, Gifford Pinchot, to secure bureaucratic autonomy and escape routine interference by Congress. At the time, the idea that forestry professionals, rather than politicians, should manage public lands and handle the department’s staffing was revolutionary, but it was vindicated by the service’s impressive performance. Several major academic studies have treated its early decades as a classic case of successful public administration.
Today, however, many regard the Forest Service as a highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools. It is still staffed by professional foresters, many highly dedicated to the agency’s mission, but it has lost a great deal of the autonomy it won under Pinchot. It operates under multiple and often contradictory mandates from Congress and the courts and costs taxpayers a substantial amount of money while achieving questionable aims. The service’s internal decision-making system is often gridlocked, and the high degree of staff morale and cohesion that Pinchot worked so hard to foster has been lost. These days, books are written arguing that the Forest Service ought to be abolished altogether. If the Forest Service’s creation exemplified the development of the modern American state, its decline exemplifies that state’s decay.
Civil service reform in the late nineteenth century was promoted by academics and activists such as Francis Lieber, Woodrow Wilson, and Frank Goodnow, who believed in the ability of modern natural science to solve human problems. Wilson, like his contemporary Max Weber, distinguished between politics and administration. Politics, he argued, was a domain of final ends, subject to democratic contestation, but administration was a realm of implementation, which could be studied empirically and subjected to scientific analysis.
The belief that public administration could be turned into a science now seems naive and misplaced. But back then, even in advanced countries, governments were run largely by political hacks or corrupt municipal bosses, so it was perfectly reasonable to demand that public officials be selected on the basis of education and merit rather than cronyism. The problem with scientific management is that even the most qualified scientists of the day occasionally get things wrong, and sometimes in a big way. And unfortunately, this is what happened to the Forest Service with regard to what ended up becoming one of its crucial missions, the fighting of forest fires.
Pinchot had created a high-quality agency devoted to one basic goal: managing the sustainable exploitation of forest resources. The Great Idaho Fire of 1910, however, burned some three million acres and killed at least 85 people, and the subsequent political outcry led the Forest Service to focus increasingly not just on timber harvesting but also on wildfire suppression. Yet the early proponents of scientific forestry didn’t properly understand the role of fires in woodland ecology. Forest fires are a natural occurrence and serve an important function in maintaining the health of western forests. Shade-intolerant trees, such as ponderosa pines, lodgepole pines, and giant sequoias, require periodic fires to clear areas in which they can regenerate, and once fires were suppressed, these trees were invaded by species such as the Douglas fir. (Lodgepole pines actually require fires to propagate their seeds.) Over the years, many American forests developed high tree densities and huge buildups of dry understory, so that when fires did occur, they became much larger and more destructive.
After catastrophes such as the huge Yellowstone fires in 1988, which ended up burning nearly 800,000 acres in the park and took several months to control, the public began to take notice. Ecologists began criticizing the very objective of fire prevention, and in the mid-1990s, the Forest Service reversed course and officially adopted a “let burn” approach. But years of misguided policies could not simply be erased, since so many forests had become gigantic tinderboxes.
As a result of population growth in the American West, moreover, in the later decades of the twentieth century, many more people began living in areas vulnerable to wildfires. As are people choosing to live on floodplains or on barrier islands, so these individuals were exposing themselves to undue risks that were mitigated by what essentially was government-subsidized insurance. Through their elected representatives, they lobbied hard to make sure the Forest Service and other federal agencies responsible for forest management were given the resources to continue fighting fires that could threaten their property. Under these circumstances, rational cost-benefit analysis proved difficult, and rather than try to justify a decision not to act, the government could easily end up spending $1 million to protect a $100,000 home.
While all this was going on, the original mission of the Forest Service was eroding. Timber harvests in national forests, for example, plunged, from roughly 11 billion to roughly three billion board feet per year in the 1990s alone. This was due partly to the changing economics of the timber industry, but it was also due to a change in national values. With the rise of environmental consciousness, natural forests were increasingly seen as havens to be protected for their own sake, not economic resources to be exploited. And even in terms of economic exploitation, the Forest Service had not been doing a good job. Timber was being marketed at well below the costs of operations; the agency’s timber pricing was inefficient; and as with all government agencies, the Forest Service had an incentive to increase its costs rather than contain them.
The Forest Service’s performance deteriorated, in short, because it lost the autonomy it had gained under Pinchot. The problem began with the displacement of a single departmental mission by multiple and potentially conflicting ones. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, firefighting began to displace timber exploitation, but then firefighting itself became controversial and was displaced by conservation. None of the old missions was discarded, however, and each attracted outside interest groups that supported different departmental factions: consumers of timber, homeowners, real estate developers, environmentalists, aspiring firefighters, and so forth. Congress, meanwhile, which had been excluded from the micromanagement of land sales under Pinchot, reinserted itself by issuing various legislative mandates, forcing the Forest Service to pursue several different goals, some of them at odds with one another.
Thus, the small, cohesive agency created by Pinchot and celebrated by scholars slowly evolved into a large, Balkanized one. It became subject to many of the maladies affecting government agencies more generally: its officials came to be more interested in protecting their budgets and jobs than in the efficient performance of their mission. And they clung to old mandates even when both science and the society around them were changing.
The story of the U.S. Forest Service is not an isolated case but representative of a broader trend of political decay; public administration specialists have documented a steady deterioration in the overall quality of American government for more than a generation. In many ways, the U.S. bureaucracy has moved away from the Weberian ideal of an energetic and efficient organization staffed by people chosen for their ability and technical knowledge. The system as a whole is less merit-based: rather than coming from top schools, 45 percent of recent new hires to the federal service are veterans, as mandated by Congress. And a number of surveys of the federal work force paint a depressing picture. According to the scholar Paul Light, “Federal employees appear to be more motivated by compensation than mission, ensnared in careers that cannot compete with business and nonprofits, troubled by the lack of resources to do their jobs, dissatisfied with the rewards for a job well done and the lack of consequences for a job done poorly, and unwilling to trust their own organizations.” …
For complete article, see Francis Fukuyama, America in Decay, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014.