295 Comments

You have to appreciate the genius of Ramaswamy. Out of all the conceivable methods of randomization he could've chosen, he goes for the one that's an arbitrary number GENERATED BY FEDERAL BUREAUCRATS.

Day 1: President Ramaswamy announces plan to lay off all federal employees with an odd final digit.

Day 2: Social Security Administration announces rollout of new 10-digit SSN, beginning with federal employees. The 10th digit will be determined by doubling the 9th.

Expand full comment

I would ask this question more broadly: why do business types (and I suppose Wall Street in general) think laying off a bunch of people will increase productivity? I'm at mid-career at this point and these layoffs happen at my company every 2-3 years like clockwork, which is probably the average across the industry. So then everyone has to spend a bunch of time figuring out what the new organization will look like, evaluating people for their jobs, doling out severance packages, dealing with the increased attrition that happens when good employees start looking elsewhere, dealing with the lower morale (and then lower productivity) from the remaining employees... and in the end you probably lose ~4-6 months every time you do this, and pretty obviously never increase productivity.

My impression has always been that the benefit is paying lower total salaries, which I suppose makes the quarterly reports look better but doesn't actually get closer to making products we're trying to make. But hearing Ramaswamy and other Rs talk about bloated government and hold up these sorts of business practices as a model makes me think that they actually believe rank-and-file workers don't really do anything.

Expand full comment
Nov 16, 2023·edited Nov 16, 2023

I think the best idea would be higher pay in exchange for higher accountability. The Republicans are of course wrong that we could eliminate huge swathes of the federal workforce without creating serious problems. The result of that would be worse government, which they can then cynically point to when they make the case for even less of it.

However I did a short stint early in my career as a federal employee of a somewhat overlooked institution. This was almost 20 years ago now but it had serious problems. Hiring was way more focused on demographics than competence. After a year or so probationary period people became virtually unfire-able. People below management level had union protection which made performance management even more difficult, and at times so cumbersome people simply wouldn't do it. The result was a lot of people there more because they checked some demographic box doing poor work on projects of questionable utility and with a serious attitude of entitlement. The contractors weren't always great but at least you could fire them (I actually started as one). Ultimately the experience was so bizarre and disheartening i left for a law career.

This is of course only one side of the story. There were also a lot of selfless people who worked their butts off as hard as anyone in the private sector, typically for less pay and in much more thankless conditions. But the fact remains that the civil service rules need serious reform. Hard as it is for the left of center to accept we also need to just stop caring so much about 'equity.' Color blindness and non-discrimination yes, but not obsessing over percentages of race and sex. The path to the kind of good government program we want is with high standards and high professionalism and accountability. It then becomes effective and starts to make the case for itself.

Expand full comment

Agree that the conservative view of who "works for the government" also seems like a bunch of DEI administrations and obscure office workers keeping you from driving a big truck.

In reality Vivke's plan would mean things like your uncle learning from the the VA that "We regret to inform you appointment with an oncologist is now delayed for 24 to 36 months, please do not call this number again as it will no longer be answered. Thank you."

Expand full comment

I mean this genuinely and not as some bank shot critique: I’d like to see you tackle more specifically how we can perpetually reinvigorate government functions and put more specifics behind your thesis of needing to spend more money. To be clear I think you are right, but I think your idea is highly contingent on good execution of how that money is spent at many different levels of government by many different actors (eg see the transit spending you have been rightly critical of). In other words, I think you have left the hard part I’ll-defined.

After all, it’s really not just the direct personnel spending, but the extent to which those personnel are efficient stewards of non-personnel spending (again, see transit spending). One of my favorite takes that you have is “managing people is hard, actually.” And your experiences at Vox surely seemed to have shown you how difficult it can be to mold culture and orient people toward achieving common goals even at a small organization. After all, you left Vox to write this newsletter (I’m glad you did!). But I don’t believe (and I don’t think you do either) a disillusioned park ranger’s recourse should be to go buy some land and start their own park.

I agree Ramaswamys idea is nuts. But I think it resonates with some in part because I think tearing it down (to the inevitably let someone else build it back up later) is in effect what happens (in a less chaotic way) in most other major organizations. Having been around management of large private organizations, I get it: even in the private organizations, if management finds their isn’t the cultural or political will or vision or appetite or alignment to do the hard tactical work of fixing an organizational issue, sometimes you just nuke the whole thing and start over.

So, if you got to control congress and the executive branch for four years, what principles/systems/processes/etc (beyond cloning yourself and personally twisting the arm of each and every federal employee) would you change to deploy the money in a way that achieved positive results?

Expand full comment

At the federal level, I agree with this 100%. At the state/local level, I would offer one cautionary note, which is that many agencies simply don't do certain things -- big software procurements, design and construction of major capital projects, etc. -- frequently enough to justify having permanent staff that specialize in those things. So outside consultants can be a better approach, and hopefully they can bring experience to bear from other agencies so that the wheel isn't being reinvented.

Now, does that argue for consolidation of local agencies into regional or state agencies? Maybe! But local politicians tend to like having local control. Perhaps having higher-level agencies with specialized capacity that lower-level ones can contract with for these major infrequent efforts, as I think others have discussed here...

Expand full comment

I'm puzzling over these examples a little bit. The federal government should just buy computers, because there's a strong private market for computers. The government shouldn't farm out bridge building, because there's no private market for bridges. But the federal government *shouldn't* farm out daycare, despite there being a strong private market for daycare?

Expand full comment

I worked as a contractor for a defense agency for many years, and I while I think some of your points here are well-taken, I do think that a huge problem with much of the federal workforce is how insanely difficult and almost impossible it is to fire federal employees, regardless of how incompetent or even actively problematic they are. It is often a multi-year process to have somebody fired for cause, involving tens or hundreds of hours of documentation and then, no matter how well-documented the case is, it almost always still results in a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Having someone removed because they're bad at their job is, in practice, essentially impossible. Many times, I observed offices get rid of the deadweight on their staff by promoting those people, as it was the only way to get them out of their hair. This resulted in a culture where the good motivated people almost all burned out and quit to go into contracting or the private sector, and the bad incompetent people stuck around, got promoted by default, and ended up running entire divisions.

I don't think what I observed was unusual for federal (or state) agencies, as born out by my many friends and colleagues working throughout federal government agencies. So while I disagree with Ramaswamy that random firings would do any good, I do think that a crucial part of making the federal government more effective has to be overhauling labor practices to make it easier to get rid of the deadweight. Obviously, that's a super hard problem, especially with extremely powerful federal labor unions, but without it I can't see much value in ramping up federal hiring.

Expand full comment

I think the meat of this article is largely sensible, but whether or not we need a larger bureaucracy is dependent on whether or not people want a bigger or smaller government. This article just doesn’t engage with the reality that many conservatives want the government to do less, and if that’s the case the bureaucracy should be smaller (maybe better paid and better staffed in some regards, but still overall smaller).

Expand full comment

This article is too general to be illuminating. Focusing on a particular government task and providing detail and examples would be more useful.

Expand full comment
Nov 16, 2023·edited Nov 16, 2023

I could basically copy and paste my whole "We have bad cops because we have bad laws." Shtick here. Same deal with the bureaucracy. I'm actually pretty sympathetic to the idea that there's probably some half, or close to it, of federal civilian employees that could be fired with little or no cost, mostly because we hire bad, underpaid people to enact vague and ill-conceived laws. This article does a good job getting to a lot of the reasons why, though I'm sure I'd find a lot more government functions than Matt would where I'd ask "What if we just don't have this?" and be satisfied that the answer is just don't. That doesn't at all imply that Vivek isn't a moron or that doing so randomly wouldn't be a catastrophe.

At the end of the day, I find my self coming back to my endless frustration with the center left:

Why oh why can't we just have the technocratic rigor without all the technocratic paternalism?

Expand full comment

My "favorite" part of Vivek's "plan" is that he clearly doesn't understand how randomness works - in the real world randomness involves clusters. So let's say he pulled a Thanos and snapped away half the civil service (assuming SSNs are distributed randomly which they're probably close enough) firing based off odd last digit would create a situation where whole work groups are wiped out while others are barely touched -and, you know, sucks for the country if firing half the air traffic controllers means O'Hare suddenly lost 75% of its air traffic controllers. Ah well, never the less.

Expand full comment
Nov 16, 2023·edited Nov 16, 2023

Haha, I literally wrote this on Philadelphia’s subreddit yesterday after someone was talking about having done contracting work on a city initiative that never went anywhere:

“No offense meant, but one of the city’s biggest problems is the reliance on outside consultants with poor incentives for “expertise” in many fields.

Even when they’re actually providing expertise, it’s often poorly priced and subject to lots of political constraints (what consultant wants to piss off their paycheck?) in a way that in-house career civil servants would be protected from.

And as often as not they’re not really providing expertise, simply grifting as much money as possible from a project, with little consequence because the whole industry from civil engineering to environmental consultancy to public opinion to urban planning all works that way.“

Expand full comment

"government contractors arguably have an obligation to their shareholders to rip the public off."

Spoken like someone who hasn't spent much time in the private sector. Sure, there are bad actors who do try to rip the public off, but in my experience, most businesses treat the government like a customer. If they want more business, they don't mistreat their customers.

A bigger problem is that many businesses won't work for governments because of the excessive rules that make it difficult to be profitable.

Expand full comment

Bumping the social security age thresholds dwarfs any other potential savings. Macron did a nice test run on that one.

Expand full comment

This is such a situation of heart versus mind to me. I work with a lot of federal agencies getting people disability benefits, particularly Social Security. We meet with the heads of one of the regional arms quarterly. Intellectually, I know that they’re starved for bodies and that a lot of the backlog, inability to respond timely to requests, and willingness to turn a blind eye to incompetence and even outright fraud is due to understaffing and inadequate training.

But ooh, emotionally, the idea that my tax dollars are going to snide dunces who refuse to be held accountable for egregiously bad service and refuse to enact even the most minor internal policies to increase efficiency just toasts my rye bread so bad. SSA just wastes so much money per year on costly errors and delays and structural inefficiencies and there’s just no effort whatsoever to do more with the money they’ve already got or allocate it more effectively. Last time, SSA told us they refused to suspend or even discipline an employee committing fraud because it might make it more difficult to hire new employees next year if applicants knew SSA was surveilling them closely enough to notice fraud. It gets my goat that the agency always has their hand out, demanding more and more, while the employees we interact with demand no accountability and decline to take basic steps to get things done. If I were as bad an employee as any given SSA field office rep, I’d have been fired years ago. If I routinely screwed up essential functions of my job, lied about work I didn’t do, failed to understand rudimentary parts of my area of law and stole money from my clients, I’d be fired. At SSA, we’ve been dealing with some of these same incompetent, dishonest employees for years.

So I understand the emotional appeal of Ramaswamy’s stance. I know it’s a bad idea, but the part of me who sits on hold with SSA for hours a day only to get “uh, we lost your client’s file” or “we coded this case wrong so it sat gathering dust for seven months” understands why anyone who’s had to routinely deal with a public-facing federal agency would find it appealing.

Expand full comment