Two of a Kind

March 22nd, 2012

Inspired by On spending duplication, Congress talks big, carries little stick (Examiner3/22/12 page 2).

 

“There are 209 federal Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education programs, administered by 13 different federal agencies, costing taxpayers more than $3 billion annually.” — Examiner

 

Spending duplication makes everybody mad,

But I’d like to point out that it’s not always bad.

 

In the private sector, it’s called competition,

And no one advocates its abolition.

 

In nature, it’s called diversity,

Which helps different species deal with adversity.

 

Even with natural selection, more than one ends up being fit to survive.

So why not, at least sometimes, keep more than one program alive?

***

Nobody in Congress or any Presidential administration ever suggests that it’s inefficient for there to be more than one car company, or more than one software company. It is, of course: having multiple companies doing the same thing increases administrative costs, advertising cots, etc. But that’s the beauty of our free market economy. While competition does have costs, those costs are far outweighed by the gains which it brings: increased striving, technological advancement, a check on abuse of monopoly power, weeding out of bad ideas and weak competitors, and a rising tide that (eventually) lifts all boats.

In nature, we talk about natural selection and “survival of the fittest.” But in nature, the second, third, and fourth fittest also survive, and the definition of “fittest” changes from time to time. Sometimes, it’s the biggest and baddest (e.g., Tyrannosaurus Rex), but sometimes it’s the tiny shrew that runs and hides, and somehow manages to survive that meteor strike.

So does it matter that there are 209 federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education programs. It may, or it may not, based on a variety of criteria.

First, what’s the nature of the work. If you’re trying to build a stone wall, it actually helps to have more than one stonemason working on it. If you’re trying to minister to the poor, it helps to have more than one charity working on the issue. So sometimes, duplication of effort results in duplication of results.

Second, what’s the nature of the problem. Is there one clear solution, or does the problem require a variety of solutions, some of which might be more effective than others, some of which might even have negative side effects, and some of which might not work at all. In a relatively static situation with a clear solution, one centrally-managed program might be the answer. In a more dynamic, complex situation without clear solutions, multiple programs with multiple approaches might be the answer.

There’s also a natural selection/genetic diversity aspect to government programs. If there’s just one government disaster response program, what happens when it gets saddled with really bad leadership (“Hechuva job, Brownie”)? If there’s just one energy efficiency program, what happens when new creative ideas are squelched or allowed to die on the vine because they don’t match the organization’s mision or culture.

Of course, if you’re anti-government to start with, then eliminating all but that last remaining program (and then that one too, if you can) is always the right answer. But if you care about good government and taxpayer value, then you have to look deeper.

 

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