Omission vs. Commission

A while back in my Forbes column on the incentives faces by government workers, I wrote

People sometimes say that problems involving difficult trade-offs are hard for government bureaucracies to handle. This isn't true--most of these trade-offs are in fact easy for them to handle, because the outcome is as predetermined as a river's path through a well-worn valley. The problem is having these trade-offs made well.

Most of the tough decisions in the Gulf involve violating a rule or standard practice for which an agency and its staff have specific accountability for compliance. This is balanced against the opportunity to gain some benefit that is outside of the agency's responsibility and for which it will not be rewarded or punished. An example would be the administration's ban, at EPA insistence, of what BP ( BP - news - people ) claims is the most effective oil dispersant because it is potentially toxic. Does this dispersant's toxicity create more or less harm than the lost opportunity of preventing a lot of oil from entering coastal wetlands? The answer doesn't matter, because there was only one way the EPA was ever going to rule on this--their employees are easily able to duck blame for any damage from the spill, but they would be right on the firing line if even a single living creature was provably harmed by their allowing the dispersant to be utilized. Fear of blame for consequences of an action outweigh the opportunity costs of inaction every single time.

We see this again in this video, where school teachers and nurses in California argue that it is better to allow kids to die from their inaction than to take an action (e.g. dispense a life-saving medication)  that might have harmful consequences.


  1. John Moore:

    The BP spill cleanup effort showed how well environmentalists have been able to tie the country in regulatory knots. I suspect a lot of those bureaucrats would have been happy to waive the rules - but they couldn't without suffering negative consequences, and probably, violating this or that law.

    In that sense, the picture of Lilliputians entangling Gulliver in threads comes to mind.

  2. rxc:

    This connundrum is common in government regulatory agencies, where the safest way to operate is to follow the rules and the precedents, and when the regulatee wants to do something creative or different, you just say no. "The process is your friend". Or else you ask for so much justification that is so difficult to develop that it is an effective no. Or you just sit on it and think about it till the requester goes away.

    This way of doing things does not move a society forward, however, because there are always some people who can think up better ways to do things, and they should not be stifled by bureaucratic crap. And it is important to have people in these regulatory agencies who have the ability to judge these new proposals and approve the ones that really are novel and good, while rejecting the ones that are dangerous hacks.

    To accomplish this, you need to pay good money to good people who understand the technology or the business involved, so that they can stick their heads out and take a risk or two. And then you don't get to complain about their salaries when some hack writer compares the salaries of a govt agency full of engineers with the salaries of fast food purveyors.

    Been there, done that.

  3. me:

    Just curious: when you get screwed over by a government agency, how do you react and what strategies have you found successful in the past?

  4. epobirs:

    As it turns out, the problem with the dispersant Corexit isn't toxicity. It wasn't ban for coastal use off the UK because of that. The issue is slipperiness. It was making creatures that adhere to rock fall off and die, not poisoning them directly. They still allow it for deepwater use where it cannot cause such a problem.

    So it seems the whole dispersant issue was much ado about nothing.

  5. ruralcounsel:

    Why do you think BP is now sitting on their hands waiting for "permission" to go ahead with the relief wells and "bottom kill"?

    The responsibility and blame will now fall on the Government officials, who either deny or permit BP to move forward.