I have become over the years a connoisseur of the bureaucratic mind. I love to watch it operate, its inexorable and sometimes magnificent progress toward ends that range from trivial to malevolent. It provides all of the pleasures of observing a natural disaster or man-made catastrophe without (usually without) the body count. Needless to say, I do not enjoy interacting with it myself, but my inner libertarian never tires of saying, I told you so.
I recently was treated to an outstanding example of the genre. Traffic was snarled up on a busy thoroughfare in Houston, in part because one lane of traffic was blocked by a truck. The truck was a water truck, and workers were using that truck to water trees planted in openings in the sidewalk of a commercial district. Of course public agencies must plant trees: If private citizens were permitted to plant trees in sidewalks, then we surely would suffer terribly from variety rather than enjoy the comforts of conformity. And, because the public sector plants the trees, the public sector must maintain the trees.
It is impossible to imagine, even for the sake of argument, that driving through the car-choked urban streets of a city enduring some of the nation’s worst traffic with water trucks is the most efficient means of delivering water to trees. It the sort of thing that just might barely make sense in a desert city such as Las Vegas or Phoenix; given that Houston enjoys (“enjoys”) a humid subtropical climate in which the nearby Gulf of Mexico dumps about 50 inches of rain into the city annually (about the same amount of rainfall as Miami Beach receives) it isn’t clear that doing that is necessary at all, but doing it during the middle of the day, when there is a great deal of traffic, rather than at night, when there is not, borders on hostility.
So: The armies of bureaucracy blocking up traffic to water trees out of water trucks in a generally sopping wet subtropical city — big deal.
Except: This was actually happening in the rain.
That, for me, was really the kicker: the placid, stoic, cow-eyed fellow trundling out of his truck in his rain hat, shielding his face against the rain, to hose down trees during a rainstorm, in a city whose main weather-related problem is flooding. I really hope he was being paid $40 an hour. In fact, I stopped to inquire about the project, but the fellow with the truck parked in the middle of the thoroughfare waved me off with some annoyance: “You can’t stop here.”
In the spring and summer of 2007, rain fell upon at least some part of Houston every single day for four months. But the local authorities will see to it that water from water trucks is poured upon trees during rainstorms — that is why those who would merely reform public agencies, rather than strangle them to death, will in the end be forever frustrated.