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People go back and forth on this: government is too big, government is too small. Well, if there is one thing that most people on Wall Street have in common, it is that almost none of them have worked in government. I have. I have an opinion on the size of government, for sure, but at least mine is an educated one.
So let me tell you a couple of government stories, leaving aside all the ones from the Coast Guard Academy (or maybe we will get to those later). So I graduate from the Academy, and I go to a ship. A white one. White ones do law enforcement. I was stationed in the Pacific Northwest. There are a lot of fish in the Pacific Northwest. At least, there used to be a lot of fish. Maybe we will get to that, too.
So I report aboard the cutter, and the first thing they do is make me Weapons Officer. I have a gunner’s mate working for me. Before long, he is scooped up by CGIS (yes, like NCIS) for being a bigamist. Well, it is not as bad as it sounds. He got drunk and got married, a second time, in a blackout.
Well, I suppose it could happen to anyone. This is really the beginning of the story, really, a story about a ship whose annual budget is $20 million a year, whose mission is law enforcement, that actually conducts very little law enforcement. We would go out to sea for 6-8 weeks at a time and typically board about 8-10 fishing vessels. Maybe we would board 50 a year, to the tune of $500,000 a boarding. This is leaving aside the fact that the law enforcement program was in shambles. The bulletproof vests were moldy and rotten, the weapons belts covered in salt, nobody was qualified to do anything (with the exception of guns, at least people were qualified with those), and nobody knew what the hell was going on.
Well, what they did was make me in charge of law enforcement on the ship. So I asked the Executive Officer for money (about $10,000) for new equipment. He said no. I started training boarding team members. I was discouraged from doing so. Nobody seemed to care that we didn’t do any boardings, and nobody seemed to care that the boardings we did were fraught with danger because the equipment was faulty and the law enforcement personnel were unqualified.
This is, of course, separate and distinct from the issue that we weren’t doing any boardings to begin with. Let me explain. The military (particularly the sea services) has zero tolerance for error, and therefore, zero tolerance for risk. If you are the commanding officer of a cutter, and you do a boarding, and someone gets hurt, your career is over. So the goal is to do as little law enforcement as possible.
So like I said, nobody was giving me any resources to do the thing that was the whole point of the existence of the barnacle barge to begin with. I found this to be (just a bit) confusing. Um, the taxpayers want us to enforce U.S. law at sea. We aren’t doing it. What, exactly, were we doing?
I’ll tell you what we were doing. We were doing the MLC (Maintenance and Logistics Command) Administrative Compliance Inspection. We would get underway, and most of what we spent our time doing was getting our files in order. I wish I was making this up. This is essentially what the MLC Administrative Compliance Inspection was all about, getting our files in order. You see, if we did poorly on the Administrative Compliance Inspection, it could cost the Commanding Officer a job. So we spent a lot of time (a lot of time) organizing our files. But we spent virtually zero time doing law enforcement. We would literally go out to sea to organize our files.
Now, as you know, the goal of any government entity, the ultimate goal, is to spend its entire budget. It is pointless to try and save money, because HQ is just going to shrink your budget next year, and if you return the money to the authorities, they are just going to give it to someone else, and it is going to get spent anyway. So what is the point? So every year, at the end of the year, it was a race to spend as much money as humanly possible. Most of it went to engineering equipment, nuts and bolts that would get delivered in boxes on the pier and would go down in the engineering storeroom, forever, never to be used (except as ballast).
Well, inevitably, there would be units who wouldn’t spend all their money, and that money would get redistributed to the fleet. This was called “fallout funds.” Like, money that falls from the sky (or grows on trees, or whatever). We were slated to receive about $9,000.
So I went to the XO and I told him that I wanted the fallout funds for law enforcement gear. I was in competition; everyone on the ship wanted the money for some pet project, none of which had to do with the actual mission of law enforcement. I did get my way; I talked him into giving me the money, and I got all new equipment, at a cost. Everyone on the ship was pissed, especially the engineers. I wasn’t too concerned about it, though. I took my law enforcement responsibilities seriously.
I worked very hard at it. I was constantly doing training on law enforcement techniques and fisheries regulations. Everyone thought I was really, really weird. My performance was not being evaluated on this at all. In fact, the XO would much rather that I spent my time doing things like organizing my files. I didn’t care. (It cost me, in the long run.)
My story is not unique.
Well, it didn’t take long before I decided that I had enough, and I went and applied to business school in the Bay Area. In order to go to business school in the Bay Area (part-time), I had to ensure that I got stationed in the Bay Area. So I applied for the worst job possible, put it at the top of my list: Pacarea Intel. Nobody cared about Intel at the time; it was a bunch of misfits who had ruined their careers (things have changed since then). I knew that I was going to be in competition with precisely nobody. I was right. I got the job.
This was the job where careers went to die. Many of my predecessors had gone on to get passed over for promotion to Lieutenant. The office had a horrible, horrible reputation for being a bunch of lazy idiots. So I showed up for my first day of work, and they told me that I was the fisheries analyst. Okay. What do I do? I don’t know, they said. Figure it out.
So I sat down at my empty desk. I came into work every day, and sat down at my empty desk. For a month. After a while, I decided that it was getting embarrassing and that I should do something. Keep in mind that I didn’t really have to do anything, because I was getting out of the Coast Guard, anyway. I could have worn a dress, like Klinger.
So I started learning about fish. One fish red fish blue fish two fish or however that goes. I got books and academic papers, and talked to scientists and fishermen and local law enforcement, like fish and game folks, and learned everything there was to know about fish in the Pacific. Once again, people thought I was nuts. Why do all this work, when you can sit around and stare at the wall?
My biggest project was High Seas Driftnet fishing (hereafter known as HSDN). HSDN fishing is a problem, supposedly, because the nets are made of monofilament (like fishing line) and basically kill everything in their path, like marine mammals. They were made illegal by international law, of all things, but as most things go with international law, it is left to the U.S. to enforce it.
So it was an open secret that these guys were still out there fishing (for salmon). How do you find a fishing boat in all of the Pacific? Well, you could go fly around the Pacific randomly, burning up a lot of JP-5, which is what they used to do. The fisheries intel guy before me did a tiny bit of work and narrowed down a few million square miles into a few hundred thousand square miles. He then spent three years strutting around the office like a peacock, even though he never caught anybody. All I heard about was how big a hero this guy was.
So after a lot of searching, I unearthed some dusty, obscure academic papers on salmon migration off the coast of Russia. I also learned what water temperature salmon liked and what salinity they liked. That information I could get from NOAA, and combined with the information from my research, I was able to take the couple hundred thousand square mile search area and narrow it down to a couple hundred square mile search area.
On the first flight, we found five of these guys. For this, I received a Commendation medal.
Paradoxically, I learned a lot from that experience. “Figure it out” are my three favorite words in the English language.
So that is my experience in government, in a nutshell. Oh sure, I have more stories (which I might share another time, how government single-handedly killed off dozens of species of fish on the West Coast, wasting billions of dollars in the process). The far right-wingers are fond of saying that government employees are evil. They are not. They are good people. But they are generally unhappy people, because nothing is expected of them, and left to their own devices, most people will stare at the wall if paid to do so. But what government is good at doing is preserving itself.
Furthermore, it likes to expand its missions. Preventing a violation of law at the expense of $500,000, it thinks it can do other things, and will do so, if given the resources. In fact, if given the resources, it will expand infinitely. Listen, folks, I worked there, so I have credibility. I can criticize it if I want to. And let me tell you, all the coffee break stereotypes that you hear, not only are they true, they are not true enough. But they are nice people. So be nice. They just like money for nothing, like most of the world.
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