Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Remember the Bureaucrats!

Bureaucrats are a much maligned group of people. The very epithet "bureaucrats" implies a cabal of dimwitted yes-men and yes-women who shuffle around the offices of the land to frustrate the dreams and aspirations of honest Americans and other people who "work for a living."

An acquaintance of mine, for example, recently referred to the entrenched interest represented by "bureaucrats" in the healthcare industry that might frustrate any meaningful healthcare reform. By his characterization, "bureaucrats" are common killjoys who out of petty selfishness play a key role in denying necessary and salubrious reforms.

I demur from this common characterization. Many, probably most, of the "bureaucrats" are honest, hardworking people who are trying to make a living. They might, if they're fortunate, make about, say, $15 an hour and have reasonably good benefits. If so, they are relatively well off; by "relatively" I mean in relation to the large number of people who earn even lower wages and who are closer to the poverty line. $15 an hour is fine if one is single and has no debts, but it can be quite pressing if that person is a parent and has to support children. There are a small number of people called "bureaucrats" who earn much more: these include accountants, underwriters, etc. Still, while they're more comfortable than the $15/hr folks, they are not (usually) milking it rich. There are a large number of office temps and part-timers who make $9 an hour, or even less, often without benefits. Again, if they are single and in relatively good health and have no children, they might be able to get by, but aren't necessarily able to get ahead, at least not in their present situation. If they have children or chronic health problems, the situation for them can be much more dire.

Now, bureaucracy has a lot of problems, and nobody comes off clean. The "petty bureaucrat" who works for an HMO is playing some sort of role in the perpetuation of an industry that many people find inefficient and constricting. But advocates for healthcare reform, like my acquaintance who I mention above, might at least recognize that eliminating HMO's will put some people out of work, and those people are not necessarily the mythical "fat cats" who are getting rich off of others' problems.

Finally, I'm not saying other people don't work as hard as or harder than most office workers. Office work has its advantages--it's generally safer, air conditioned or central heated, and in practice (despite the rhetorical excesses of the ant-"bureaucrats") generally given more respect on a day to day basis than a lot of manual labor--but it is not the promised land of jobs and center of privilege that others make it out to be.

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