Paul Von Ward, a resident of Lumpkin County wrote a book, Dismantling the Pyramid: Government by the People, more than 30 years ago. The following provides very interesting information about his book and his career.
The current U.S. situation weighs heavily on my mind. With our nation’s economic difficulties (including the Herculean challenge of avoiding a national bankruptcy), political deadlocks at many levels, and questions about the integrity of major institutions, I believe everyone, regardless of profession or job, should apply some intellect and social skills to the solutions.
Most of you know me for my interdisciplinary, historical/scientific/spiritual books and articles over the past 15 years. But some know about my first book (Dismantling the Pyramid: Government by the People) written 30 years ago, and now out of print, and have asked if it’s still relevant.
Here’s an abbreviated story of how that book came about and why many of its conclusions are still relevant today. I want to describe the personal part of the story not because I’m proud of it (in fact, I failed to use for the common good many of the opportunities I had), but because I believe all of us gain insights along the way that can be useful later on.
More than 50 years ago I became a part of our government and political system. As young Congressional interns in Washington, Bob Graham (later Governor and U.S. Senator) and I represented Florida in a new, 1959 training program. We met President Eisenhower and Senator John Kennedy among others. We interns learned how our Congressmen responded to their constituents needs, at least enough to insure their re-election. We also witnessed the early stages of a growing, pernicious cadre of corporate and special-interest-group lobbyists arriving in Washington (and had dinner with some).
(Today that cadre is literally the 4th branch of the American government. This “institution” is crucial to the success or failure of a bipartisan deficit reduction strategy to keep the United States from going bankrupt. The leaders of the President’s commission confronting the challenge released their draft ideas last weeks. The resulting furor stimulated in all parts of society motivated me to write about my view that the problem cannot be solved by those who created it.)
Back to the story, returning to Florida State University, I continued my youthful interest in student and local politics, but then felt drawn to some sort of national service. The following year I voted for the John Kennedy who inspired me attending his Senate committee hearings. As so many thousands of others like me, I was inspired by his challenge to “do for the nation.” With Vietnam a dim image on the horizon, I aborted my doctoral plans in psychology, took a masters degree, and enrolled in the U.S. Navy’s officer candidate school. After three-and-a-half years of active duty, with a pending assignment to command a “Swift Boat” on the Mekong, President Johnson appointed me along with a couple of dozen 20-somethings as new Foreign Service Officers.
As the intern from rural Northwest Florida I was a very naive idealist. But much of what I learned in the next 30 years can be found in Dismantling the Pyramid. It was written in 1980, the year I resigned from my FSO position in the U.S. State Department, frustrated in my efforts to do the job I had both chosen and had been assigned to. Our federal institutions were out-of-step with our nation’s desired destiny then, and have only gotten worse since. I saw this decline in governmental integrity and its increase in self-protection and self-perpetuation continue from my private non-profit work for 15 years in D.C.
I was dismayed by experiences in what we called the “iron triangles” that benefit all the players: government employees, Congressmen/women and their staffs, and the corporate/non-profit private sector. Working in synch, we established mutually reinforcing flows of power and funding regardless of their benefit or irrelevance to society’s most pressing needs. This doesn’t mean all is wasted, but large hunks of it only benefit a few. But, back to the narrative.
For the State Department I served in four overseas assignments, but the part of my work relevant to this email was in Washington. A few senior officials in State and the Civil Service Commission wanted to stimulate a movement to reform the way “inside Washington” worked. They (more women than men) believed a few public servants with research on human psychology and organizational theory, with strong political leadership, could make “Washington” leaner and more effective. They hoped some rising young officers in different departments, with outside professional advice, could be catalysts for reform.
As part of that initiative, I was sent to Harvard University’s MPA program to study research on government reform and work with scholars who might serve in advisory roles as our reform initiatives got under way. The efforts we undertook and their results (basically, lack thereof) would take up too much space in this friendly email. Suffice it to say, our reform strategies did not succeed.
(I need to make it clear that many individual government employees are dedicated public servants who also recognize the problems described here, and do their best to be responsible. Most elected and appointed officials start with high ideals, but the system conditions people to perform to keep their perks.)
While I think change can “start” from inside, I still believe, as I did in 1980, that the needed reform of our overblown, deadlocked, national government cannot succeed unless the President and the Congress are shown the direction by a “deeply-rooted consensus” of fired-up citizens from all levels of society. In Dismantling the Pyramid, I proposed a nationwide movement known as the Committees of Correspondence (based on Samuel Adams’ idea of cooperation among the 13 colonies to create a confederation that led to our independence as a nation). One like the initial Tea Party movement had such potential. But the citizens movement that our nation needs cannot have the financial backing of corporate and financial interests who benefit from controlling the outcome.
It is the “civil society” that must insure government officials at all levels see themselves as more responsible to the overall public interest than to their bureaucratic and political bosses or special-interest groups. This kind of a civic-minded government, with the public’s best interest at heart, had been the objective of our Civil Service System created in 1872 (and subsequent legislation) to replace the “spoils system.” In the old system government employees supported the politicians who arranged for their jobs. The Civil Service goal was that all except a few appointed officials would fulfill their responsibilities based on professional merit and would remain apolitical. Human nature, inside and outside government, has made that goal unattainable.
Since the 1900s we have only added new layers of bureaucracy on increasing fragmentation of government functions. As new programs are added, old ones are left to their own devices with regular tax-payer transfusions to keep them alive. No one ever applies public tests of continuing relevance or effectiveness. Officials are afraid to prioritize to make sure pressing new programs replace out-dated offices and staffs. They simply ask Congress for more money for all. Keeping these outmoded or low priority functions continues because each has special interest groups lobbying along side federal staff going up Capitol Hill.
After WW-II several initiatives were taken to reduce its size and revitalize the federal bureaucracy by eliminating unnecessary jobs and wasteful programs. The 1947-48 Hoover Commission made an unsuccessful effort. Subsequently, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon initiated abortive government reforms. Jimmy Carter was the last President who attempted (tepidly and failed) to address the kinds of fundamental problems that produce bureaucratic bloat and overly expensive programs. Since then Presidents have little influence over an over-weaning bureaucracy, a deep-pockets lobby, and partisanship that mobilizes the Congress. This special-interest system produces national laws and administrative regulations that directly benefit their financial backers.
My view on this problem goes back to a cost-saving project I was given as a young officer in the U.S. Navy and similar research in my Washington jobs during the 1970’s. It was reinforced by 15 years work and lobbying in the Washington private sector that largely depends on the government. I came to the conclusion that about 30% of the personnel and administrative resources of every department was simply wasted. And this does not include the findings of recent inspectors-general reports on egregious waste in defense and other agency contracts in wars, overseas programs, and domestic programs. Keep in mind that what auditors call waste is really money in the pockets of corporations and contractors who in turn donate part of it to Congressional campaigns.
The results are departments and agencies focused on self-preservation. Overlapping responsibilities and strong fiefdoms are literally unmanageable. Nobody is really in charge. To avoid rocking the boat, everyone takes the easy way out. This overly-expensive government, particularly given its tawdry benefits to the general public, pays a behind-the-moat bureaucracy, largely directed by surrogates who stand the financial backers who elected them. Thus, we have created a self-perpetuating institution that we call Washington Government. Its implicit purpose is to maintain its octopus-like arms as mechanisms to convert and re-allocate large percentages of the nation’s common resources (its human labor, nature’s riches, and citizens’ creativity) to a small percentage of U.S. citizens and international corporations. This process includes not only the transfer of general tax revenue. Even more important is the use (or non-use) of regulatory power to economically favor certain groups, particularly the largely amoral financial and corporate sectors.
These modern-day elites are much like the self-centered, parasitic lords and ladies who surrounded the kings and queens of old Europe. They will betray others and their own integrity to keep their “royal” and financial status. To avoid something like the French Revolution, a few goodies are annually given to poor parts of the electorate that make them feel they get something for their passive support for the status quo through automatic voting or not voting at all.
However, no one can now stay behind personally comfortable walls with people like ourselves and ask someone else — politicians and other “leaders” — to solve the problems that we all let fester, thinking we were immune to catastrophes that only affected others. The cooperation and compromises we need to change Washington will not happen until “we the people” demonstrate that it can be done in our local communities. Wherever we live, we must model it.
Only private citizens can develop a new consensus about the future role of America in the world and its collective responsibility for the use of our common heritage to benefit all Americans and the world at large. All of us must learn again that when a singular government attempts to become the central orchestrator of a complex society, and also distorts its laws to benefit the few, it will kill “the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
Best wishes for your initiatives in your community. When they flourish, they will connect with other ideas and create the consensus for a new America, Paul
Paul Von Ward