Why Civil Servants Love Debt

This week, we've invited Strong Towns members to respond to a series of questions on Nassim Taleb's book, AntifragileYou should really read the book (it's a big inspiration for Strong Towns thinking), but if you haven't, you'll still find it easy to jump in on these topics and conversations, based on the first four chapters of Antifragile.

The following response is David Moss's answer to this question: 

Taleb suggest that civil servants are fragile in that their opinion can do them great damage. If they speak up, they run the real risk of suffering harm. If true, what are the implications for the Strong Towns movement?

The Fragility of Civil Servants

Between the Civil War and the Great War, America prospered. Railroads stretched across frontiers, advanced technology brought us the telephone and the telegraph, and factories became efficient. America then turned its eyes to the efficient and professional management of cities, society, and leisure time.

Civil servants, alongside engineers and economists, were taught sophisticated methods for carefully controlling all aspects of civic life.

As part of Progressivism, Taylorism was introduced as scientific management of manufacturing, and this method of imposing efficiency using top-down planning was later applied to all things knowable. Civil servants, alongside engineers and economists, were taught sophisticated methods for carefully controlling all aspects of civic life. Each civil servant was assigned a specific role, one tool among many, for which he or she was rigorously trained. Civil servants implement Touristification one form at a time. 

Every critic of the Suburban Experiment knows that this twentieth-century efficiency did not produce the promised optimal environment. Not only are our towns fiscally fragile, but the resultant built environment is lacking in life, excitement, and energy. Any Black Swan, such as a natural disaster, or the failure of the main industry in town, or a rising crime epidemic, has been shown to destroy the fabric of these well-managed places. How did it all go wrong? How did all the planning and forethought fail to build antifragile towns? Jane Jacobs understood the problem 50 years ago that most civil servants today still cannot fathom: Cities happen to be problems in organized complexity, like the life sciences. They present, as Warren Weaver writes, "situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways." Cities, again like the life sciences, do not exhibit one problem in organized complexity, which, if understood, explains all. 

The primary fault of civil servants is the false belief that they can explain it all, solve it all, fix it all.

So the primary fault of civil servants is the false belief that they can explain it all, solve it all, fix it all. They believe that they can control it all. That the perfect system can be built. That they can create an efficient system that controls all variables. Every little stressor and error will be corrected immediately and prevented from recurring.

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes: "Redundancy is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens." Civil servants jealously guard public funds to be used as efficiently and frugally as possible. They accept only the lowest bid. They don’t allow any overshoot, any overcompensation. Not a single extra dollar should be spent to create a redundant or robust system that might accommodate more than previously specified. They know ahead of time the exact final design as they build that new road or that new civic center. Unless local government can show the strictest fiscal management and the best opportunities for steady revenue streams, the banks will string them up in front of their neighbors with the appellation "Not worthy of AAA+++ ratings!" 

Civil Servants and Municipal Debt

Civil servants favor issuing municipal debt over pay-as-you-go funding from current revenue, because a large capital project needs a steady stream of funding. Revenue varies from year-to-year, and without security of knowing that future revenue will be there to supply the needed funds for the project, these fragilistas are unwilling to embark on a project out of fear of uncertainty and randomness. Issuing debt and getting the money now ensures that future variability won’t affect the building of the project, regardless of whether it affects the repayment of the debt. Eliminating uncertainty from the revenue stream by saddling future generations with municipal debt cannot be questioned by a civil servant without introducing uncertainty into their future revenue stream, because they will be out of a job.

Civil servants at the federal level are the most fragile of the bunch, with their four weeks of annual vacation and job security in their golden jails. Civil servants at the local level are less fragile, and eye contact plays a role. Because the local civil servant enjoys fewer perks associated with his golden jail and knows that he might run into you at the Piggly Wiggly, he receives less of a payoff for treating you like a washing machine.

Here at Strong Towns, our mission is to advocate for a model of development that allows America's cities, towns, and neighborhoods to grow financially strong and resilient. We strong citizens seek financial strength while civil servants jealousy guard their economic reputation in order to secure better terms for the debt that they believe will make them stronger. Because civil servants are dependent upon the system, they cannot risk embracing any philosophy that questions how well that system is managed, lest they lose the perks of their golden jails. Victims of Stockholm Syndrome, these civil servants, held captive and indoctrinated, have come to love and trust the system. They will defend this system, no matter how fragile. Strong citizens must always be wary of this endless dedication and meet it with equal vigor and rigor.

How would you respond to the question of civil servants?
Share your thoughts in the comments.

(Top graphic by Matthias Leyrer)

About the author

David Moss, PP, AICP, is a civil servant, currently working as a transit planner with the MTA in New York City. Dave previously worked for a planning consulting firm in New Jersey, working on comprehensive plans, redevelopment plans, urban design, and zoning. Dave also worked for two local governments in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, focusing on land use, zoning, and the regional impacts of Base Realignment and Closure. Dave is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and a licensed Professional Planner in the state of New Jersey. Dave received his Master’s in planning from Auburn University.

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