Thursday, February 14, 2013

Tooth-to-tail ratio and sequestration

I have a fondness for military terminology. People in the US military often invents phrases that are memorable, accurate, and evocative. One of them is 'tooth-to-tail ratio'. It describes the proportion of combat troops (teeth) to support troops (tail).

The concept can be applied to many organizations. Very often, there is an identifiable group of people doing the 'front-line' work and a separate group supporting and directing them. For example, in education, the teachers are the teeth and the administrators are the tail. In health care, doctors and nurses are teeth and everyone else is the tail. In the USDA, the inspectors are the teeth and the people in Washington are the tail.

Teeth do need a tail to function. A pile of teeth without something holding them together is rarely effective at anything. But we often see a process of 'administrative bloat' where the tail keeps getting bigger and bigger without doing much to make the teeth more effective.

This is an inevitable outcome of human nature. People making decisions will instinctively try to help and protect themselves and the people they care about. Often, the people in the tail are combined in a single location and are socially connected, while the teeth are scattered about. This makes the process even harder to stop, because the prejudices of the people in the tail will reinforce each other and the knowledge of the teeth can get ignored. The administrators convince themselves that they are essential and all need more support staff, and the problems of the teeth start to seem as remote as the problems of poor children in Mali.

Competitive markets prevent tails from getting too fat. Any organization with a bloated tail will not last long, because someone else will steal away their customers by selling access to the teeth at a better rate. But if customers have no real choice, or the organization's budget is determined by a process that does not involve customers, there is little to stop the tail from fattening itself endlessly. This is most likely to happen in government agencies.

When budget cuts hit, the rational thing to do is almost always to cut the tail. It is very rate to see any kind of organization where there are too many teeth for the tail to support and cutting the teeth lets them bite more effectively. But the tail will always attempt to respond to budget cuts by cutting out teeth rather than let itself shrink. And because one of the functions of the tail is to manage the organization's money, it will get what it wants unless there is a lot of outside force to compel it to act otherwise.

With public agencies, there is an additional perverse incentive. Everyone in the organization, both teeth and tail, will want to increase the organization's budget. The way to do this is to convince everybody that cutting the budget would result in a disaster. Claiming that the teeth will fall out if the beast is starved will often result in the beast getting the food it wants. And for the reasons described above, this is a credible threat. The tail will actually prefer to cut out the teeth, and everyone knows it.

With that in mind, consider the recent news story that The USDA is claiming that sequestration will force it to furlough food safety inspectors.

Anyone with any knowledge of the USDA knows that this ridiculous. The Food Safety and Inspection Service is a tiny part of UDSA's budget. Most of their money goes to programs that promote US agriculture and farmers' interests rather than food safety. There are literally dozens of programs that could be cut that are less important than food inspection. Their tooth-to-tail ratio is already miniscule. Inspectors are mainly independent, working on their own in meat plants. They are probably capable of doing their jobs perfectly well for at least two weeks even if every other employee in the USDA was furloughed.

This announcement is a combination of political ploy and a self-serving tail. The potential budget cuts would not cause any decrease in food inspections if the organization was actually being run in the interests of the public. By comparison, the food side of FDA is not threatening to cut any food inspections or laboratory tests.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association rarely says anything worth listening to, but their quote in the linked article is worth repeating: USDA is "using America's cattlemen and women as pawns in the agency's political wrangling with Congress".

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