What government hierarchies, DC traffic, and the human body all share

How did the Secret Service, originally started to surveil counterfeited mint, end up as the President’s personal security detail? And how did it end up in the Department of Homeland Security?

US President Barack Obama, surrounded by US Secret Service agents, walks to greet guests after arriving on Air Force One at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, New York on May 22, 2014. Obama is traveling to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, before attending Democratic fundraisers in Chicago. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

A friend posed this interesting series of questions to me. After dissecting the evolution of the agency, we turned to DC traffic and the human body. The topics have more to do with each other than you may think.

We can start answering my friends question by simply saying that no bureaucracy wants to lose a limb. So once a function is picked up, the bureaucrat that’s in charge is loath to let it out of his or her grasp.

In the half century after Lincoln designed the secret service as a counterfeit-attacking agency, they found themselves investigating all kinds of criminal activity. As one of the few agencies that wasn’t completely underfunded, the agency found itself in broader types of criminal investigation, as well as plots schemes, and all the other fun that DC is famous for. The agencies penchant for snooping soon found them tagged with the highest protection duty of the land—the White House.

As a near-police agency, the Secret Service was an easy target for the Department of Homeland Security’s tandem launch and land grab after 9/11. So, because no one ever decided to divide the security of the White House function from the counterfeit surveillance function, the nation’s foremost counterfeit investigators now reside within DHS.

That’s because bureaucracies are inherently rigid systems that adapt in odd ways.

I’m also a guy. True to the stereotype, change scares me. I do everything systematically. I have a system for how I change my shoes when I get to work and how I get the boogers out of my infant’s nose. My life is a big complex network of systems. I love systems!

systems

Systems are incredibly efficient at what they do—nearly no matter what it is they do. They routinize and streamline just about everything. Nine times out of ten, they work without a hiccup. If the time, heartache, etc. they save is greater than the time lost on the moments when things go haywire and you have to rethink your system once again (a thought process which has been bypassed for the previous nine times), then you’re golden. However, every system that has to be amended

However, I recognize the limits of systems. They’re rigid. In general, systems are bad at adapting. I wrote a past blog about how traffic systems are bad at adapting. They’re built for one use, and when traffic patterns change (which they always do), then the roads are left either unused or completely swamped.

The evolution of systems can lead them to become incredibly inefficient over time. Traffic patterns changing on rigid systems that require massive capital expenditures to change have a hard time adapting. Government agencies are constantly confronted with changes that can throw everything out of whack by challenging current protocol.

The question also brought to mind the human eye. Part of the reason so many of us have bad vision is because, frankly, the human eye kind of sucks. Why in God’s name would a flat surface try to fold itself around an air pocket inside your head?

eyeball

Well, it was probably originally designed as a flat photosensitive panel attached to a few nerves. But the bureaucracy of the eye quickly decided that it was capable of so much more, deserved so many more resources, and used the busted framework it had to make what could have been re-invented completely with a much better outcome. If we had immediately evolved eyes, they probably would have developed from a single speck, which would be less apt to warp over time and leave us with terrible myopia or worse.

The same goes for our blood vessels. They fill with plaque much more quickly than they would if the valves along them were closer together. However, most lines developed over a great amount of time. Because our nearest ancestors were much smaller and shorter than us, we’re still carrying around some antiquated cardiovascular hardware.

Point is—systems have a hard time adapting to new needs. Each system is working off of what is already in place, and the barriers to change can be huge. The human body has only a certain amount of variability in the expression and mutation of its genetic makeup. Urban traffic can’t cut through entire neighborhoods (unless you’re Shanghai) over and over again to connect the shortest distance between constantly shifting destinations. And governments have to contend with the history of their legal paradigms, which could go back centuries.

Systems require time to evolve to their most efficient means. That doesn’t mean that every effort shouldn’t be made to expedite progress, just that behind the scenes expectations should be dampened for good cause.

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