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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Reading List: The Weed Agency

Geraghty, Jim. The Weed Agency. New York: Crown Forum, 2014. ISBN 978-0-7704-3652-0.
During the Carter administration, the peanut farmer become president, a man very well acquainted with weeds, created the Agency of Invasive Species (AIS) within the Department of Agriculture to cope with the menace. Well, not really—the agency which occupies centre stage in this farce is fictional but, as the author notes in the preface, the Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds, the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, the Federal Interagency Committee on Invasive Terrestrial Animals and Pathogens, and the National Invasive Species Council of which they are members along with a list of other agencies, all do exist. So while it may seem amusing that a bankrupt and over-extended government would have an agency devoted to weeds, in fact that real government has an entire portfolio of such agencies, along with, naturally, a council to co-ordinate their activities.

The AIS has a politically appointed director, but the agency had been run since inception by Administrative Director Adam Humphrey, career civil service, who is training his deputy, Jack Wilkins, new to the civil service after a frustrating low-level post in the Carter White House, in the ways of the permanent bureaucracy and how to deal with political appointees, members of congress, and rival agencies. Humphrey has an instinct for how to position the agency's mission as political winds shift over the decades: during the Reagan years as American agriculture's first line of defence against the threat of devastation by Soviet weeds, at the cutting edge of information technology revolutionising citizens' interaction with government in the Gingrich era, and essential to avert even more disastrous attacks on the nation after the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Humphrey and Wilkins are masters of the care and feeding of congressional allies, who are rewarded with agency facilities in their districts, and neutralising the occasional idealistic budget cutter who wishes to limit the growth of the agency's budget or, horror of horrors, abolish it.

We also see the agency through the eyes of three young women who arrived at the agency in 1993 suffused with optimism for “reinventing government” and “building a bridge to the twenty-first century”. While each of them—Lisa, hired in the communications office; Jamie, an event co-ordinator; and Ava, a technology systems analyst—were well aware that their positions in the federal bureaucracy were deep in the weeds, they believed they had the energy and ambition to excel and rise to positions where they would have the power to effect change for the better.

Then they began to actually work within the structure of the agency and realise what the civil service actually was. Thomas Sowell has remarked that the experience in his life which transformed him from being a leftist (actually, a Marxist) to a champion of free markets and individual liberty was working as a summer intern in 1960 in a federal agency. He says that after experiencing the civil service first-hand, he realised that whatever were the problems of society that concerned him, government bureaucracy was not the solution. Lisa, Jamie, and Ava all have similar experiences, and react in different ways. Ava decides she just can't take it any more and is tempted by a job in the middle of the dot com boom. Her experience is both entertaining and enlightening.

Even the most obscure federal agency has the power to mess up on a colossal scale and wind up on the front page of the Washington Post and the focus of a congressional inquest. So it was to be for the AIS, when an ill wind brought a threat to agriculture in the highly-visible districts of powerful members of congress. All the bureaucratic and political wiles of the agency had to be summoned to counter the threat and allow the agency to continue to do what such organisations do best: nothing.

Jim Geraghty is a veteran reporter, contributing editor, and blogger at National Review; his work has appeared in a long list of other publications. His reportage has always been characterised by a dry wit, but for a first foray into satire and farce, this is a masterful accomplishment. It is as funny as some of the best work of Christopher Buckley, and that's about as good as contemporary political humour gets. Geraghty's plot is not as zany as most of Buckley's, but it is more grounded in the political reality of Washington. One of the most effective devices in the book is to describe this or that absurdity and then add a footnote documenting that what you've just read actually exists, or that an outrageous statement uttered by a character was said on the record by a politician or bureaucrat.

Much of this novel reads like an American version of the British sitcom Yes Minister (Margaret Thatcher's favourite television programme), and although the author doesn't mention it in the author's note or acknowledgements, I suspect that the master civil servant's being named “Humphrey” is an homage to that series. Sharp-eyed readers will discover another oblique reference to Yes Minister in the entry for November 2012 in the final chapter.

Posted at June 10, 2014 17:04