The Soviet comrade tours Washington, D.C.

I spent Saturday giving a tour of Washington, D.C. to a woman who retired from a career spent as a Soviet comrade and currently lives in Moscow. She loved the streets-paved-with-gold look of the city and the museums and provided some unique reactions, e.g., after seeing the Lincoln Memorial she noted “This is much larger and more grand than Lenin’s Tomb.”  Comrade Tourist was particularly awestruck by the size of the buildings housing federal agencies, especially when I explained to her that all of them had long outgrown their D.C. headquarters and now had much larger facilities in the suburbs or in other cities.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

  • What’s that huge building?
  • The Department of Energy. They have a budget of about $30 billion.
  • Energy? They are responsible for generating all of the electric power in the U.S.?
  • Uh, no. They don’t run any powerplants. They run a couple of research labs and… well I’m not sure what they do with the rest of the money.
  • What’s that huge building?
  • The Department of Education. They have a budget of about $90 billion.
  • So they run the schools here in America?
  • No. They don’t run any schools, develop any textbooks, or teach anyone.
  • Wow. What about this building?
  • Department of Agriculture. They also have the building across Independence Avenue, connected by the bridge. Their budget is about $150 billion per year.
  • Such a big building! They work to make farmers more efficient so that food prices will be lower?
  • Actually, no, they pay farmers to leave fields idle, restrict imports, and enforce cartels so that food prices stay higher than they would in a free market.
  • How can poorer Americans afford the high food prices then?
  • The same agency runs a program to give food stamps to about 50 million Americans.

By the end of the afternoon Comrade Tourist, whose conversational English is not great but who has been reading our news magazines, said “Everyone in this city is a taker. There are no makers.”

10 thoughts on “The Soviet comrade tours Washington, D.C.

  1. I don’t know about the other Fed agencies, but I have had direct dealings with the Dept. of Energy (DOE) for years. It is true that the DOE does not directly run any power plants. But most people are surprised to learn that one of the biggest things DOE does is manage everything having to do with nuclear weapons in the US except for actual deployment. Nuclear weapon design, simulation, production of fissionable material (and disposal of radioactive byproducts), construction, storage, security, and reliability are directly DOE’s responsibility, as is the monitoring (both overt and covert) of nuclear weapon related activity outside the US.

    The US Govt. decided in 1946 under the Atomic Energy Act to put control over nuclear weapons production, storage, and security into the hands of a civilian agency (the old Atomic Energy Commission, which morphed into the DOE in 1977) rather than in military hands. I for one think this was a very wise decision — and one that the military has strongly supported over the years.

    According to its public 2011 figures, DOE budgeted $10.5B of its $27B total budget for nuclear weapons related programs. Another $10.6B went to energy and environment — safety and regulation of the nation’s power plants, management and maintenance of the grid, funding potential “clean” and renewable energy technologies, etc. The publicly pilloried Solyndra investment came from this pot.

    $4.9B went to funding science research ranging from particle physics (DOE supplies the operating funds for nearly all US physicists working at the CERN particle collider) to basic materials science. These investments have contributed to the invention of the World Wide Web (invented at CERN as a way to allow physicists all over the world to easily access the enormous amounts of data generated there) and the Li-ion battery that now powers everyone’s mobile devices.

  2. 1) Department of Energy: Try just this one little thing—regulate nuclear energy. That’s why we don’t have a vast area of the US shut off for 10,000 years, like they do in Chernobyl. Then there is solar energy and geothermal energy support.
    2)Department of Education–Among other things, this department provide student loans (pell grants), oversee government guaranteed student loans (Sallie Mae) and regulate private student loans. Oversee accrediting agencies for colleges. Oversees No child Left Behind. Assures civil rights in education. Oversees special education services. Oversees the private vocational school system, a system notorious for consumer fraud.
    3) Agriculture—How sad that you think this is all about price supports. How do poorer Americans afford food? Our system provides the most affordable and safest food in the world because USDA supports research and testing. It also oversees food stamps, which help the poorest families purchase food.
    4) Going down that same avenue–How about the Department of Justice, that ensures that Americans enjoy rights this “comrade” doesn’t have at home? Or the FTC which ensures that Americans can trust the claims that companies make about the products they advertise and the companies “play fair” in the market? How about the Commerce Department, which supports US companies selling overseas and make sure that those importing products here follow our rules?
    There are lots of “makers” in Washington. But this poor comrade had a terrible guide who did not understand what goes on in the buildings he showed his guests.

  3. Judith: It does sound like those government workers are doing amazing work. Imagine how much more good they could do if government in our country were 100 percent of GDP instead of only 40+ percent!

    USDA provides “the most affordable and safest food in the world”? I am recently back from Argentina where a high-quality grass fed steak in the supermarket costs about $2 per lb. (compared to about $15 per lb. here). Department of Justice ensures that we have more rights than everyone else in the world? Certainly there are more Americans exercising their right to free housing and food… shows that the U.S. has the world’s highest rate of imprisonment. Thank God for the Department of Education. I remember that before its creation during Jimmy Carter’s administration (i.e., more than 200 years since the founding of the republic) Americans could not read, write, or do anything other than circle around grunting like the apes at the beginning of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey [actually, I think since the creation of the Department of Education, the U.S. has slipped from first place to near the bottom, among wealthy nations, in educational attainment). As for the DOE and its regulations preventing unfortunate Chernobyl-style accidents, I would love to hear how supports that theory.

  4. Very good post. Most people don’t realize that the rampant government growth leads to atrocious waste, higher taxes, lower flexibility for those who want to do business etc. They just take the simplistic view that being against huge government means you’re in favor of no government and that with no government we would not have X or Y (NASA or “lead in my child’s food” come up frequently in this type of arguments) so rather than that it’s better to have an ever growing government.

  5. Phil: Your snarky attempt at a counterexample with Three Mile Island (TMI) only reinforces Judith’s point in regard to DOE, “That’s why we don’t have a vast area of the US shut off for 10,000 years, like they do in Chernobyl.”

    Dauphin County, PA, where the TMI plant is located, is not a radioactive wasteland like the Exclusion Zone surrounding Chernobyl. Even the accident’s “ground zero” – the TMI nuclear plant itself – is a normal work area with one reactor (TMI-1) in operation (the accident occurred in reactor TMI-2). While there are anecdotal stories to the contrary, the major epidemiological studies done found no statistically significant link between the TMI accident and possible radiation-induced illnesses or deaths in Dauphin County.

    The fact is, no amount of regulation or oversight can reduce the probability of an accident to exactly zero, so it is completely unreasonable to expect DOE to prevent all accidents. Given the vast difference in practical aftermath between TMI and Chernobyl, one could say that DOE (or its predecessor, the NRC back then) did a credible job containing the accident once it did happen, cleaning it up, and learning how not to let the same thing happen again. I shudder to imagine what would have happened if TMI’s for-profit corporate owners had been free to deal with the accident in whatever manner they felt would maximize quarterly profits.

    I am of the opinion that regulating the power utility industry and the nuclear weapons complex is a proper and necessary function of the Federal government. Yes, it can get expensive, but it’s infinitely better than Chernobyl or having bomb-grade plutonium on the black market.

    I am curious as to what your alternative would be to having DOE do the regulation and oversight? Let the power utility industry and the nuclear weapons complex be unregulated or self-policing? Like what happens on Wall Street (which suffers from a market disaster every 5 to 8 years) or in China (where a government sanctioned hell-bent-for-profit attitude literally poisons the Beijing air)? I don’t have that kind of faith in unregulated capitalism.

  6. “Try just this one little thing—regulate nuclear energy. That’s why we don’t have a vast area of the US shut off for 10,000 years, like they do in Chernobyl.” <= Yeah – if only they'd had bureaucrats and regulations in the old USSR, the whole disaster could have been avoided.

  7. Mark, Steve: I probably shouldn’t even have responded to the Chernobyl comparison. My Russian visitor was not comparing the U.S. to Russia, so really this discussion is not related to the original posting, which is about how someone with limited experience with the U.S. and limited English goes about understanding how our federal government works.

  8. Well, then, getting back to the original posting, in the Soviet Union the means of production were owned by the government. A person living in the Soviet Union (when it existed) who had never learned about any other economic systems could conceivably have asked those questions.

    The story is like taking a 6-year-old to Daddy’s office.

    “This is our factory floor. This is where I work. All these people are making an airplane. Here are the offices. That man is our accountant. As you can see, he is very busy adding numbers with his computer. And here is the office of our president. He has the highest salary of everyone here.”
    “Nobody is in the office. Where is the president?”
    “He is hardly ever in the office. He travels often.”
    “Does he help make airplanes in the factory?”
    “Does he work with spreadsheets like the accountant?”
    “Does he write a lot of letters and emails?”
    “No, his administrative assistant does that.”
    “Does he design the airplanes?”
    “No, our engineers do that.”
    “Does he go around selling airplanes to people?”
    “No, our sales department does that.”
    “So he is a taker, not a maker.”

  9. Mark: As a shareholder in the S&P 500, whose constituent companies may pay $10-100 million per year to a CEO despite lackluster performance, I would say that your fictitious 6-year-old is on to something.

    More telling, I think, is that you equate the bureaucrats in federal agencies with the CEOs of private companies. This is kind of like Obama’s “You didn’t build that” philosophy. Tens of millions of Americans believe that the top of every management chain is or should be a federal government worker in D.C. (perhaps the Great Father in the White House himself). This goes back to my point during the 2012 election that what most voters want is a centrally planned economy (see ) and our politicians have responded by delivering!

  10. food would be cheaper without the ag dept controls. TONS of food is with-held from the market to prop up prices. wrt education why can’t the treasury just write checks like they do for tax refunds? right now dept of ed asks treasury for money, then sends that money to schools on behalf of students. wouldn’t it be cheaper to just give every hs graduate cash?

    $90b/3.4m = $26470.59/grad ( in-state college education costs about half that, so give 50% to hs grads each year for 4 years, then give other half to k-12 students for vouchers.

    if the gop wasn’t the stupid party they could win the 18-30 vote. straight cash homie!

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