Do We Need a Commerce Department?

President Obama has just announced his nominee to be the next Secretary of the Commerce Department. In the WSJ‘s words: “President Barack Obama will nominate John Bryson, a senior adviser to the private-equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., to be his next commerce secretary.” The Journal continues:

Mr. Bryson, one of 20 senior advisers to KKR, is the former chairman and chief executive of Edison International, a publicly traded power company and the parent of Southern California Edison and Edison Mission Group. He also co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental-advocacy group, and has been a member of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change.

I had not heard of Mr. Bryson before this nomination. People who found “environmental-advocacy group[s]” make me a bit nervous—since such people are sometimes rather longer on the advocacy side than on the scientific side of policy—but I am sure he is an able and capable person.

My question instead is why he is needed at all. Why, in the twenty-first century, when we have a globally connected world with billions of trading partners making trillions (or more) non-centrally-coordinated decisions every day, do we have need for a person to oversee all of this? Does he believe that he will be able to make better decisions from atop his perch in Washington, DC about where people should allocate their scarce resources, which of the options they face are those of which they should avail themselves, which people, businesses, groups, companies, institutes, funds, and organizations should trade or associate with which, what they should trade, and on what terms they should associate, and so on, than the individuals and groups themselves would make?

According to the Journal, a White House official said: “The president is confident in Mr. Bryson’s ability to lead the department and promote job creation, economic growth, sustainable development and improved standards of living for all Americans by working in partnership with businesses, universities, communities and our nation’s workers.”

I confess I am rather skeptical that Mr. Bryson, however able he is, will contribute positively to any of those objectives. This is not an indictment of him personally; it is instead an indictment of the rather voluminously inflated estimation some seem to have of human beings’ ability to consciously design and coordinate large-scale human social institutions. Even if Mr. Bryson were literally the smartest person on the planet, his ability to “promote job creation, economic growth, sustainable development and improved standards of living for all Americans by working in partnership with businesses, universities, communities and our nation’s workers” would be orders of magnitude inferior to the ability to do those things of uncoordinated individuals and private parties acting in competitive markets.  

The Great Mind Fallacy, it would seem, strikes again.

I say cut not only this Secretary’s job, but the entire Commerce Department and its $8.8 billion budget. When we are more than $14 trillion in debt, it would have to have a rather astonishing rate of return on its investment to justify its continued existence. Given the systemic liabilities it faces, I am skeptical it meets that threshold.

One thought on “Do We Need a Commerce Department?

  1. The Commerce Dept. seems like one of the worst appendages of the federal government. It not only does not give value for money, but it’s actively engaged in harm (trying to redirect sales and revenues toward favored businesses).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s