Rod Dreher

I finally got around last weekend to listening to a recent This American Life broadcast about the NUMMI plant. Here’s the promo text:

Host Ira Glass introduces the story of the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., aka NUMMI. In 1984, General Motors and Toyota opened NUMMI as a joint venture. Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system: how it made cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM achieved. But today, GM cars still don’t have the quality of Japanese imports, GM is bankrupt and on March 31, NUMMI will be closed, sending thousands of car workers looking for jobs. In this hour-long story, NPR Automotive Correspondent Frank Langfitt tells the story of NUMMI and why GM – and the rest of the American car business – wasn’t able to learn from it more quickly.

The whole broadcast was engrossing; you can download it at that link for 99 cents, or get it for free on iTunes. You won’t be sorry. Even if you don’t care about automobile manufacturing, the story it tells about institutional culture is applicable just about anywhere — and it ought to give us pause before we decide that decentralization (which I generally favor) is a universal solution.
Why? Because even though the NUMMI plant was a roaring success in its day, GM as an institution didn’t learn lessons from it. The NUMMI culture and production style was very different from the GM model which had resulted in such lousy cars for so long. It broke the management model, and broke the labor model too. Result: a better workforce, a happier workforce, and top-quality cars. But NUMMI worked by destroying old, outmoded ways of doing business, and because of that, threatened established interests throughout the corporation, on both management and labor sides. Pushing through reform along NUMMI lines became impossible with the weight of the bureaucracy against it, as the story goes. Interestingly, it was the vastness of GM, and its decentralization that made it impossibly difficult to challenge parochial power centers in far-flung plants. Everybody could see, or should have been able to see, that things couldn’t go on as they were, but nobody was willing to give up their own privileges … even though should the company go belly-up, they’d lose everything.
And now we know how that turned out.
After the program, I thought about how the GM situation might be helpful to understanding why the Roman Catholic Church has struggled so much to deal with the sex abuse scandal over the years. One misconception lots of people outside the RC Church have about how it works is to think that whatever Rome and the Pope say, goes. For people of my disposition, that power in Roman ecclesiology is so centralized looks like a good thing, and a foundational bulwark against the kind of decay we’ve seen (from a traditionalist Christian perspective) in other churches. What I’ve long told them is that they’ll likely discover that their local parish is a far cry from what they might expect, because the Pope is in Rome, and Rome is a long way away from the local parish. The point is one about a large bureaucracy, and the limits of practical power in such an institutional structure. Yes, power is concentrated in Rome, but by the time it emanates out to the Church’s far-flung outposts, it can be greatly reduced. The bureaucracy and its local managers — bishops, priests and their permanent staff — are often de facto more powerful than the pope. And the permanent staff can be functionally more powerful than the bishop. This is the rationale behind that possibly apocryphal tale in which a radical feminist theologian is asked why she doesn’t just leave the Catholic Church if she finds it so oppressive. She answers, “Because this is where the copiers are.” Meaning that the power to change the institution meaningfully lies within learning how to manipulate the bureaucracy, usually by infiltrating it.
It is interesting to contemplate the degree to which the GM NUMMI experience can be observed within the Roman Catholic bureaucracy. In other words, even though it might well have been apparent that things had to change, few people within power centers throughout the bureaucracy would have wanted to change them. That’s no excuse for the central bureaucracy not trying, as John Paul failed to do, and Benedict is showing some signs of doing (and this is why I agree with Ross Douthat that the recent bishops’ resignations are actually good news for the Catholic Church). The point is, though, that it’s possible to have a situation in which vested interests farther down the line in the bureaucracy could resist the impulse to change, even if they grasp that things can’t continue on forever as they are.
I fear that this is the situation that we’re in regarding the U.S. government and its deficit spending. Everybody knows, or should, that we’re headed off the fiscal cliff in not too many years absent some pretty painful and serious changes. But nobody wants to make those changes; we want others to make them. So nothing changes. While it is true that the government bureaucracy is a different creature than a church bureaucracy or a corporate bureaucracy, I suspect that many of the same rules of bureaucratic behavior and social psychology apply.
Where does all this lead? Well, for someone like me, who believes as a general rule in decentralization, the NUMMI experience challenges the view that power should devolve to the local level. Why? Because for that to work, people at the local level have to believe in the mission of the organization more than in preserving their own privileges within it. That is, they have to put the mission of the organization over their own self-interest — and they have to believe that the mission of the organization isn’t to perpetuate the bureaucracy. You can easily see how the balance of power tipping too far out in the bureaucracy can bring the organization down. On the other hand, it’s also clear that keeping power too centralized has its own grave risks, if those who are closest to the ground, so to speak, aren’t listened to, or are marginalized.
Maybe it’s the case that some institutions simply aren’t built to carry on over the long haul, given human frailty and the way bureaucratic dead weight accrues over time, making adaptation to changing conditions difficult to impossible. Can anybody think of a contemporary model of bureaucratic governance, from the world of civil government, corporate government, or ecclesiastical government, that has proven itself to work fairly well? If so, why does it work that way?

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