Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Monday, August 30, 2004

The Business of Government

Let's run the government more like a business. Yeah. Right. Last time I heard this one, it was from Bill O'Reilly while debating Paul Krugman. It's unforgiveably ad hominem to tar that idea by association with a guy whose debating tactics amount to petulant name-calling and seeing how many times he can interrupt his debating partner even when it's not on his show. Government as business - there are lots of ways in which it makes sense, actually. Just don't listen to Bill O'Reilly when he's spouting off about it.

I heard a lot of this "government as business" rhetoric when I was working for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory back in the early 90s, in their Electronic Commerce/EDI project. They wanted to trailblaze e-commerce in the defense sector. With electronic transactions, specifically. K-Mart does it, they said. General Motors does it. Why can't we? It was tilting at windmills at the time, but seemingly of the most noble sort. "Cut the fat, keep the muscle" was our Fearless Leader's refrain. We were ahead of our time.

One problem with this government-as-business notion is that, tragically often, the conservatives who shout it most often pull back from the brink when they figure out what it means. Robert Cringely penned an excellent column recently, one of his scattered departures from commenting on the IT scene, with Fred Nold's Legacy: Why We Send So Many Americans to Prison and Probably Shouldn't. If the economists he cites are to be believed (or if they even said what he thinks they said - he's talking about a buried paper), prison sentencing as we do it now, with longer terms, is simply uneconomical. It only grows the prison system and makes the social problems that contribute to crime even worse. And this conclusion was reached by some researchers who were looking at sentencing policy from a business point of view.

Here's my other problem with government-as-business: what about the problem of making business more like liberal democracy? Shouldn't that take precedence? Capitalism, from my frog's-eye employee view, hasn't seemed like the triumph of the freest and most competent. It seems more like the survival of the least incompetent socialist dictatorship. Every company I've worked for has fit this mold: is has been organized economically as a command economy, and politically as a top-down bureaucracy. At best. More often it looks like a collection of feuding fiefdoms, utterly lacking any rigorous judiciary.


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