Saturday, August 04, 2007

The government sector

KBLG has been running a promo for "The Radio Factor" in which Bill O'Reilly says that the only things that government can do are run the military and collect taxes. Even allowing for the usual O'Reilly exaggeration, this seems like an awfully short list.

And I'm not even sure it's accurate. Does government really run the military that well? Granted, the United States has the most powerful military history has ever seen. But since armies are nearly always run by governments, the U.S. military can't really be compared to a private sector army, can it? And while I don't doubt that the U.S. Army today is a better-run outfit than the one I served in 35 years ago, certain inefficiencies common to any bureaucracy appear to be built in to the military hierarchy.

To give just one of many possible examples: Since I was stationed with a small detachment of soldiers on the East German border, we had to drive to Bremerhaven to conduct much Army business: medical appointments, shipping goods, clearing up paperwork. On narrow and crowded German roads, it was about a seven-hour round trip, and a military vehicle generally made the run at least once a week.

One week, the Army changed its policy and decided that soldiers had to have an appointment before they could conduct any business in Bremerhaven. Nobody told us, of course, and we drove up as usual. And even though the clerk in Army personnel appeared to have nothing whatever to do, he wouldn't help any of us -- a half-dozen soldiers wasting a full day apiece for absolutely no good reason. This sort of thing happened all the time, and nobody in charge cared very much because nobody had to meet a bottom line.

Still, I don't really want to know how a government-run army would stack up against a privately run army because I don't want big private armies running around out there. This is one monopoly I'm happy for government to keep. The same goes for prisons and courts of law, where I'm willing to accept a little government inefficiency in exchange for the power to vote for or against the people in charge.

Beyond all that, it seems to me that government does do some things well -- at least as well and perhaps better than the private sector. A few come to mind:

1. National parks. Does anybody think that Yellowstone would be a better place if Disney ran it? I don't.

2. Campgrounds. Sight unseen, I would prefer any federal or state campground over
any private campground. In my experience, government-run campgrounds are nearly always prettier and cheaper. The amenities may not be as good, but I don't care much for amenities when I go camping, and I don't like camping close to people who do.

3. Highways. A few privately funded highways have been built in high-traffic areas, but government-built highways suit me just fine, even allowing for the occasional bridge collapse.

4. Public libraries. Nothing else comes close.

5. Mail service. People always bitch about this, but I have never understood why. Almost without exception everywhere I have lived, mail service has been reliable and cheap, and postal employees have been pleasant to deal with. I don't argue that my experience is typical, but I have no gripes.

6. Customer service. Another supposed government weak point, but again it doesn't fit with my experience. Private sector customer service keeps getting worse, in my view, and government service keeps getting better.

7. Fire protection. Who complains about the fire department?

8. Museums.

9. NPR. Not strictly government run, but it gets a few federal dollars, and it is vastly superior to commercial radio in every respect (except sports coverage).

That's not a complete list, but it's a fairly big chunk of what government does. And while you certainly might argue that turning all those services over to the private sector would save a few tax dollars, it's hard for me to see that we would ultimately really be better off.

UPDATE: Two more I neglected to mention:

1. Trash pickup. I never even see those guys, but the trash is always picked up.

2. Water. In all the cities I have lived in over the years, I can't recall that I ever once had any contact with a municipal water department. Why? Because I never once had a problem -- water always has been cheap, plentiful and clean.


Anonymous said...

That is not a “complete list,” all right. There are about 5000 other things the government does and does poorly.

I could refute every item on your list, but I am more interested in knowing why you dropped Item # 10, Education.

David said...

Anonymous 209,
That was just a fight I didn't feel like having today. Feel free to carry on without me.

Anonymous said...

You can get a good comparison of private military to government in Iraq, where there are 160,000 government troops, and 180,000 mercenaries.

The soldiers-for-hire are vastly more expensive, but not subject to those annoying restraints like military code of conduct or Geneva Conventions.

Anonymous said...

I think there are a number of areas best left to the government. For example, local police. Now granted it is apparent that a government run police force can have problems, but I really don't want each person or each neighborhood to have their own police force. Likewise, I would rather have our new ballpark owned by the city and not a private company. At this level of baseball I think we are getting a public service. Once you get to the major leagues where teams make money, then I am not so sure that the public should have to throw in a few million bucks for the stadium.

Chuck Rightmire said...

David, David, David: The list was incomplete. In my dealings with the government, I've always found it a lot easier to deal with than most private businesses. And in working for both government and private industry over the years, I've seen more waste in private than in public. And the post office is far better than its brown competitor. What causes most people to reject government is that they expect "their" employees to jump too every time they ask for something; they don't expect that in the private sector.

Shane C. Mason said...

I can agree with number 6 whole heartedly. In all the times I have been to the DMV, IRS office etc etc, I have never once experienced the disinterested or rude caricature that seems to only exist on Saturday Night Live skits. My experiences have been, without exception, with professional folks trying to do a good days work.

On the other hand, I challenge anyone here to say the same of a tech support call to (INSERT ANY COMPANY HERE). The 30 minutes on hold is actually the good part, since you can spend it doing something productive like picking lint out of your belly button. When the young man or woman in Bangalore finally picks up our call, you find out that one week of English training wasn't enough.

This same one goes for service at the Post Office.

Dave Rye said...

No argument with your analysis, David, about the fine jobs done by government employees in the categories you listed, but I suppose I have an ideological problem with your argument.

Excuse my use of a sort-of generic "everybody" reference, because there will always be exceptions, but if everybody pays taxes, then everybody should benefit from each way those tax dollars are spent, right?

On highways, mail service and fire protection, everybody does benefit (although USPS got a whole lot better after United Parcel Service and FexEx came along). Your other categories, though, are cases of everybody having to pay for services used by a relative few. Which percentage of citizens use federal campgrounds? Or public libraries? Or museums? Or listen to NPR? They don't use 'em, but they still have to pay for 'em. A system of user fees or some kind of pay-as-you-go would be much fairer, and government subsidies of the arts are just ridiculous. It must amaze some people to find out that Rembrandt and Beethoven didn't have any government help, but federal dollars did go to those American "artists" who have given us such masterpieces as "Piss Christ" and bullwhips-in-rectums.

Anonymous said...

Fire Protection—

Who could complain about fire protection when it is in “God’s hands”? Yes, our atheist governor, the same one who made fun of Christians in last year’s election, is now being quoted by The Associated Press as saying the fires in Montana are in “God’s hands.”

I am not sure if that is a violation of the separation of church and state doctrine, at least not yet. (You would have to check with your liberal cronies or the ACLU.) However, I think it would be a violation if the governor starts praying with Roger Koopman and other Christians in the state capitol building.

But, be that as it may, when God is now our Fire Chief, how can we go wrong?

Jim Larson said...

Has the outsourcing of some of the military's logistical functions cost us more than it did when soldiers performed those tasks?

What does it cost to protect civilians in combat zones doing jobs that would have previously been done by armed, combat trained soldiers?

I'm interested in a factual response, not conjecture.

David said...

I would argue that people benefit from some services, such as public libraries and museums, whether they use them or not. Both contribute to creating an educated, informed populace, and that leads to a healthy economy and vibrant democracy.

Anonymous 846,
Schweitzer did not make fun of Christians. That is a lie.

Jim Larson,
I wish I had the facts on that. In peacetime, soldiers are basically paid to intimidate enemies who might otherwise attack us. So it always made sense to me to have soldiers not otherwise engaged washing dishes, mowing yards, cleaning the barracks, etc. (not to say that I enjoyed it). Since you have to pay them anyway, the cost of their labor to do these jobs is essentially zero, even if they are inefficient workers.

No doubt the technically adept, volunteer army changes that equation somewhat. But I would be surprised if it changed the equation enough to make outsourcing a bargain.

Anonymous said...

I miss the old days when we could call a Forest Service operator and reserve a camp site. They privatized it, and right away prices went up ($9.00 service charge), and they started doing annoying things like making you rent a site for three days on a holiday weekend (maximizes cash flow). They I started getting spam emails from them - they have an unsubscribe button on the emails, but nothing ever happens.

All in all, worst of the worst from the private side - high prices, gimmicks, and annoying spam.

Ed Kemmick said...

Dave Rye: I'm not familiar with all the details of Rembrandt and Beethoven, but I know that most of the great European artists and composers were directly subsidized by the government---whatever kings, princes or despots were in power at the moment. Michelangelo did some of his best work at the behest of the Medici tyrants.

And in ancient Greece, who do you think paid for the Parthenon and all the artwork that adorned it? In fact, most of the artwork that has come down to us from ancient cultures was commissioned by governments---at least in countries where the artists were not slaves ordered to create art by the government.

I'd venture to say that there is a greater proportion of independent artists working today, with no government support, than at any time in history.

Chuck Rightmire said...

Actually, Ed, I think Mozart and Beethoven were among the first musicians to be able to support themselves by composing. Most others of the time, including Papa Haydn had patrons who were members of the ruling class if not the rulers themselves.

Anonymous said...

Our artists today must work for their pay - they make advertisements.

Ed Kemmick said...

Chuck: Who do you think commissioned the music Mozart was selling? I believe most of the people who paid him were, as I said, kings and princes.

Anonymous said...

Fire Protection--

"We are prepared for the worst, and people should pray for the best," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer...
--AP, 08/07/07

I guess you were right, David. The governor has not found religion. Reading that quote carefully, it seems that he is asking others to pray for salvation, probably the same Christians he made fun of during last year’s election.

David said...

Anonymous 1130,
Still waiting for evidence that Schweitzer made fun of Christians.

Anonymous said...

"Still waiting for evidence that Schweitzer made fun of Christians."

See: Williams, W., 2006. Schweitzer criticizes Koopman’s beliefs. Bozeman Chronicle, October 7, p. A1.

David said...

Anonymous 121,
I figured that would be your evidence. But no go. Koopman specifically said his creationist beliefs were based on scientific evidence, not religious conviction. Schweitzer didn't question Koopman's faith, but he has every right to question Koopman's science.

Come on. You wouldn't let Al Gore get away with claiming that scientific evidence proves that global warming is caused by humans, then refuse to defend his assertion on grounds that it is his religious belief. Don't let Koopman play the same game.

Anonymous said...

I figured that would be your response. After asking twice where I got the idea from, when you knew all along what I was talking, I figured you would have a disingenuous retort.

So our atheist governor was attacking Roger Koopman the scientist, eh? That would be the same Roger Koopman who is the most famous, outspoken Christian fundamentalist in Montana, I suppose. And our atheist governor got all the school children in the audience to laugh at Roger Koopman the scientist, not Roger Koopman the Christian.

That’s an astounding piece of logic, David.

David said...

Hey, it was Koopman who called it science, not me. So who's being disingenuous? You know as well as I do that he was trying to have it both ways, and now you are, too.

And now I await your evidence that Schweitzer is an atheist.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha. So subtle. So evasive. What a strange reality you've created for yourself!

Maybe the scientist Roger Koopman should address a group of school children, journalists, and the governor. He could ask the audience to raise their hands if they believe a forest fire can be put out by firefighters. After all the kids giggle and raise their hands, then Koopman could ask how many believe a forest fire can be put out by prayers. The governor, sitting way in back, would have to raise his hand, and everybody could have a good laugh at his expense.

At a minimum, that would prove the governor wasn’t an atheist.

David said...

I'm still waiting.