Monday, August 23, 2010

One or the Other

My wife recently read to me one of those political junk e-mails that get sent to her despite her complete lack of partisan political interest. (How some of these mailing lists get set up still remains a mystery to me.) This one was from the Government Sucks, So Shut It Down category, with two basic themes. (She deleted it, so I can’t quote it directly.)

One was that since certain government programs haven’t solved the problems they were created to combat (I recall poverty being mentioned among other things) they should be shut down, and that because of this “failure” government should not be trusted to do anything. To me this is like saying that since medical research hasn’t cured cancer it should be stopped, or that since Nyquil and the like don’t actually cure a cold they should be discontinued. Certain maladies like poverty are probably never going to be wiped out; the best anyone can do is alleviate some of the symptoms. But that in itself is a worthy undertaking.

The writer also seemed to suggest that Big Government has been an eternal problem despite the best efforts of right-thinking people like him (in the generic sense; recent events have shown that women are just as capable of this) to cut it. Even a casual study of American history shows that our system started out so small it almost fell apart (the Articles of Confederation era was little short of anarchy), and that most increases in size or scope were (1) hotly contested, (2) compromised by the process (often by cutting a deal with people who think like the writer) and (3) in response to either a failure of the existing system or some type of catastrophe (it took a Great Depression to foster a New Deal). There’s no doubt that accountability and efficiency could be better and that beneficial cuts could be made. But the notion that Big Government has always been the enemy is silly.

The other message was a bit more curious, because it read like a Wal-Mart press release, extolling the company’s success while listing various corporate statistics regarding employment and profitability. Overall I got the sense that the writer thought government would be much more efficient and successful if it were run like Wal-Mart, which tells me that he doesn’t know a lot about that company.

Wal-Mart has a level of centralization that would bring tears to the eyes of an old Soviet bureaucrat. Corporate headquarters in Arkansas directly controls not just all the inventory decisions, but employee work schedules, with local managers only able to make last-minute changes as needed. If someone gets sick, that person calls headquarters to report it, then gets transferred to the store. Even the environmental systems of every store are centrally controlled. If you’ve ever been in a store and wondered why the lights suddenly changed, it’s because HQ in Bentonville changed them.

This system doesn’t necessarily eliminate waste; in fact, it occasionally requires it. I often see perishable items on the shelves that the local employees and I know won’t sell here, at least not before they have to be thrown away. Apparently it is more cost-effective to haul them in, sell what they can, then toss the rest rather than sort for local tastes.

This isn’t meant as a critique of Wal-Mart. Their system obviously works for them. And perhaps I’m misjudging the e-mail writer. Maybe he would be OK with a government run that way as long as it was relatively efficient and cost-effective. It wouldn’t be consistent with his other message, but that tends to not be a big concern to such people. I just wish he would make up his mind before spamming my wife.

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