Saturday, 24 January 2009

Government should stick to doing hard things

The Iraq War and its aftermath introduced us to the term "soft power", with the idea being that the US should try to influence the world through "soft power", like aid projects and so on, rather than "hard power" - which is having the Air Force bomb the crap out of things, and then having the Marines stomp all over what's left.

"Hard power" and "soft power" apply just as well to domestic government tasks. For a state government, hard power encompasses things like building dams, bridges, roads, pipelines and buildings. It involves the construction of physical things, tangible things that we can touch and smell (in the case of a rubbish dump).

Soft power is the delivery of services, like education, health, child care, policing and so on.

Government tends to do hard power with a reasonable level of incompetence, and soft power with an incredible level of incompetence.

For most of history, government stuck to hard power. The Egyptian government did chariots, road, pyramids and canals. The Greek government did monuments, plazas, forums and triremes. The Romans did aqueducts, colloseums and roads, and then came unstuck with bread and circuses. The British government around the time of the Napoleonic wars did fighting ships and not much else.

For the western world, everything went to pot during WWII. Up until about that time, government shied away from even doing most of the hard things. Private companies raised the money to build canals and railways. The churches or local communities took care of "social security". "Charter hospitals" took care of health. State schools hardly existed 100 years ago.

Things have always been a bit different here in NSW. The private sector started building the first rail line, but that company went broke, so the state stepped in and finished it. And then it kept on going..... and look at our rail system today. Broke, and in a shambles.

The state built our dams and water supply system. Now, we don't have enough dams, and our pipes leak like unrepaired, unreplaced, hundred year old collanders.

With electricity, the state mainly kept out of it until about 1950. Until then, building power plants was taken care of at a municipal level. However, the boards that built and ran the power stations couldn't raise the money to build extra capacity to deal with rapid post war population growth, so the state government stepped in. Now, we have a union dominated electricity industry that we can't even sell.

When Greiner became Premier, he gave up on the idea of even trying to get the state to build roads, so he opened road building to the private sector, which is how we ended up with tollways - which came in under budget, to specification and were opened sooner than expected. If the RTA had built them, they'd still be under construction, bits would be falling off them and they would have cost us eleventy-seven trillion pesos by now. Oh, and they would have started in a rubbish tip in Homebush and finished in an unused funeral home in Silverwater. And been built without entry ramps, lane markings or drainage.

If government is so hopeless at dealing with hard things (remember how the US Military was ripped off over hammers and toilet seats?), why do we even consider the idea of letting it do soft things? At least with a hammer, if the government buys one, you can walk down to Bunnings and compare prices to see whether the taxpayers got their faces ripped off again. With soft items, you can't. You just have to trust that they're doing a good job.

This is where things get interesting. Trust.

I have to laugh at lefties who insist that we trust the government with our money and our lives, and then turn around and insist that the Police (government employees) cannot be trusted to tell the truth in court. The hypocrisy that they demonstrate when they proclaim that you and I should pay more tax so that the government can pursue "social justice", whilst at the same time saying that the most solid arm of government is untrustworthy, is breath taking. If the leftie, criminal liberties crowd won't trust the Police, why should I trust a leftie dominated state sector to use my cash wisely?

WWII convinced many people that government could do things effectively - after all, big government defeated Hitler, so it must work. However, those same people forget that for years after the war, there was rationing of most essentials (hardly a sign of success) and the government was weighed down by the most incredible levels of debt (again, hardly a sign of success). Yes, big government won the war, but it just about throttled the country in the process.

Which is why I view all government "wars" on anything but a foreign enemy with much suspicion. The "war on obesity", the "war on smoking", the "war on drugs", the "war on speeding", the "war on Iran" (oops, made the last one up). How will we end the war on obesity? We knew when the war with Hitler was over - we have photos of Russkis planting their flag on top of the Reichstag. We knew when the Japs gave up - the recorded plea by Hirohito that essentially said, "I don't wanna be nuked no more" was a dead giveaway.

But how will we know with the "war on obesity"? Will it be denoted by a black and white photo of a bunch of fitness instructors climbing up a mound of dead obese people and planting a flagpole in the bum of one of them? Will we see grown men dancing behind trams in the city centre? Will we celebrate it with a "VO Day", complete with tickertape parade and marching bands?

I think not.

Making people lose weight is all about soft power, and soft power is weak and often useless. Think of how you would prefer to tow your car out of a creek. You can use hard power and attach a steel tow rope to a winch and drag it out, or you can develop an advertising campaign to encourage the car to leave the creek, and back it up with brochures inserted into daily newspapers.

Changing our physical environment (eg, bulldozing a hill flat to put a road through) is a much easier task than changing our mental or emotional environment - and as soon as government ventures down that path, it gets lost in a swamp of dashed expectations.

I have enough trouble trying to bring up our kids as decent human beings - teaching them not to swear or snatch things, to respect other people and their property, to do things properly, to respect their elders, to not butt into conversations, to eat with their feet off the table, to use a knife and fork, to clear the table after they've finished eating, to not leave wet towels on the floor, to make their beds, to put their clothes away - all the little things that go into producing someone that you can take to a restaurant without fear of enduring epic social embarassment. We work at it every day, from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep.

It is two on one or one on one most of the time, and we have to be persistant for as soon as we think a lesson has been drummed in regarding removing tissues from pockets before the pants go into the wash, we find that the next load is covered in shreds of tissue paper. It is a task that we will have to persist with for perhaps 20 years, before they finally start to emerge as an adult around age 21.

Can government do that?

If there is one thing that the TV show "The Biggest Loser" should have taught us, it's that overcoming obesity is a long, arduous process. Some who try will fail (I almost wrote that as "some who try will whale"). It takes almost round the clock observation and input by incredibly motivated staff to get a result, and the participants need to be motivated by very large financial rewards.

Now stack that up against a TV campaign that you might see once in a blue moon that encourages you to walk more often. Compared to "The Biggest Loser", how much impact will it have?

Zero. It is our money - as taxpayers - being pissed up against the wall. The only government agency that does something like The Biggest Loser is the Army, and although "war" and "army" generally go well together, I don't think any arm of the defence force is going to jump with joy at the prospect of forcing a million fatties to tone up. The best we could do would be to get the RAAF to strap a parachute to each fatty and toss them out of a Herc over the highlands of PNG. Or maybe two parachutes. Or maybe a cargo chute. Take your pick. My brother in law is up there at the moment, and he was a skinny bugger before he left. He has lost 13kg since arriving a few months ago. Walking up and down mountains in tropical heat and living on fruit and rice will do that to you.

I'm pretty sure the canibals in the highlands would also welcome us dropping endless loads of "long pig" from the sky as well. Think of it as the western world "sharing its largesse" with the starving third world.

The thing that strikes me about Obama is that he believes government can do soft things well. That's because he was a community agitator, and his job was to annoy government until it got so sick of him, it handed over money. If that is your idea of succesful government action, then we're in a great deal of trouble. You see, he's never worked for a part of government that was involved with soft service delivery - health, education, public transport, child protection, policing and so on. He's worked outside those agencies, essentially putting the boot in to extract cash for his constituency.

He hasn't seen how tough it is to be on the inside, dealing with whackos like him on the outside, whilst simultaneously dealing with budget issues, unions, bloodyminded staff, media pressure, OH&S Nazis, political inference from on high and continual policy changes - and all the time trying to deliver services to the people you were setup to help, rather than those freeloaders seeking to suck on the government tit.

I think he is in for a rude shock.

As much as I occasionally like to deride teachers who have become politicians (most of the Australian Democrats seemed to start out that way), at least they had a grounding in front line service delivery. It would not surprise me to find that the experience turned them into raving lunatics, which is why they became Democrats.

Obama's biggest problem is that he is so smart. Yes, he is smart - I'll give him that.

But smart people have a big problem when their brain power collides with the state sector. When you start out (and I was one of them, for I am reasonably smart - although maybe not in the Obama league), you think that because you are smarter than your average pube, you will make an incredible difference. You can see how to do things more efficiently and effectively. You can see obvious cost savings. You can see strategies that are likely to work. You can see simple changes that will bring about big improvements to service delivery.

And then when you start proposing these things, you run full tilt into a very large, very solid brick wall.

I did that. Almost broke my nose in the process.

I then spent the next few years trying to get through, over, under or around that brick wall. I suceeded on a few occasions, only to find that behind that brick wall, there was another. After a while, I discovered faint scratchings on the bricks, and it suddenly became clear that they had been put there by the fingernails of all the smart people before me, who had clawed away at those walls, just like me.

I got out before I burned out. In every government agency, you'll find wise old owls who were once bright young things, and they hung around until they burned out, and were then pensioned off into a dusty office somewhere. They watch the new whizzkids come in (the FNG's), and they nod at each other and take bets as to how long they will last.

Stalin is the only person I know who managed to get a public sector to do what he wanted, and he had to shoot about 10 million people in order to bend the public sector to his will.

Right now, in offices across the US, many public servants will be celebrating the election of The One, and feeling altruistic about their duties.

By about Monday, they'll be back to squabbling with each other about budgets, responsibilities, chains of command, who gets the leather office chairs and whether biscuits are permitted in meetings or not.

The sooner the elctorate learns that most governments can't do soft power effectively, the better off we'll be. It can spend money on soft power, but not try to do it itself. There is a big difference. I see no problem with the state paying to educate all children, but I do not see that the schools and teachers need to be provided by the state. I am not a huge fan of the state paying for health care, but I am no fan at all of governments owning hospitals, or employing nurses and doctors.

Government is a mindless machine. It brings out the very worst in a lot of people. It attracts the power hungry as employees, who evolve into psychpathic managers or bloodyminded underlings. The number one aim of every government department is making life nice for the staff (or at least the managers), with service delivery being a distant 23rd. Change is the enemy (again, Obama is going to have fun trying to ram change through the state sector). Many public servants come to see their entitlements as the most important things in their working lives, rather than outcomes.

At present, the best and the brightest get sucked into these agencies and they disappear like a small drop of red ink in a vat of blue ink. If we want the brightest and best to make a difference (and they can), the only solution is to dramatically shrink the number of drones and the number of functions. If you have one smart person to every 1000 drones, they'll never make a difference. I you have a ratio of 1:50, you have a chance. If each smart person has to deal with 100 functions, they will make no difference. If they have to deal with 10, you have a chance.

I want a government that does a small number of things exceptionally well, rather than one that does lots of things incredibly badly. I'm afraid Obama has an apetite for government doing even more things than it does now, so allow me to write him off today as a failed president. It won't be for lack of trying - it will be because he will be trying to do too many things, especially too many things for which government is utterly unsuited.

1 comment:

1735099 said...

I agree with much of this but many things that need to be done don't earn a profit. If they're not done by government, they simply won't be done at all.
Not every service or resource can be packaged and sold. Once the limit of what's marketable is reached, something else needs to take its place.
If not government - then what?