Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A thought for the evening directed at my friends who believe in the virtues of the State

A personnel case occurred today that consumed most of my day in my role as union president, and therefore pretty much eliminated bloggin for the day (thanks, Tyler, by the way, for showing the flag).

I obviously cannot discuss the details of a personnel issue here, but it helped crystalize my thinking when I put it together with the current approach to the budget and the salary/benefits of State employees under the proposed Markell budget.

Here's the deal: many if not most of my liberal friends argue that privatization of services is bad policy under almost any conditions because the profit motive will inevitably outweigh any urge to do the right thing. You can't expect, they argue, that contract medical service in a prison will do anything but provide the inmates with the bare minimums of treatment and care. You can't expect people at health insurance companies to actually give a rip about the conditions of their customers when treatments for those conditions will cost money.

The answer, they say, following President Obama, is that only government can and should provide such critical services, because only government puts the desired results ahead of a profit motive. Only government can inspect food; only government can regulate certain financial transactions....

Yet here's the rub: I have worked in and around government and the US military for over thirty years now.

I have worked in the US Army, in the Virgnia Army National Guard, in/with the public education system of three different States, for three different public universities, with the Department of Homeland Security, and the list could go on....

What I have discovered in those three decades is that, sadly, most people in senior administrative and regulatory positions cannot be trusted to avoid abusing their power over their own employees.

A few examples:

As an Equal Opportunity complaint investigator in the US military I looked into more than two dozen cases of sexual harassment or gender discrimination (at least two per year in the major command for which I worked). Investigation proved that about 75-80% of those cases had legs--i.e., substantive, supporting evidence of misconduct by a senior NCO or commissioned officer. In most of those cases the first General officer in the chain of command intervened to stop the proceedings; several of the individuals against whom substantial [even multiple] compaints were lodged received promotions and went on to better things. Most of the women who complained were thereafter denied promotion and were marked for shitty assignments as long as they remained in the military.

In nearly two decades at this job I saw exactly one senior NCO and one officer have action taken. In the case of the NCO it only occurred because one of the women he tried to assault was the daughter of a senior officer. In the case of the officer it was hard to sweep under the rug because there were over 45 witnesses to the incident.

But only two cases....

Within the public school systems of three different States I have seen administrators file fabricated or forged reports into the personnel files of teachers they personally did not like, in order to keep them from receiving tenure.

I have seen senior educational administrators calmly and consciously misappropriate Federal grant money or State education funds, using them for--quite frankly--illegal purposes, and even when caught they faced no civil or criminal penalty.

In the Department of Social Services of one State in which I have worked, I saw the case of a sexually abusive father who was removed from the family, tried, and convicted of child sexual abuse then be given parole and returned by social workers to his family where he continued to assault his own daughters for two more years. They were six and eight years old.

He was eventually sent to prison and the family was broken up. The bureaucrats who either made the decision or looked the other way were promoted. Repeatedly.

I have seen school officials consciously alter the files of special needs students, changing test results, in order to avoid having to provide services or to have those students count against their graduation statistics. When I brought documentary evidence of that conduct to the individual who supervised such fields at the State level, I was told: That's bad, but I try to avoid getting involved with the way individual schools run this program. This was the woman that the State paid to evaluate such programs.

I could go on, but one more example will suffice: What is the State of Delaware proposing to meet its budget shortfall? Salary cuts, lay-offs, or furloughs, certainly.

But the State of Delaware is also reducing the level of health care benefits its own employees may be receiving.

Here's the point: nothing I have seen in thirty years of working around the military, the government, or other public institutions gives me any damn confidence at all in the superior morals or supervisory ability of bureaucrats.

Nothing I have seen in thirty years suggests that there is any real accountability or transparency in government.

What my thirty years of experience does suggest is that whenever human beings receive the ability to exercise power--either within government or within the private sector--a similar percentage of them will abuse that power in either case.

The problem: government is far less accountable for its abuses.

So if you ever wonder (I flatter myself) why I drifted inevitably toward libertarian philosophy, here's the reason:

Government has rarely failed to live down to my expectations; the private sector has occasionally (though not nearly often enough) exceeded them.


Anonymous said...

Steve, after citing a few nameless anecdotes, you wrote:

"The problem: government is far less accountable for its abuses."

This is blatantly not true. I could match you case by case of horrible abuses in the private sector in which no one was held accountable. One easy example is the financial services industry - how are the perps that caused the current mess being held accountable? Or corporate polluters that skirt or break the law and poison millions? Does the private sector hold them accountable? Who holds supervisors and employees accountable for unethical, immoral, dishonest, or unfair treatment of other employees?

You wrote:

"Nothing I have seen in thirty years of working around the military, the government, or other public institutions gives me any damn confidence at all in the superior morals or supervisory ability of bureaucrats".

"Superior" to what? Or who? It certainly is not the private sector. Because the private sector and public sector are populated from people from the same pool of human beings, you're going to get the same behaviors in both, on average.

Your rail against "the military, the government, or other public institutions" is really just a lament about the current un-ideal state of human ethics, culture, education, and competency.

We can all try to do better, but that is just the way it is in 2009.


ChrisNC said...

Interventionists often pillory businessmen as gunning for the bottom. That's because they blank out (Rand's phrase) the fact that labor is a commodity, for which employers compete. The employer with the worse working conditions, i.e., in his particular market, will lose his most experienced and most productive employees to the employer with the higher pay and better working conditions. In a free market, the economic incentive is to be AHEAD of the market.