A Liberal’s Love Affair With Government Ignores Reality

Ron Pearlstein writes for the Washington Post and he loves him some big government. His hook for this argument is that a private contract lifeguard was fired by the contractor for rescuing someone outside of his assigned zone in violation of company policy.

After acknowledging that there are some benefits to outsourcing, Peralstein attacks the practice for its supposed downsides.

There is, however, an important trade-off that is made by outsourcing that contractors reflexively deny but is inherent in any firm that derives its competitive advantage from having carefully constructed systems for doing just about everything.

It is these systems — the rules, the procedures, in effect the operational software — that allow companies to take relatively low-skilled, low-paid workers with relatively little experience and have them do tasks that were once done by people with higher skills, higher pay and more experience. And it is the very nature of these systems that workers are discouraged, if not prohibited, from exercising their own discretion. Their only job is to follow rules, stick to the script and leverage the experience and expertise that are embedded in the system.

If you want discretion and judgment, if you want workers who really understand and relate to customers, if you want the flexibility necessary to respond to individual needs or unforeseen circumstances, then you can go back to paying twice as much to have your own, longtime employees doing the work. That’s the outsourcing trade-off. It may be a good trade-off — most of the time I suspect it is. But it is an unavoidable trade-off, no matter how good the contractors or their systems.

You can see how this process bifurcates labor markets and increases income inequality. At the low end are the low-cost expendable cogs. At the high end are those whose experience and intelligence and training allow them to demand very good salaries for designing, creating and managing these systems. There’s not much in between — or even much of a ladder for getting from one to the other.

So clearly if the lifeguard on duty had been a high paid, government worker represented by a public employee union, this terrible situation would never have happened. The man would have been saved and the lifeguard would still have his job.

Or you know, not.

A 50-year-old man waded into the San Francisco Bay, stood up to his neck and waited. A Coast Guard boat couldn’t get into the shallow water, and fire crews said they couldn’t rescue him because of a policy that strictly forbade such attempts.

Finally, a witness went in after him, pulling his lifeless body from the bay.

“We expected to see at some point that there would be a concern for him,” another witness, Gary Barlow, told KGO-TV.

Alameda officials said Tuesday they’ll change the island city’s water rescue policy after the apparently suicidal man died in the 54-degree water.

Interim Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi called Monday’s incident troubling and said he directed staff to write a new policy that would allow commanders at the scene to attempt a water rescue in Alameda, a city of about 75,000 people across the bay from San Francisco.

So Mr. Pearlstein, who exactly is handicapped by “the rules, the procedures, in effect the operational software”?

It seems to me that the supposedly low paid, private sector worker knew that there was a time and a place to disobey the rules even if it meant he’d pay a price. The highly paid government workers were so slavishly devoted to their negotiated work rules they literally stood by and watched a man die.

Now are large companies rule bound? Sure but there are reasons for that.

First, we live in a litigious society. Everyone is trying to cover their ass and avoid being bankrupted by a huge judgement. Reform the tort system and you’ll see a easing of these kinds of rules.

Second, higher pay doesn’t ensure higher quality service. The Alameda, CA example shows that. More to the point though the jobs Pearlstein points to are low skill and often entry level. Just because you pay people more doesn’t mean they will provide a better work product. People who start out in those kind of jobs who show an aptitude for more challenging work are promoted and get more responsibility and freedom. It’s simply wouldn’t be worth the cost in money, training or time to find hundreds or thousands of skilled people to do a job that simply doesn’t require those skills. It’s a fact of life and economics.

Now as bad as you think some corporate services are, can you think of many better interactions you have had with government workers? And when you don’t like the service you get from a private source, you can always go to their competitor. When the government grinds to a halt and makes your life miserable, you have no recourse.




About Drew

I blog about politics and hockey because I sort of understand those things. I'd blog about women but I'll never understand them.

Posted on July 16, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. And I’d add that, unlike government, the eevillll outsourcer recognized that it made a mistake and swiftly reacted to the public’s criticism of its decision.

    Meanwhile, back at the DMV …

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