Good Lord. Steven Sodebergh had this throwaway line in an interview.
I look at Hurricane Katrina, and I think if four days before landfall you gave a movie studio autonomy and a 100th of the billions the government spent on that disaster, and told them, “Lock this place down and get everyone taken care of,” we wouldn’t be using that disaster as an example of what not to do. A big movie involves clothing, feeding, and moving thousands of people around the world on a tight schedule. Problems are solved creatively and efficiently within a budget, or your ass is out of work. So when I look at what’s going on in the government, the gridlock, I think, Wow, that’s a really inefficient way to run a railroad. The government can’t solve problems because the two parties are so wedded to their opposing ideas that they can’t move. The very idea that someone from Congress can’t take something from the other side because they’ll be punished by their own party? That’s stupid. If I were running for office, I would be poaching ideas from everywhere. That’s how art works. You steal from everything. I must remember to tweet that I’m in fact not running for office.
To compare the making of a film to one of the biggest and most logistically difficult natural disasters in recent history makes the jaw drop something fierce. Feeding, clothing and sheltering a few hundred people who are working in sunny California is one thing. Feeding, clothing and sheltering millions of people, with political considerations thrown in, in a chaotic situation where most of the restaurants and hotels have been washed into the Gulf of Mexico? That’s just a bit different. Just a bit.
We can, of course, question the wisdom of a system that regularly decides to give Michael Bay as much money as he can eat but tried to bury Idiocracy. But this is simply a variation on the “we need a CEO fallacy“: that what government really needs is to be run by businessmen. Noah Millman:
The American government is not designed to run things well – it is designed to prevent civil war or violent revolution by mediating irreconcilable differences between regional and other large interests. Effectiveness is an important secondary consideration. On that score, it has an okay record – better than France since their 1789 revolution, not as good as Britain since their 1688 revolution.
I’m inclined to agree. There are 310 million people in America who have a broad range of values and beliefs. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to create a government that is “efficient” without stomping on someone’s values and priorities. Government is often caught between hops. Indeed, a big reason I support federalism is not because it’s more efficient (although it often is). It’s because it allows the people of San Francisco and the people of Jackson to live under a government more consistent with their differing values.
More than that, I’m not sure an amazingly efficient government is particularly desirable. If our government ever became really efficient at enforcing its tens of thousands of laws, we would all be in prison because we’ve all probably violated some federal law without even knowing it. As Penn said, the main thing that protects us from their evil is their incompetence.
Even if you assume we’d also put in an efficient and perfect law-making process, that still runs into the fundamental problem: we want out government to be efficient; but we are not willing to sacrifice our liberty or our principles in service of that efficiency. Indeed, many of the vilest governments inflicted on mankind have operated under the idea that they could perfect society, make everyone into a perfectly fitted cog of a perfectly functioning machine (and, not unrelated, rid society of those who didn’t fit). We don’t mind the “inefficiency” created by free speech and trial by jury, do we?
The CEO argument is deceptive precisely it has some relevance to the way government is run (or misrun). For example, one thing that makes government inefficient is the inability to fire people. Those protections exist for a reason: government jobs can easily become spoils and bribes for victorious politicians. But they have been carried so far as to create paralysis and abominations like NYC’s “rubber rooms”. Another problem government has is programs that last way longer than the problems they were intended to solve or long after it has become obvious that they are ineffective. Such divisions in a private company would be shut down (eventually). But, in politics, they stick around like Goldilocks.
So, yes, there are some lessons government could learn from the business world. I’m a big supporter of school vouchers and other reforms that try to incentivize more efficient government. Other parts, I’m favor of completely privatizing (although we should always be mindful of the many problems created by prison privatization). And many parts of government I would be fine with getting rid of entirely. Of course, not everyone agrees, which is why government retains its many useless appendages.
But our desire for “efficient” government should always be tempered by our right to freedom, the importance of protecting our liberty and the critical need to ensure that people resolve their differences with votes instead of guns. Efficiency is a good thing. But it’s not everything.