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Your Hollywood Headdesk

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.

9 comments

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  1. Argive says:

    Private sector experience is no predictor of success as president. Off the top of my head I can think of six presidents with experience running businesses prior to entering national politics. They are Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Bush 41 and Bush 43. Bit of a mixed record there. Also several of those gentlemen I listed didn’t work in business for very long. Truman, for instance, ran a haberdashery that went bust in 1921 and was also a farmer for a little while, but spent most of his professional life in politics. Coolidge had a private legal practice, but entered politics before he turned 30. Harding ran a successful newspaper, but to this day there’s quite a bit of debate as to whether he deserves the credit for that or if his wife does.

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  2. Argive says:

    Damnit, that should read Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Bush 41 and Bush 43.

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  3. Hal_10000 says:

    Very mixed bag, I agree. Coolidge, Truman and Bush 41 were pretty good. Bush 43 and Hoover … not so much. I think business *experience* is good to have in a President. But it’s not definitive. In business, the ultimate benchmark is the market. In politics, it’s a lot more complicated because people have different values.

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  4. Miguelito says:

    Lately I’ve heard a LOT of PSA radio spots. I listen to local talk radio via streaming app on my iphone when walking the dog in the evening most nights. Apparently they don’t relay most local ads and infill with tons of PSAs. Many are so annoying for ready.gov or other websites that make it sound like no one can function without gov’t. Even sites for things like how to be a good father.. because, no one was a good dad before big daddy gov’t told you how.

    Anyhoo… there’s a series for ready.gov about “The day before.” How you never know when the day before something like an earthquake will happen, so be prepared. The stupid thing? There’s one they do for hurricanes. WTF? When was the last time in the last several decades that a hurricane hit anywhere in the US without several days warning at least?

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  5. Miguelito says:

    Wasn’t Bush 43 also pretty crappy in the business world to begin with?

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  6. Argive says:

    Wasn’t Bush 43 also pretty crappy in the business world to begin with?

    Yes he was pretty crappy. I suppose he was OK as part owner of the Texas Rangers. Of course, during his tenure the team managed to get a publicly financed stadium for which Arlington taxpayers had to shell out $193 million. And the city seized the land for the stadium under eminent domain. The people who had owned the land sued and won a multimillion dollar lawsuit, which the team didn’t pay. So there’s that. Of course, those publicly financed stadiums are basically cash machines for the teams playing in them, so he did pretty well by the Rangers.

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  7. Aussiesmurf says:

    The main thing is that you only have so many years before you run for President. For everything that you do with your time, there are ten things that you don’t.

    Let’s assume you run for president at age 50. Assuming you finished schooling at around 20, that leaves you 30 years. If you’ve risen through the political ranks, let’s assume that making your way to the position of either Governor or Senator takes about 5-10 years, and you then serve as Senator / Governor for around 5-10 years. Unless you are born into money, you’ve only got about 10 years left of working life, and you’re not going to start at the top. Therefore, your business experience is going to be severely limited.

    In a weird way, running a Presidential campaign (given the finances and complexity) is often the biggest and most important executive position that many candidates have ever attempted. I mean, you are talking about literally a billion dollar enterprise.

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  8. Mississippi Yankee says:

    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.

    Hal evidently you’re unaware that Hurricane Katrina made land-fall in Mississippi. Or that damn near every structure from the Louisiana border to Mobile AL from waters edge to a quarter to a half of a mile inland was scrubbed from the face of the Earth. To this day most people in this country have no idea of the Gulf Shores destruction. We didn’t have 24 hour MSM coverage after all folks over at MSNBC have never celebrated competent management, in any form.New Orleans, on the other hand experienced a f*cking flood!!! Acerbated by close to a million “stupid people! If you doubt me show me pictures of some wind damage. Sure there was plenty of flood damage… but there is plenty of flood damage damn near every year in the mid-west. It just seems the white people flood damage just doesn’t sell newspapers, And Booosh only hates black people right?

    What Mississippi didn’t have is millions of welfare dependent, po’ peebles standing around waiting for the gubbmint to take them by the hand and lead them to safety, molly-coddle to their every need and rebuild there lives better than even these dim-witted fools expected. Oh and we also didn’t have a Big “D” political machine screaming into the open microphone.

    First and foremost our people , both black and white, secured what they could and moved back from what would become Ground Zero. Our governor Haley Barbour and our senators Cochran and Wicker got their people on the public and private allocations of fresh water, food and temporary housing. Sure all was not done perfectly but held up next to Gov Kathleen Blanco, Mary Landrieu, Ray Nagin ect… it was seamless. This state, quietly and for the most part competently, did what needed to be done. Very much like the internal machine of a big Hollywood studio.

    But much like the MSM I guess you feel you must “sell newspapers”, so to speak, too.

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  9. Hal_10000 says:

    Hal evidently you’re unaware that Hurricane Katrina made land-fall in Mississippi

    I am well aware. At the time, I wrote several things contrasting Haley Barbour’s handling of the crisis against Ray Nagin’s. That’s why I wrote the above the way I did, to indicate I was talking about the entire gulf region. The big clusterfuck was in New Orleans, however. Mississippi got short shrift because they had not so stupid as to build cities below sea level.

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