Here’s a dirty little secret: The Post Office isn’t so bad.
Although it’s the rhetorical emblem of all that’s wrong with government, the postal service is surprisingly dependable and efficient. Letters get delivered by the millions and very few are lost.
Where the Post Office fails, as most government enterprises fail, is that its dynamic is antithetical to creativity, invention and risk-taking. Government enterprises seldom innovate, except those in the defense arena and collateral endeavors like space exploration. The Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency, does its job well enough, as does the FAA in controlling aircraft. It just wasn’t in the Post Office to create FedEx.
In Washington, and across the nation, politicians repeat often and loudly that the worst outcome of any new endeavor would be for the government to run it. To hear Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, tell it, the government is a vast anti-American conspiracy. Recently, he took to the House floor to protest against a government role in health care and claimed that anything government-run means socialism to him. And socialism, according to Gohmert, is the slippery slope to totalitarianism.
In Washington, there’s a more ambivalent attitude toward the bureaucracy. It’s not an abstraction to Washingtonians; government workers are neighbors, commuting companions, friends and family.
But that doesn’t mean that Washingtonians are taken in by it, or that they believe the government should grow more.
If you know enough government workers, you know that they’re not created equal; neither are their departments and agencies.
The Department of Defense is an archipelago of islands of success in a sea of contradiction and confusion. But the agencies, like Housing and Urban Development and Labor, are resigned to a level of ineffectiveness, often doubtful of the virtue of their own missions.
The challenge is to know what is best left to government or to the private sector.
Attempts to privatize support sectors of the U.S. military (base maintenance, security, fuel, etc.) have led to scandals at every level for companies like Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) and KBR, denounced in Congress and the media. Privatizing war is a questionable undertaking.
As often as not, government is lumbered with failing or failed businesses for political or social reasons. Amtrak is front-and-center among these and General Motors may join the group of government orphans — too important to fail and too rickety to succeed.
Finally, there is no political will to tackle the thorny issue of productivity in the bureaucracy. Politicians complain of government in the abstract and praise “hard-working men and women” in specific agencies.
Sadly, it boils down to hiring and firing. It’s hard to get hired in the government because of rules and rigidities and even harder to get fired.
The reverse applies in the private sector. Business operates on incentives, but also on fear. Fear is missing in government employment and it shows.
Government is not as inept as conservative politicians like to say, any more than CitiBank and AIG were models of corporate governance.
Some things organically belong in the government’s sphere and others far from it. Today’s question is: Where does health care fit? –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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The devil looks after his own. Or so it would seem in the case of Robert Mugabe, the de facto dictator of Zimbabwe.
Under Zimbabwe’s unity government established last year, President Mugabe, who took Africa’s garden and trashed it, has retained enough power to reverse the optimistic direction the country is taking. He and his ZANU-PF party still control the discredited central bank; the military; the police; the Central Intelligence Organization, which is Zimbabwe’s version of the KGB; and the Ministry of Information.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai who, until the formation of the unity government was Mugabe’s great enemy and rival, has control of the Ministry of Finance. His ally, Finance Minister Tendai Biki, has done the impossible: He has brought the worst inflation the world has ever known to a halt.
The remedy was simple, though extreme. Biki substituted the U.S. dollar for the worthless Zimbabwe dollar. How worthless was it? Would you believe a currency that once had rough parity with the U.S. dollar was trading–if you could find a buyer–for 1 billion (sic) Zimbabwe dollars to 1 U.S. dollar? Incredibly, the Mugabe faction of the government and ZANU-PF party members want to bring back the Zim dollar, as it was known.
Under the new setup, the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange has reopened and is prospering. And again, shops have goods on the shelves for those who can afford them. While U.S. dollars have circulated illegally in Zimbabwe for some time, it is unclear where they are now coming from, and what is the plight of those who have no access to them and no employment, which is most of the population.
In fact, many Zimbabweans live in a barter economy without cash. Rural people lead a desperate subsistence life, relying on perhaps a few chickens, sometimes a goat or, if relatively well off, some cattle. Most depend on growing enough corn to feed their families and on the generosity of relief agencies, although these are often the targets of Mugabe’s thugs. Food is power and Mugabe has used his troops, police and secret operatives to control food, starving the opposition and feeding only his political loyalists.
In the face of Zimbabwe’s tenuous recovery, there are many questions about Mugabe and his acolytes, and about Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change.Will Mugabe use his control of the military and the courts to destroy Tsvangirai’s reforms?
Mugabe likes to be the top man, even the reviled top man. His unhinging can be traced back to Nelson Mandela’s release from long imprisonment in South Africa and the deserved global acclaim he was welcomed with. Until then, Mugabe had been the golden African leader. Also he and Mandela were courting Graca, the widow of former Mozambiquan leader Samora Machel. Mugabe lost out and Mandela married her.
Too much praise for the reformers in Zimbabwe might set Mugabe off on another spree of destruction. His favorite charge–if he bothers with charges as opposed to random beatings—is treason, which is a hanging offense in Zimbabwe.
There are also question about Tsvangirai: Some of his early supporters are very critical of his conduct as prime minister. One critic, who does not want to be identified but who played a big role in establishing the unity government, told me: “He has become Mugabe’s bagman. That’s about it.”
This was a reference to Tsvangirai’s recent world fund-raising trip. He did secure minor commitments from doubting donor nations, but most want to see what happens. The money that was raised will go to humanitarian efforts, not the Zimbabwe government.
The success or failure of financial reforms may rest on the diamond fields of eastern Zimbabwe. These were only discovered in 2006 and should have been a valuable source of hard currency for Zimbabwe. But Mugabe had another idea: He allowed the military to massacre itinerant miners (in one case, 80) and seize the mines for their own profit. This has solved a pay problem among soldiers and kept the military faithful to Mugabe. Another gift from the devil for his protégé, Robert Mugabe.
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The copper-wire telephone is in danger, traditional advertising is drying up and health care costs are through the roof and rising. What is the villain? Well, it’s technology; particularly, “disruptive technology.”
Disruptive technologies are devastating to established order. And they underlie Congress’s consideration the most wide-ranging legislative challenges it has faced since the New Deal: health care and energy.
Hugely effective but expensive new medical technologies, like magnetic resonance imaging, nuclear therapies and artificial joints, threaten to bankrupt the nation’s health care system. At the heart of the health care debate lie the escalating costs for these new technologies and how to shoulder and control them. The rudimentary solution is to get the well to pay for the sick, in the way that Social Security seeks to get the young to pay for the old.
After health care, Congress has to consider energy and its leitmotif, climate remediation. Here, too, it is faced with new technology forcing the issue. Even as the Senate contemplates taking up the House-passed bill, with its heavy emphasis on renewables, new drilling and discovery technologies are tipping the energy balance towards natural gas and away from other competitors like wind and nuclear power. Ironically, at one time, nuclear power was a disruptive technology that threatened to elbow out coal.
In electricity, Congress can force the market away from the disruptive technology toward something it favors for social and political reasons, like solar or wave power. The cost is simply passed on to the consumer.
As for transportation, the energy imperatives are dictated by the forces of infrastructure and sunk cost. In the long term, there are four options that will keep the wheels turning:
1.plug-in hybrids leading to full electric-powered vehicles;
2. hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles;
3. ethanol-powered vehicles and;
4. compressed natural gas-powered vehicles
These options are not created equal. Hybrids are here but the batteries are expensive, and the plug-in option dictates that the car sits in a garage or a parking lot that is equipped with plugs for charging. Also, the batteries decline with time and cannot be used after they lose about 30 percent of their design capacity. If you live in a high-rise, plugging in your vehicle is not yet an option. Ditto pure electric vehicles.
Hydrogen is a darling technology of the green community, which marvels that it is emission-free except for water. Trouble is, there is hydrogen aplenty in nature but not free-standing; it has to be extracted from hydrocarbons, like natural gas, or from water, with huge electrical input. Why not use the gas or the electricity directly?
General Motors markets a duel-use vehicle that can run on E85 (85-percent corn-derived ethanol). This fuel was a favorite of President George W. Bush; but the environmental impact of putting so much farmland down to corn for fuel and the effect on corn prices has taken the bloom off ethanol.
Natural gas–which can be used in a modified gasoline engine and has been made more abundant by revolutionary horizontal drilling technology–is advocated by T. Boone Pickens and others. It has come late to the transportation fuel wars because of fears of shortage, now proved groundless. Natural gas is not without emissions, but these are about half of those of gasoline. And it may be the big energy disrupter.
Congress, reluctant to pick winners for fear of also creating losers, intends to throw cash at every option in the hope that the market can make the choice later. But the market is not immaculate–and less so in energy than almost any other commodity. Electricity has to move down a finite number of power lines, and transportation fuels depend on the nation’s 160,000 gas stations for market entry. You can expect the gas station infrastructure to, say, provide replacement batteries, charging points, hydrogen terminals or natural gas compressors. But can you expect it to provide all of these?
Maybe the gas station, rather than being the vital element in the new energy regime, will be rendered obsolete by disruptive new technologies that allow gas compressing and electric charging in home garages and commercial parking lots. Maybe the hybrid of the future will have a compressed-gas engine and plug-in capacity, and all this will be achieved without the traditional gas station. Technology enhances, modifies and improves, but it is hell on established order.
Leon Trotsky said: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Congress ought to know that technology, disruptive technology, is interested in it. –For the Hearst/New York Times syndicate
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Guest: Pat Choate and Bob Franken
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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s building on H Street in Washington glowers across Lafayette Park at the White House. It is a impersonal building, austere even, reminiscent of a British colonial post office.
With 3 million members, and the largest budget of any trade group in Washington, the chamber is a political force to be reckoned with, as is its hard-driving chief executive, Thomas Donohue.
Its stance is that American business is a kind of Gulliver, tied down by the Lilliputian strings of regulation and regressive public policy. Under Donohue, the chamber has relentlessly sought out threats to business, real and hypothetical. It opposes unions; regulation; government intrusion into markets; expansion of programs that cost tax dollars, which is all social programs; and raising the minimum wage. It is more ambivalent these days about health care. And Donohue can be quite capricious; for example, he has called for normalizing relations with Cuba.
Now the chamber is roiled as it seldom has been. The casus belli is climate change, and what a storm it has produced. Three large electric utilities have withdrawn from the chamber, accusing it of extremism in its stance on climate change. Sneaker giant Nike has resigned from the chamber’s board of directors in protest, but is still a member.
The utilities include Exelon, by some measures the largest utility; Pacific Gas & Electric, a giant in California; and PNM, the largest utility in New Mexico. As a percentage of membership, they do not affect the chamber much; but strategically, their rebuke means a great deal. They are the very constituency the chamber and Donohue are out to help. They burn coal as well as other fuels, and they are critically affected by what is to happen in climate legislation or regulation.
The utilities want Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation. If Congress fails to pass the legislation, they fear Environmental Protection Agency regulation. The stakes are high. The chamber is opposed to the present cap-and-trade legislation before Congress, and has challenged the science that would be used by the EPA.
“If Congress does not act, the EPA will and the result will be more arbitrary, more expensive and more uncertain for investors and the industry than a reasonable, market-based legislative solution,” said John Rowe, Exelon’s chairman and chief executive officer.
Two of the big rebel utility CEOs are national business figures: Rowe of Exelon is revered as a prince-philosopher inside and outside of the electric industry; and Peter Darbee of PG&E, who wrote a strongly-worded letter of resignation to Donohue, is a major corporate friend of the environment.
All three utilities, along with their Washington trade association, the Edison Electric Institute, favor cap-and-trade legislation now being considered in Congress. Another utility savant, James Rogers of Duke
Energy, is pulling his utility conglomerate out of the National Association of Manufacturers, because of its opposition to cap-and-trade.
Darbee hit hardest at the chamber. In a two-page letter he wrote: “We find it dismaying that the chamber neglects the indisputable fact that a decisive majority of experts have said the data on global warming are compelling and point to a threat that cannot be ignored. In our view, an intellectually honest agreement over the best policy response to the challenges to climate change is one thing; disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort the reality of these challenges are quite another.”
The chamber has opposed not only the EPA’s plans to regulate carbon emissions in the absence of legislation, but also has attacked the scientific basis put forward by the agency. Yet Donohue insists that the chamber is neither denying the carbon emissions problem, nor is opposed to a legislative solution. Instead, it wants one tied to a global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions to protect U.S. companies from onerous conditions.
Friends of Donohue–who applaud much of what the chamber stands for–say that it is caught in a position where it has to say what it is for, not just what it is against. The chamber has always been at the barricades, not facing its own guns. The experience is novel and unpleasant for those on H Street. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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