Short Cuts


Some people just can’t resist trying to improve things. Two recent encounters point out the pitfalls in trying to impose order on disorderly humans.

Before the election, I bumped into friends at the grocery store. One asked about instant runoff voting: pick your first, second and third choices from a raft of judicial candidates.

It’s too complicated, she said.

Somebody thinks it will save money on runoffs and be more efficient, I explained.

Well, she answered, whoever thought that up doesn’t understand how real people think. (About one-third of election-day voters in our county skipped those races. The Early Voting breakdown from the BOE is still pending.)

After Heath Shuler’s reelection victory on November 2, I headed for the Renaissance Hotel bar with friend who works on the Hill. We were discussing how to attract private capital for rebuilding manufacturing in western North Carolina when a self-described fiscal conservative butted in to talk about communists on the left.

I guess some pejoratives are just timeless. The Berlin Wall fell twenty years ago, pal, and you guys can’t get your heads out of the last century. Seen Shanghai lately? Not even the communists are communists.

“I’m a blogger,” I told him. “I attend a couple of annual conventions where I hang out with some of the people you’d consider communists. And I don’t know anybody who fits that description.”

Trust me, dinner conversation at such affairs doesn’t turn on how workers should control the means of production. I heard Lou Jacobi in my head reworking classic Jewish joke. By Rush Limbaugh, they’re communists. By Glenn Beck, they’re communists. And by you, they’re communists. But by a communist, they’re no communists!

Fiscal Conservative turned to the judges races. People should do the work to investigate candidates’ backgrounds and legal philosophy in the nonpartisan judicial races, he insisted. But instead, the local Democratic Party just furnishes voters with slate cards that just identify the Democratic judges.

He was right. It is not ideal. But it’s how busy people vote. Their decision process is less linear. They take shortcuts.

The quad at our local university exhibits a nice linear pattern of sidewalks — some architect’s idea of formal design and aesthetic appeal. But the grass exhibits worn paths where real people actually walk. Formal design doesn’t necessarily mesh with how people really behave. Smart people from both ends of the political continuum miss that. People vote for candidates they identify with. They take shortcuts.

Eventually, Fiscal Conservative asked one of those gotcha question meant to separate the capitalists from the commies: Which was better at creating jobs, government or the private sector? The question wasn’t just an accusation, but about somebody’s idea of efficiency.

Indeed, the Soviets thought it would be more efficient to collectivize farms and develop 5-year plans for production. Instead of wasting resources on making a dozen models of cars, there should be one model, etc. The attempt satisfied somebody’s need to perfect mankind, but it met with less than ideal results.

Among many capitalists, on the other hand, there’s this assumption that something is not worth doing (and maybe vaguely subversive) unless somebody, preferably them, is making a buck off it. To them, not-for-profit is the very definition of socialism. I mean, why use low-paid G.I.s for traditional military chores like logistical support and warehouse and facilities management when for-profit civilian contractors can do it at a much higher markup to taxpayers? The dogma that the private sector is always “better” at creating jobs is a noble-sounding, Chamber of Commerce conceit. Lipstick on the old for-profit pig.

The proper response to “Which is better at creating jobs, government or the private sector?” is something like: “Which is better for hammering nails, a brick or a stapler?” Every organization does some things better than others. Neither a brick nor a stapler is good for driving nails. Each has its use. In a pinch, you might use either to drive nails, but it’s not what they are for.

Just like the private sector, the government, and jobs. That’s what makes Fiscal Conservative’s question pointless except as a political litmus test. Neither one is designed for creating jobs. If they do, it’s merely incidental. Businesses – corporations, at the very least – are organized to generate profit first and foremost. If they can do that without hiring anyone, they will. Or without producing anything useful at all, for that matter. Ask Goldman Sachs.

But some people insist that the world be black or white. When Fiscal Conservative insisted that government cannot create jobs, I pointed out that the defense industry employs hundreds of thousands of workers in private-sector jobs paid for with tax dollars. That didn’t count, he said. (Somehow, I think it counts to defense workers.)

“Why doesn’t it count?” I asked. Fiscal Conservative couldn’t say.


  1. Tom Buckner says:

    Great post, Tom, and that’s all I have time to say this morning.

  2. Diogenes says:

    Alas, in much public discourse these days, sloganeering, buzzwords and pat phrases are employed stake out an emotional ideological base, or frame of reference. Using the scripts heard on cable TV and talk radio both sides simply and quickly trade quips and phrases to make facile arguments in an attempt to seize the moment and silence the opponent.

    Logic and understanding has nothing to do with it. It’s mostly a visceral, knee-jerk reaction that at best reveals a superficial mastery of complicated issues. For example, in a recent exchange in an online forum I posed a query about the futility and foolishness of paying a million dollars a year, per soldier, plus additional support & materiel costs, to remain in Afghanistan. A swift reply cited the well-worn conservative war-enthusiast’s argument, “it’s better to fight them over there than here at home.”

    How much thought and understanding went into that reply? Fight who? What threat do ‘they’ present to folks in East Overshoe, Indiana? My point?

    It seems increasingly futile to try to reason and win over those committed to points of view, frames of references, ideological positions, world views that are constantly presented and reinforced by media outlets. Obama is never going to convince Limbaugh the sky is blue. Why try?

    It would be better to do the right thing, whatever it takes, and leave the Limbaugh’s kicking, crying and screaming until they tire and find a reason to go along.

  3. I’ve had similar conversations in the recent path with similar results. To simply make a statement that the government can’t create jobs or the reverse, that the private sector is useless at creating jobs is like describing stars as pinholes in the sky. Thanks for the post, Tom!

  4. nathan ramsey says:

    There is enough name calling to go around on both sides.

    Beyond any notion of whether the government or private sector creates jobs, history has demonstrated that a free enterprise, market economy has created more wealth and lifted more people out of poverty than any other system devised by mankind. That involves a government upholding the rule of law, private property rights, and providing other basic services necessary for commerce.

    The private sector should be responsible for most job creatiion, risk taking and other economic endeavors. If businesses make a profit, they will grow, invest in equipment, and hire workers. Right now we are seeing what happens when businesses don’t earn a profit which is bad for all of us.

  5. Diogenes says:

    Nathan left out a few things government can do because the private sector won’t, can’t or decides not to in the name of profit. I.e., protect us from

    lead in paint
    e-coli in beef and spinach
    salmonella in eggs
    autos from catching on fire, tipping over, failing to stop & blowing up
    radiation from machines
    fraudulent weights and measures
    insider trading
    being dropped from health insurance when sick or because of pre-existing conditions
    having mines collapse on workers
    etc., etc., etc.

    Uncritical praise of ‘the private sector’ fails to take into account a historical track record of businesses, industries and individuals who prey on
    others in order to profit.

    Libertarians, like most Republicunts give not fig for the commonwealth.

  6. nathan ramsey says:

    I mentioned government’s job is to uphold the “rule of law” which includes many of the things you cite. We might disagree about how broad and to what extent the law should become but this is the way we have a fair playing field so there isn’t the stuff you menion like insider trading, theft, etc. going on with impunity.

  7. Sanuk D says:

    The question is not which sector is better, the question is why neither is acting. My long winded consideration of this post is available here

  8. Croatoan says:

    Beyond any notion of whether the government or private sector creates jobs, history has demonstrated that a free enterprise, market economy has created more wealth and lifted more people out of poverty than any other system devised by mankind.

    History as written by advocates of a “free enterprise market economy” anyhow.

    The billions left out of this equation may beg to differ.

  9. nathan ramsey says:

    Give an example of another economic system that has pulled hundreds of millions, even billions out of poverty with the opportunity for a better life.

    Currently we are witnessing skyrocketing commodity prices and its not because of the developed world. Demand for basic commodities are growing because places like Brazil, China, India, and other nations home to billions of people are experiencing much faster economic growth than we are seeing here in the USA. This presents many challenges for us (including offshoring jobs) but also many opportunities (new markets and wealthier customers who all want to experience their American dream).

  10. shadmarsh says:

    (new markets and wealthier customers who all want to experience their American dream).

    This is the problem. Ours is not a sustainable lifestyle. Perhaps this is why we are lagging way behind in the so-called “green economy.” Everyone gets it, but us. Perhaps our grandchildren will be the third world economy that the now developing world can access in the future for cheap labor and goods.

  11. Tom Sullivan says:

    Well, there’s free enterprise and then there’s disaster capitalism, which seems where we are now. As I’ve said, without an escapement mechanism a clock runs crazily and breaks. And we successfully removed the regulating mechanisms from our financial economy over the last few decades and are now suffering the consequences of the breakdowns, a series of bubble economy collapses — and by “we” I mean the little guys who don’t have the leverage to rig the game and have the Fed repeatedly bail them out with a gold-plated bucket.

    But getting back to my Renaissance inquisitor: he wasn’t asking an economic question, but testing the purity of my faith in a system that – to a certain way of thinking – shall not be questioned, even to improve it, lest ye be a heretic or a commie.

    I saw a bumper sticker this evening: “OK, JOKE’S OVER. BRING BACK THE CONSTITUTION.” (Speaking of jokes, I heard somebody joke that Constitution thumpers were going to allow Obama three-fifths of a term.) So, which constitution would that be? The one born of the original sin of slavery or the one Americans have attempted to improve with 27 amendments? The dogmatic view that any criticism of the system is a subversive rejection of it is beyond laughable, and a rejection of the last two and a quarter centuries of America history. But hot damn, it sells Sleep Number Beds, don’t it?

    What we see laid bare today is an economic system more broken than our political one, and a bunch of paranoid Panglossians who believe that critics are heretics and enemies of the state.

    I’m reading Taibbi’s new book about the fiendishly complex financial economy and the financial criminals who love it, “Griftopia.” He travels Nevada with a “Tea Party-friendly” candidate in Nevada and tries to ask him what we should do to prevent another credit default swap-driven financial meltdown. All he can get from the guy is how we need to get back “to what is in the enumerated powers of the Constitution.” Uh-huh. Right after the backsliders come to the altar and get born again again. This isn’t about economics, it’s about political theology.

  12. Tom Buckner says:

    Ahh, that Tea Party trope about “what’s actually in the Constitution.”

    Not in the Constitution: Any mention of God, Jesus, or corporations.

    If we really, really, really reverted to what’s strictly in the Constitution, that might actually be a big improvement…

  13. Heuristics. Rules of thumb. Simple mental programming enabling the quick reaction. Short cuts. Biologically, evolutionarily good for survival. But like any simple logic, can break down or prove faulty in a particular instance when complete picture proves different than quick mental impression. More lizard brain than human brain. Necessary but not enough. Utility but not the ultimate. Difficult to experience regret, cognitive dissonance over. Old dogs and new tricks.

  14. Tom Sullivan says:

    But like any simple logic, can break down or prove faulty in a particular instance

    Exactly. Sometimes complex problems really do require complex solutions. Other times, a simple mnemonic will do (or a talking point). The trick is not to be reflexive about employing one or the other, but to use the right tool for the right job or else the whole world starts looking like a nail. And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  15. nathan ramsey says:

    Tom – Back to your conversation at the hotel, here is a suggestion for you to follow up on that would involve the public and private sectors. The old Enka plant industrial site has been cleaned up and developers are looking for tennants (probably retail) and they are building a bridge across the railroad tracks from Smoky Park Hwy. into the site.

    This is a great business park site and we’ve already got enough strip shopping centers. Its right next to the AB Tech Enka campus. I am sure the developers would unload it with a small profit in these times to a public/private partnership who would use the site for companies focusing on high number of jobs. Also, next door in the spec. building 40,000 square feet (expandable to 80,000) that is now for sale at cost of construction.

    Talk with our congressman as well as our other federal reps. to see if they have any ideas. The state is facing a huge budget deficit next year and I don’t think local governments have any spare cash but this is a perfect site. This is what they do in the Upstate all the time. Like everything else, it always comes down to money but if we are serious about creating/attracting high paying jobs to WNC, it is worth pursuing.

  16. Tom Sullivan says:

    Thanks, Nathan. Wheeling and dealing is really not my area, but I hope to look into that as soon as I get some breathing space. Good idea.

  17. nathan ramsey says:

    Thanks Tom! You are more politically connected that I am, don’t think they’ll listen to me, if anyone ever did!

  18. Matt says:

    “…Fiscal Conservative insisted that government cannot create jobs, I pointed out that the defense industry employs hundreds of thousands of workers in private-sector jobs paid for with tax dollars.”

    Our local tea brewer, Franzi is a fiscal conservative and has spent much of the past couple of years repeating the small business/jobs dogma you describe. The irony? Her business creates some local jobs because of military/other government contracts. These jobs only stay here in the US because these contracts stipulate that the products must be “Made in the USA”. Guess where those jobs go without that stipulation…