Government Waste?

Ninety dollar hammers; sixty dollar ashtrays; 10-year studies of fly crap. We’ve all heard the stories. Everywhere you look, there is another story in the media discussing the wasteful nature of government spending, pointing out the most egregious and flagrant misuse of taxpayer dollars. “The Fleecing of America,” is what it’s called on at least one news show. Even in the most nominally frugal administrations, it seems, there is no end to the pork-barrel excesses of Washington.

And all of these stories fuel the argument that government is simply too wasteful to be effective at providing much of anything to citizens. Conservative thinking says that this waste is endemic to governments, and that the private sector would be more effective at providing services. As I watch these stories, as I listen to the crowing of fiscal Conservatives about the effectiveness of corporations over government and as I watch Joe Public nod his head in agreement, I am compelled to ask a question:

Dude. Don’t you have a job?

Because if you do have a job, you must surely have noticed by now that at least two thirds of what you do in a day is a total waste of energy. I’ve been a $5.50-an-hour unskilled wage monkey, a machinist and CNC programmer, a tech support guy and most recently, a web designer. My collar has been both blue and white, I have worked for small companies and large, I have been skilled labor, highly-paid professional contractor and meat behind a machine. It’s all the same crap, anywhere you go.

In the manufacturing world, the phrase is “hurry up and wait.” The familiar scenario is this: your boss is breathing down your neck, chomping on Rolaids and swearing about the next big project that needs to get done now, now, now. You work twelve-hour days all week (at time-and-a-half), weekends (in some cases, at double pay) and holidays (probably triple time, if you’re union). You push the envelope and your boss hopes New York State doesn’t find out you’ve worked more than 14 days without a day off (which is illegal). Then three skids worth of your hard work and effort sits in a darkened corner, everyone going to great lengths to ignore it, until someone finally gets the balls up to throw it all into the scrap heap because it turns out not to have been needed at all.

If you haven’t experienced this scenario in one way or another, you probably work in academia or have no job at all.

In fact, with the benefit of my years and multiplicity of experience, I have come to learn that corporations are like giant economic strip-mining machines. When a corporation sets it’s collective mind to a task, it spares no expense and seems in fact to go out of its way to spend the maximum amount on seeing that task through. If you have a laptop, you might have paid $1500 for it; if your company had bought it, they likely would have paid $2000 to $2500 for the same machine. Full MSRP on everything.

They hire way too many people to complete the job, and in the case of professional positions at least, pay richly for their services. Oh, how corporations love to hire temps! They hire subcontractors to do jobs that could probably have been done cheaper in-house. They insist on doing things the hardest and most wasteful way possible, then decide they don’t like the results and make you do it again. Corporations quite literally throw money around, and the rest of us just hope to grab some of it on the way down.

But it’s government that is inefficient?

So many people fail to see the forest for the trees: we all know our jobs suck, we all complain about the stupid crap we had to put up with today, yet many of us still think the private sector would be so much better than the government.  Why?  Nothing in our experience proves this out.  Most of our work-a-day lives are living proof that this is not the case, but I think many of us take our own experiences as somehow exceptional, rather than proof of a larger truth.

Certainly, government is inefficient, but I don’t believe that it is endemic to government so much as it is endemic to human social structures, generally. We waste because, in the push and pull of differing priorities, each layer in the process adds it’s own complications. Senators and Congressmen secure “earmarks” and pork-barrel goodies for their constituents; managers compete for a slice of the next pie coming down the line; executives insist on their own importance, fighting to get their names on the next project any way they can, efficiency be damned. It’s all the same thing.

Well, not quite the same thing.  In a democracy, we have a right not only to know what our tax dollars are spent on, but to decide which expenses are acceptable and which are not.  Hence the news media reports on such things, hence they become a regular part of the political fodder.  As another cog in the machine of a corporation, you have no such rights, hence you see no such reports unless a given corporation commits a crime.  But as the government continues to increase it’s outsourcing, we begin to see that the corporations our government hires do no better at all, and in fact take the opportunity to grab a cushy government contract and make it cushier.  These days, those of us on the Left blame cronyism.  While there is some truth to that, the larger truth is that corporations are just as wasteful as governments.

So, the great irony in all of this is that government’s inefficiencies are on display for all of us to complain about – as is only right and proper in a democracy – and our leaders convince us therefore to turn over services to private subcontractors whose efficiency is entirely beyond our power to control.  I would personally rather the expenses of our government be debatable and negotiable, if the alternative is to just slowly hand our sovereignty to the undemocratic nature of corporations.  Even if – especially if – that means constantly fighting over government waste.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.