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The Cargo Cult of Business » Our Tax Dollars At Work

Our Tax Dollars At Work

Published on 5 Sep 2005 at 5:00 pm | No Comments | Trackback
Filed under The Cargo Cults of Business, Thanks for Playing, Brain Trust, Blogosphere, Business and Corporation Related, Health and Safety, Government: Federal, State and Local, Economics and the Economy, Main Stream Media.

As a blogger, I’d be remiss in not joining the Katrina bandwagon for at least one post. But there are very good reasons why our site is the Cargo Cult of Business, and not the Cargo Cult of Government. And Katrina is a case in point as to why this is.

Marginal Revolution has an excellent rundown on various FEMA-related issues. And, of course, CNN and Reuters have substantive coverage of the disaster itself. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune has a treatment of Homeland Security’s, shall we say, lack of preparedness. Even President Bush, in a rare move, owned up to some inadequacy. And the violent barbarism that erupted, some of it by law enforcement charged with protecting the populace, should leave everyone responsible for the inadequate response ashamed to show their faces in public. Lastly, and needless to say, the Blogosphere’s presses have been running non-stop. So as far as commenting on the actual disaster, and even the specifics of governmental ineptitude, I’m going to take a pass. It’s been done.

 But what I am going to do is take this opportunity to expound on why Cargo Cult  commentary on governances and their various shenanigans is inherently pointless. It is for the very simple reason that, where governments are concerned, it’s all cargo cultism.

I indicated in a prior post that Apple is our poster-child for business cargo-cultism. Well, they, and I would say, every appearance-oriented corporation combined, haven’t a patch on the operation of governances. The further up the chain you go, the worse it is, but I’ve seen debacles at the city and county level that have left me breathless: Cincinnati with it’s two stadiums, initially nixed by the voters in a ballot, until a blitzkreig in the local media herded the sheep into a staggering waste of taxpayer money. Almost every county in the U.S. adopting a Universal Building code that, being copyrighted, becomes a law no longer accessible to the citizenry (and tries to apply the same standards to ranches in Montana and townhouses in Boston). The list for local governances goes on.

But when we get to the Federal level, the dogs have really been let out. There’s the army with the much-publicized Bradley armored personnel vehicle imbroglio. Of course, Clinton and Lewinskygate, where it became completely unclear who was trying to hide what from whom, so deep were the layers of whitewash flying. And then, the poster child of the old millenium, the War on Drugs. And if that doesn’t work for you, there’s the poster child of the new millenium, the War on Iraq, where acting on wrong information was the order of the day. The list of examples of cargo cult behavior for the Feds is, literally, endless.

And it’s endless for one very simple reason: our system of government, combined with the so-called Fourth Estate of the media, form a system that, by its very design, emphasizes appearance and personality over competence and character. The voting public is complicitous in this game, albeit because they have been conditioned by both government and media to attend to appearances and not ask deep questions or– heaven forbid!– bring any critical thinking to bear.

Machiavelli pegged this behavior back in his day with one of my favorite quotes: "For the vast majority of mankind is concerned with appearances, as if they were realities, and would prefer to deal with the things that seem rather than those that are." This predilection reaches its zenith in any sort of democratic government. The system is inherently flawed; it breeds incompetence of the worst sort, rewards glad handing and schmoozing and punishes realistic assessment and competency.

The Katrina disaster proves the rule on all of these things. The one element common to all of the bureaucrats who failed the citizens of New Orleans in their time of greatest need is that they were more concerned with the forms of their offices and maintaining their organizational status quos than they were in rescuing citizens and saving lives. Oh, I don’t doubt that thousands of troops, rescue workers, and law enforcement officers were ready, willing, and able to leap into the breach. But it’s equally clear that their management were having none of it. The overweening focus on self-aggrandizement and powermongering endemic to our governmental bureaucracies reaped their terrible whirlwind last week, as our agencies charged with disaster management and relief ground their gears as thousands died. To say nothing of the institutional disregard of engineers bearing reality-checks that resulted in the collapse of the levies, a peril known and raised by the rank and file, only to be ignored by the powers-that-be.

In a business environment, there is a fundamental check-and-balance dynamic at work: the market. Corporations which don’t meet the needs of their market experience economic punishment. But what makes this work is that the feedback is granular, dynamic, and forceful. By granular, I mean that each individual commercial transaction not only carries weight, but it carries weight for a specific instance of a good or service. When I choose to buy a Chevrolet instead of a  Saturn,  even though I’m dealing with the same corporate oligarchy (General Motors) my "market vote" is a very precise endorsement at a brand and model level. Network effects allow the aggregate of individual votes to act as a unified incentive for GM to make more of a popular model, and a punishment if they don’t.

A market is dynamic because the feedback– the results of my buying decision– are instantaneous. The moment I give GM money for a Chevy instead of a Saturn, the die is cast into every GM sales report. The numbers can be massaged by executive lackeys, but the raw data are both immutable and precise. It is this combination of granular voting and immediate consequences that, literally, force responsiveness in a market. A large incumbent with a near monopoly, such as Microsoft, can exploit and tyrranize– for a while. But, so long as government protection does not yield an unfair competitive advantage (the Disney copyright extension being an example of such an abuse), the firm is as subject to the forces of innovation, quality, and consumer choice as any other. The market’s desires dictate corporate behavior.

None of these things are true for a governance at any level. Representative democracy means that we not only buy a package deal, we buy it as a pig in a poke. We are stuck with any color, as long as it is what the currently ruling legislature/executives/judiciary mandate. There is no granularity. We have no ways or means to give binding approval of disaster relief deficit spending and binding censure of deficit military spending. Worse, the system is in no way dynamic; the only dynamic element in it is the media, who have effectively ensconced themselves in the position of day-to-day arbiters of popular approval. The people themselves are cut completely out of the loop except at wide intervals where we get to choose between one set of corrupt officials or another, both of whose primary interest is in maintaining the status quo to better feather their own nests. We accept the system so long as the bread and circuses keep coming, but as Katrina shows, when the rubber meets the road the tire cannot take any weight. The governments so created and empowered by these processes cannot deliver to us in a real pinch; we face in this day and age the failure of their ability to meet primary charters.
At Cargo Cult, we believe that the granular, dynamic feedback of market forces ultimately incents companies to achieve across-the-board excellence. To that end, we hope that our commentary and suggestions can help make a difference, improving life for employed and employer alike.

But no such hopes hold for any system of representative democracy. The Katrina disaster only strenghtens my beliefs. The reforms needed– chief among which, I believe, is a truly elective tax system where the individual citizen can decide where, and if, his or her dollars are allocated– represent such a threat to the prevailing political status quo that their enaction is mere a pipe dream. In such an insular and intractable environment, proselytizing about how our governances need to be improved (by enforcing granular and dynamic feedback) is a waste of time. And energy.

Nonetheless,  as we saw with how the Katrina disaster was handled, the problems we face are so dire that these points are still worth repeating from time to time. For evil to triumph, good men need merely do nothing. Perhaps my exposition on why representative democracy in its current form is doomed to ineffectiveness will do some good. It may at least foster some robust discussion. I can only hope…


Postscript: I cite above the War in Iraq as a case in point of acting on wrong information because of it’s favorable appearance; but I want to be clear that I am taking issue with the execution of the War, and not its initiation. Indeed, War on Terror is simply an amped-up marketing spin for the redundant term "War on Violence." And that is what the legitimate use of force against others consists of: the prevention of interference, especially involuntary physical interference. Our approach to dealing with the terrorist threat is problematic. Our need to deal with, and deal with it proactively, is paramount. And this is true for all acts of violence, great and small, from schoolyard bullies to rapists to Al-Quaeda. Violence is the scourge of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and it’s prevention and retribution are the principal duty of any governance.

Post-Postscript: For a different but incisive take on both the shameful handling of Katrina and issues around the War on Terror, be sure to check out Bill Whittle’s recent post over at Eject! Eject! Eject!. While I slice my reality differently than he does, he hits so many nails on the head that it’s a must-read. 

-- Paul
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