Monday, October 08, 2012

Public vs. Private

Megan McArdle has again written a post, which is not remarkable in itself, other than the fact that I happened to read it days before I came across the deconstruction her writing always begs for.  McArdle is the sort of glib believer who's impervious to being called on her own bullshit, and it makes for an entertaining regular feature on various liberal blogs. Here's Susan of Texas really doing a marvelous job taking this latest one apart. The original piece is a criticism of the president's lack of private-sector work experience (which Megan claims isn't even important, but then tells you in the subsequent 2500 words why she thinks it is).

There's conflation and obfuscation abounding everywhere in Meg's piece, but what really got me about it--and I don't know how I managed to be surprised--is her insular definition of "working," what she thinks people in the private sector actually do, even what small business holders or hopeful entrepreneurs do.  In her view, the working world is entirely composed of management, networking, and office drama--it's "business" as a labor category that she's constantly returning to. We understand that this is the employment exposure that she's had and all, but still, businesses can be in the business of making things, developing things, and performing tasks, and those vital parts of enterprise don't enter a whit into her understanding of practical work experience. No labor theory of value for her.

It's a small universe for Jane Galt. The alternative she sees to corporate work is consulting. The opposite of business work that she understands is government. But man, the color of my collar's only a little off-white, but even from here, it's pretty damn hard to spot much of a gap between a career manager and a career bureaucrat. (People who have actually worked for a living tend to be at least occasionally aware that a lifetime of wearing a necktie can choke off the brain if you're not careful.) When comparing jobs at the same level (which, as Susan notes, Megan doesn't), the tasks are really similar, with a related emphasis on relationships, favors, paperwork, organization, and the necessity of looking at humans as resources. That's the actual argument for why a job in management is in any way relevant to one in politics, and you'd think that even a dink like McArdle would have put one that together by now.

Not that aren't differences between the public and private sectors, it just doesn't lie so much in the skill set. The real difference between corporate and government bureaucrats, of course, is what those various organizations they serve are trying to actually accomplish, and how they are treated publicly. When I think of the "increasingly mandarin elite, hygenically removed" from the little people,* my mind doesn't race straight to the hallowed academic halls, but more toward favored and fat sectors of the economy: finance, for starters.

If you're a private sector manager, certain lies can be afforded with a fair bit less contradiction from your industry or objection from the media. And if you're in the big game, you can more or less vote to give yourself a much nicer slice of the pie. I'm not a big believer in the claims of authority, corporate or otherwise, and I've been asking myself for years if the stories we tell really matter in the face of what people actually do, but for god's sake, explicitly tasking the powers that be with administering public welfare on our behalf has got to be a better narrative for the species than explicitly praising them for taking as much loot as they can say with a straight face that they deserve.

I know, I know, it's Megan McArdle, and what do you expect. Honesty about the comparison dispels the illusion that corporate types are doing something magically superior to anyone else who wears a suit, and that would be way less lucrative for her (and for them). It must be what they teach you in MBA school.

*Though to be fair, banks of sufficient size, insurers, and military contractors do in fact grub constantly for customers, which is how she went and finished that statement. It just involves more lobbying and coersion. I think I have her pegged on her context however.


David Marlow said...

Not to seem obsessive about a tv show, but I wonder if "the private sector" can be summed up pretty darn well in any five episodes of The Office chosen at random, but only in the same imaginary world in which the average voter has appeared on Family Feud at least once, in which life is all the mildly interesting stuff that happens in between paperwork and below-average kids.

A new season of This Old House started. There's a company in Cambridge that specializes in demolition, where demolition means going through the house and basically salvaging anything and everything that can and cannot be useful in some way or other. You know, like our grandparents used to do. Because they didn't have the luxury of distinguishing between collar colors.

I got the same feelings reading that lady's little essay as I do when I hear people criticize PBS who clearly don't watch PBS.

(Family Feud moment of the day: "Name something you wouldn't want another man to give your wife." The number one answer was not "Semen!!!" I'll never understand the people that show surveys.)

Keifus said...

Hey don't feel bad about that, there's a reason that the show resonates so well. (The Office, I obviously mean. People watch Family Feud to feel better about themselves, I hope.) We all worked for or with one of those clowns.

Amazing how well Steve Carrell fed the ensemble together though. (I don't know that they needed a boss, but he constantly supplied conflict and drama. The Ed Helms character does okay in the same spot, but supplies a much more benign sort of cluelessness.) Caught one the other night after not having seen it for awhile, and kept thinking how it was probably a good episode on paper, and the cast seemed game enough, but it wasn't clicking.

I have been thinking of Mitt Romney in terms of my old employers a lot lately. We sold research projects, basically, and (I'll try to be delicate about this) we would explore any plausible extreme of expertise and scope if that's what it took to get the project in, and then we'd kind of define our corporate mission based on what we'd managed to convince people to pay us for and sort of pull off.

That's not always so bad if you're in technology services: you have customers and clients, and we needed to offer them ways to solve their problems. But we tended to define ourselves expediently based on what we thought people wanted from us. For no other reason than to get the job, and keep the gravy train rollin' on.

Mitt may well see corporate vulturing and presidenting in a similar light, and may not even remotely understand why people expect some baseline of democratic or humanitarian principles to govern him in either case. Especially when, born into the club, he's had a lifetime of people telling him nothing but how great he is.

But even for the rest of us, working for a living conditions you in strange and sometimes terrible ways. Our very culture regarding work is probably broken, which, bringing it around, goes pretty far to explain why The Office is so awesome.

In other news, when the hell did I turn into such a goddamn grouch?

David Marlow said...

I'm trying to stay with The Office sans Michael, but it really isn't nearly as good. Caught an interview with Amy Poehler and she went ahead and said what most of us already knew, namely, Steve is a genius.

I get the sense that Mitt is changing his views and/or lying so much that at this point he could actually save everybody a lot of trouble and just go ahead and debate himself.

(Family Feud moment of the day: "Name a reason a man remarries his ex wife." Yet again, "Semen!" was nowhere to be found in our survey.)

That slutty girl Rush loves was on the radio today. She's quite insane, claiming at one point that when it comes to men and women there are these things she referred to as "double standards". Whoa?!?!?!?!

David Marlow said...

Scratch that debate comment, Keif. Turns he says something on a radio show or something and then his spokesman comes up behind to say the opposite. Kind of genius, really.

Ben There said...

McArdle is a Koch brother acolyte. That tells me all I need to know about her.

I'm incredibly skeptical of the idea that private sector business success translates in any way to effective political leadership. A successful CEO or venture capitalist has one mission: maximize shareholder value. Anyone other than the CEO and a few insider, well-heeled large shareholders are just counterparties. Customers, employees, the community at large, these all at best come a distant second for the wealthy business leader. It's really a very narrow focus and it usually involves gaining at someone else's expense. The objective of government should be the opposite: your singular focus should be to serve the public interest (of course i know it really doesn't work that way, but it should). There's a certain ruthlessness that big time CEOs require that I do NOT want in a president or congressman.

Keifus said...

Yeah, I think that the required skills are similar though, and that's much more true on the middle manager/bureaucrat level (which is what Megs takes, as un-self-consciously as ever, as "working for a living") than the CEO level, but still. It's a lot of networking, paper-shuffling, and bullshitting. I don't think there's enough difference in the jobs to claim that the businessman is a super genius, and the government is inherently the devil that stifles any kind of dynamism. (And in the financial sector, hey, it's the same goddamn people in the upper private and public ranks.) It's a fiction that the Kochs et al keep alive to get the game rigged just a little bet more in their favor.

What is highly fucked is the culture that claims that. Just like you say.

[It's a definite possibility that I'm thinking in circles here.]

I was thinking that the penultimate paragraph of my post there makes me sound like a raging communist. Administering on behalf of the public welfare was pretty much the governing Soviet narrative, right? But they had the same underlying bullshit that management in this country always has provided. "Work is it's own reward, suckers. Never mind the guy behind the curtain." Fuck, I think the problem is that we need to allow some human decency and responsibility into the general set of motivations and actions somewhere. How does that ever happen?

Keifus said...

David, I can't tell if he believes his own bullshit, or if he is just shameless to an as-yet-unheard-of degree. Yeah, it's impressive as hell. I'm used to even the real monsters trying to weasel things up enough to make the turnarounds seem something like different views of a coherent philosophy, however implausible that may be.

I've watched a couple reporters pause uncomfortably for a second before describing Mitt's... new... campaign strategy from the teleprompter, but they're all going along. Just point me in the direction of Eastasia right now. Fuck yeah!

Oddly, I was thinking of writing a post about Rush. I will try not to think about semen.

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