Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tale of Three Bureaucracies

Herewith, I provide the first-hand experiences of calling three different organizations for customer service. Two of them are large private-sector companies operating, allegedly, in a competitive, free market environment that forces them to be both efficient and effective. The other is a large governmental bureaucracy that one expects, if one believes everything one hears, to be riddled with the inefficiency characteristic of the public sector.

Tale #1 -- DSL with Verizon

This happened quite a few years ago. I was up-grading from my interminably slow dial-up Internet connection. I called Verizon, provider of DSL service. I don't recall the process of signing up to be anything other than routine. However, the service never worked. I called customer service several times and talked with technicians at great length (having been patient enough to be "on hold" at even greater length). Although I didn't keep time, I'm certain that I spent, in the aggregate, over a period of several days, close to two hours talking with technicians. Finally, as exasperation crowded out patience, I decided just to cancel the service. After the usual litany of "dial 1 for this, dial 3 for that," etc. I was lucky enough to get a live person on the line, who tried to talk me out of canceling. "According to my records," she said, "you haven't yet talked with the highest level of technical support available." I replied, not very tactfully if I recall, that having already spent many hours on the phone, if they hadn't yet connected me with their most skilled technicians, I had no desire to talk to them now, and the service was duly canceled. [Note: my cable Internet service usually works fairly well.]

Tale #2 -- Cable TV with Time Warner

This happened a few months ago. After several years of successful service with this company, suddenly the cable started going out on a regular basis for no apparent reason. Naturally my first step was to call customer service. To make a long and frustrating story short, after several visits from technicians, sometimes with temporary success that lasted anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours after they left, I gave up and returned my cable box to the nearest Time Warner office. The lady behind the counter kindly accepted it and canceled my cable TV service without asking me why I was doing it. [Note: Direct TV is working just fine.]

Tale #3 -- Social Security Administration

This happened a few months ago also. Because (confession time!) I was nearing the age when certain things needed to happen, I called the government (you know, Ronald Reagan's "I'm here to help you" guys) to ask a few questions. I got a voice recording explaining to me that I could hold, and the estimated hold time was 8 minutes. Or I could leave my name and telephone number and someone would call me back. I chose the latter, hung up, and pursued other tasks. Sure enough, about 8 minutes later, my phone rang, and a nice lady with the Social Security Administration talked with me about 5 minutes, answering all my questions. [Note: according to a recent LA Times article, this government agency spends about 0.9% of its resources on administration, with the remainder going to actual program benefits. Compare this to the approximately 20% of total revenue that insurance companies claim they need for administration and profit, crying bloody murder if anyone suggests that they be required to spend more than 80% of their premiums on actual benefits for policyholders. Could it be that we might actually get 19.1% better insurance coverage if we allowed the government to run the program? I don't know; you tell me.]

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Reading the Sunday Paper

Like many people, I get some of my news these days from blogs. But I still read a daily newspaper. Had I not, I might have missed the brief report (all of three paragraphs on page A4 of today's Los Angeles Times) on the hunger crisis in Niger, the story about Haiti on page A11, the recap of China's recent flooding disaster (page A6), and the drama unfolding about Donald Bren on page A33.

Niger is a land-locked nation in western Africa about twice the size of Texas (Wikipedia), with a population slightly in excess of 1.5 million. Frequently beset by droughts, parts of the country have recently witnessed temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the Times, nearly half the population is now in desperate need of food. The country has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Niger is a member of the United Nations and receives some economic assistance from the United States and a few other countries.

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit the already impoverished country of Haiti (ranking 149 out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index). According to Wikipedia, the quake killed an estimated 230,000 people, with an additional 300,000 injured and 1 million made homeless. Six months later, 98% of the rubble remains, presumably including thousands of bodies. Almost no transitional housing has been built for 1.6 million people living in relief camps that have no electricity, running water, or sewage disposal systems.

Floods have killed an estimated 2,000 people in China this year. The worst occurred on August 7, and authorities are still attempting to rescue people crying for help and pulling bodies from the mud. Numerous cases of dysentery will probably claim more lives, as access to fresh water is limited.

Donald Bren is a wealthy man who is probably more responsible than any other single person for the development of Orange County, California. In 2008, Forbes Magazine estimated his personal fortune at $12 billion. Court records describe a lifestyle that includes at least three residences, a fleet of 5 jets, a 240-foot yacht, and a large staff of servants. Bren is also a noted philanthropist, having donated at least $43 million to the University of California alone. According to Business Week (2008), Bren's total donations to education, conservation, and research exceeded $1 billion. Two of his children are suing for retroactive child support payments of $400,000 per month, claiming that the $10,000 per month they did receive for awhile was insufficient and did not last as long as it should have.

I know, you're waiting for the hammer -- the moral of the story. I don't intend to provide it. It's just a commentary on the nature of today's world, culled from the pages of a single day's newspaper. You want a hammer -- supply your own! :)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Checks and Balances, Part II

Last week I discussed the balance of power between the people and the government. Here I reveal how a coalition of sub-populations cutting in an entirely different direction (connecting selected people with powerful segments of government) can become destabilizing -- possibly even undemocratic (dare I say dictatorial?).

First, I must confess that I still remember something from college physics. Trust me; this will actually be relevant.

Envision a metal object in the shape of the letter "U" with an internal groove, so that a metal ball placed inside will roll up or down but not fall off the edge. Because of gravity, the ball will inevitably settle at the bottom of the "U" unless it is disturbed by an outside force pushing it up one of the sides. However, the gravitational force will oppose the outside force, resulting in a "stable equilibrium."

Turn the "U" upside down, however, and imagine placing the ball on top, perfectly balanced so that the forces pulling to the left and the right are exactly equal. The ball will remain at rest -- until any force disturbs it. In this configuration, gravity is destabilizing; once set in motion, the ball falls precipitously, and unless something exists outside the system to remedy the situation, it falls permanently off its previously stable perch. This is an "unstable equilibrium."

While the analogy may not be perfect (they rarely are), the societal counterparts to this old physics lesson should be reasonably obvious and at least mildly instructive. The American way of life has a built-in inertia ("gravity") that tends to produce equilibrium -- at least in the long term. The principle of stare decisis formalizes this, incorporating the concept that courts (especially the Supreme Court) should not overturn previous decisions without overwhelmingly convincing rationale. Equilibrium is also evidenced by such expressions -- representing, perhaps, the "conventional wisdom" -- as "don't rock the boat" and "if it isn't broken, don't fix it." The tendency to re-elect public officials in perpetuity -- often in the face of evidence that would easily justify a change -- may also be considered relevant evidence.

So far, the system has worked fairly well. Extremism is generally not tolerated in this country, and "political mistakes" are often corrected. Witness, for example, the reversal of sedition laws (multiple times!), the eventual repudiation of legal segregation, etc.

The question before us now is whether our system of stable equilibrium is in danger -- and I maintain that it is.

The wealthy and the powerful have and always will have a vested interest in controlling the functions of government that can either assist or hinder them. As long as a balance of power exists between these entrenched interests and the "general welfare" -- either through a sense of justice among elected officials regardless of political affiliation or through a distribution of control as a consequence of fair elections -- then a stable equilibrium will be maintained. But if the wealthy and the powerful are successful in gaining overwhelming control, along with the election machinery required to maintain that power in perpetuity, then "the people" will have only one recourse -- the decidedly destabilizing recourse of revolution.

According to the Los Angeles Times (8/2/10, p. A1), conservative organizations (thanks in part to the recent "Citizens United" decision of the Supreme Court) are preparing to spend up to $300 million on the elections that will take place this fall. Given that this money will be spent selectively in key races and that people are known to be influenced by political advertising (especially when the real source of the money is concealed), $300 million is a scary number.

Just suppose (and granted this is a worst-case scenario) that Congress eventually falls into the hands of people who lower tax rates on wealthy individuals and corporations to next-to-nothing and raise tax rates on the middle and lower economic classes. Suppose further that government programs to help the poor (food assistance, for example) are dismantled, partially because they would no longer be affordable and partially because of philosophical opposition. Suppose further that the election machinery falls into the hands of partisan-oriented public officials who use their positions to influence the outcomes. (You say that already happened? Forget Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 -- old news!) Suppose further that regulatory machinery and anti-trust laws are eliminated, allowing corporations to raise prices on essential products, thereby in effect taxing (yes, I said "taxing") the common people to guarantee a continuing flow of money that would perpetuate their omnipresent, self-serving, multi-million dollar political messages.

Does this irreversible condition strike you as a recipe for disaster? But what stands in the way of it actually happening? Unfortunately -- at the moment -- not much.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Checks and Balances

Every reader of this blog -- by definition, educated and intelligent! -- is familiar with the internal checks and balances written into our Constitution, to ensure that no one of the three branches of government amasses excess control.

I maintain that we have not given sufficient thought to that other important balance -- the one between the people and their government.

Now, in order to argue that any sort of balance of power should exist between any two entities, it is necessary to assume or demonstrate that both of those entities have a rightful place in the world order. If either entity did not, then no balance of power would be necessary, or perhaps even desirable.

Let's take first the case of the people. That's only fair, since people -- individuals -- are the most essential building block of society. To claim that they should not have political power (in extreme cases, including the power to overthrow the government) would be ludicrous and contrary to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. It would also, as a practical matter, condone despotism, a force that has been responsible for many mega-tragedies in the world -- since individual dictators frequently find allegedly legal ways, through established governments, to compel their will on subjugated (although sometimes willing) people.

Secondly, let's examine government. At least in theory, it is simply the institutionalization over time of the collective will of the people at any given moment, established with at least one essential objective in mind: the prevention of the inevitable chaos that would result in its absence.

The Founders clearly understood this. Having declared independence from Great Britain, did they move toward anarchy (not used in a pejorative sense) and deliberately set out to organize no government in its place? Quite to the contrary. They recognized a purpose for government in the Declaration of Independence. When the Articles of Confederation proved to be too weak to hold the original colonies together, they scrapped it and wrote the Constitution -- a document generally recognized as providing a stronger central government than its predecessor. To my knowledge, no historian or political scientist (or even Tea Party activist) is today reviling President George Washington for calling up the militia in 1794 to enforce the laws of the United States when a group of people (I use that word deliberately) in western Pennsylvania decided they didn't want to abide by an excise tax on whiskey that had been duly adopted by the established government.

It appears, then, that people and government should share power, the former retaining the ultimate right to rebel if the latter exceeds the boundaries of common sense and humanity, and the latter retaining the right to impose democratically established rules and regulations on its citizens in an attempt to avoid chaos and to, umm, "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." (Did any of those words appear by accident? I doubt it.)

But I see that the word "impose" may be a red flag to some, perhaps even a call to arms. Should the government have more than the power to persuade? Is it really necessary to hand over our guns (figuratively, of course) and grant the collective will authority over individual behavior? Unfortunately, human nature being what it is...yes. If the carelessness (and probably criminal negligence) of BP fails to convince you of that, exemplifying as it does the widespread tendency of people (and corporations) to operate ONLY in what they perceive as their own best short-term interests (which ironically, in our complex society, is frequently also detrimental to their best long-term interests and those of people in general not associated with their special causes), then possibly nothing will.

The Founders were way ahead of us, as usual. Witness Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #15: "Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint."

Wisely, there are constraints on that constraint. Constitutional Amendment #9 says that "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." And Amendment #10 reserves powers "not delegated to the United States by the the States respectively, or to the people." The many will always prevail over the few, using either ballots or bullets, if and when the few perform sufficiently egregious acts, regardless of whether such acts are condoned by allegedly legitimate government.

Today -- every day -- the inevitable irony unfolds in a dynamic and complex nation, home to well over 300 million people, who have very little alternative but to trust a collective authority -- which itself is governed and implemented by fallible human beings -- to safeguard their individual rights and their personal well-being (at least in the physical sense of that term). All things considered -- although some improvements are definitely desirable -- maybe it's not working out all that badly. So far.