Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Debugging State Industries

I read an interesting article about a British company called "Think that's planning to sell/lease electric cars. They seem to be full of interesting ideas (batteries being loaned rather than owned, so people can swap up to newer batteries when the capacity on theirs sags, with older batteries used to store energy generated through green practices, among other things). Could all this work? Would it be better for the environment/economy/convenience of people in the long run? One hopes.

Thinking about entepreneurs like this, alongside claims that state solutions "don't work as well as the private sector", I am inclined to wonder how the public and private sectors actually differ. In some cases, the public sector seems to work well enough for our purposes (fire departments, perhaps police and education although those fail in some regions and are sometimes replaced with private contractors - is the benefit from this more that the existing infrastructure/people wern't effective and needed replacement or that there's some deeper difficulty that the private sector is theoretically better at in a way unmatchable by the public sector?). When I think about industries being nationalised or denationalised, I want to understand what changes happen during that transition that affect the quality and economy of the services/products they provide, how intrinsic they are to that model of running the industry, and if/how they might be paralleled on the other side. One theoretical difference is competition with various options in tactics (what kinds of materials to use for a product, what teaching methods for a school, etc), although while competition is unorthodox within a centralised system, it is not unimaginable (either as a short-term or long-term process). Complaints of inequity in what method is used may be difficult to justify to those who need the service (why do they get steel and we just get iron?), but they don't get any justification when caused by market forces ("we can't afford it" shifts the complaint away from the system and towards the self, although it also acts as a reward for what is supposedly more/better labour - is that healthy?). Another theoretical difference is, as sketched at above, the ability to replace people and systems that fail or do poorly in their tasks, although a sufficiently careful centrally planned system could do this as well provided people can remember to care more about results than about political favours. Yet another difference is that entepreneurs who have good ideas are given a path to put them to task, as done by bankers and venture capitalists presumably on the strength of their ideas. Within a more static system, these alternative business methods and differences due to staff would universally fail to be given a chance (rather than the conditional chance they get now from independent providers of resources - again the bankers/VCs). A state solution could presumably find ways to make this work as well, were it to be designed with the understanding that such things are often in the public interest. One difference that I don't like is that the private sector tends to provide less to its workers - less job security, weaker pension/health/etc plans, and the like. When privatisation hurts the cause of labour, especially when it concentrates salary and other benefits to executives, I think of this as a failing of private capital, and increased efficiency of this sort is often undesirable. This likewise goes with the "clean hands" types of requirements in government work - stronger protections for minorities (when they make sense) and things of that sort should ideally pervade the entire job market. I imagine there to be many other possible theoretical areas where the private sector does better than a naïve implementation of the public sector, and, as advocates of the public sector, I think we would do well to study each of those differences and advocate changes in the way the state runs such enterprises consistent with our notions of the public good so we can have efficient/effective (but still ethical) state solutions. For CS geeks, I think of this as being strongly akin to debugging a program by tracing it in a debugger, looking carefully for differences in program state between one's idea of the program and the program as implemented. There is one difference that I see as particularly difficult between the public sector and the private sector though, and that is corruption/favours. In the private sector, the motivation for profit creates a certain ruthlessness. This is sometimes harmful (as when the company does not benefit from external things that are themselves in the public good and would benefit from their absense, barring legal restraints they would be tempted to destroy those external things, e.g. the oft-exaggerated but still real purchase/destruction of public transit by car companies in the US), but internally in some ways it's very helpful - when inefficiencies are visible and strong enough to be worth dealing with, companies generally attempt to deal with them, whether they be bad personnel or bad process. It would make sense for efficiency (as it relates to survival of a company, especially those operating on a narrow margin) to compete with inner politics in the private sector (a politically powerful person who would ruin the company would presumably eventually be upseated), while in the public sector survival would provide less impetus for that (unless the entire state is in jeopardy, and even then foreign loans are presumably taken less seriously). Dealing with this is presumably a large challenge for public sector entities (and companies that are either large enough or living in a time of sufficient plenty to lose this connection - I've heard of inner struggles within corporations and universities to ditch some influential-but-harmful staff).

Recently read the official aims and policies document of the Tories in Britain. Compare:

There are also several parties active on the European level - most of them lack strong platforms, presumably because the individual per-country parties they include are sufficiently diverse? The factions within each party are sometimes fairly diverse too though - apart from the American parties (where entryism is an almost meaningless concept), we see frequent inner power shifts in other parties (Blair and New Labour, post-Thatcherite Tories, etc).. Perhaps it's seen as a loss of dignity for a party to belong to a pan-European party that officially is at ends to one's party planks? If that's so, perhaps we can expect pan-European parties to act more like tendencies until/unless the local parties lose their own identities to the larger grouping..

It'd be interesting to analyse how often parties stick to their platforms and stated principles given the understanding of inner struggles/dealing within each party and partially propogandic nature of these platforms.


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