Mistakes Were Made

It has become a commonplace in our political discourse to accept, as fact, that government is incompetent. And, heaven knows, there’s been plenty of evidence of late to support that assertion.

You’ve got the Center for Disease Control’s haphazard response to the much-hyped “Ebola crisis.” You’ve got multiple embarrassments involving the Secret Service—an intruder making it all the way across the White House lawn and into the East Room before being tackled by an off-duty agent, the private security guard with a gun (and a criminal record) being allowed to ride in an elevator with the President, the disclosure that, when the White House was shot at a few years ago, the shooting was discovered not by the Secret Service but by a woman cleaning up broken glass on a White House balcony several days after the incident.

You’ve got real scandals at the Veteran’s Administration and trumped-up scandals at the IRS, and then you’ve got your evergreen scandals like Benghazi, “Fast and Furious,” the roll-out of the Obamacare website, and the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis. (Government didn’t suddenly start having problems when President Obama was inaugurated.)

“Incompetence Running Wild” headlined an editorial on Investors.com. “Incompetence Meets Mendacity in Obama Administration’s Ebola Response” announced the National Review Online. But it’s not just right-wing commentators who have seen these events as proof that governmental programs are hopelessly incompetent.

“It’s ravaging Americans’ already tenuous faith in the competence of our government and its bureaucracies,” wrote Frank Bruni in his New York Times column.
But why is this proof of the inadequacies of government bureaucracies? Why isn’t it proof of problems faced by all bureaucracies, public and private?

Consider that today alone, just the Business section of Mr. Bruni’s paper, the newspaper of record, reported on these stories:

• The hacking of 76 million personal accounts and seven million business accounts maintained by the nation’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase.

• The disclosure that 14 million cars from 11 different manufacturers (including Toyota, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors) had to be recalled because of a defect in their air bags that had already caused three deaths and over 100 injuries.

• The warning by security experts that people trying to use Apple’s on line data storage service, known as iCloud, were being targeted and that their passwords were being stolen and their activities spied on.

• In more Apple-related news, analysis of the new Apple Pay system that concluded: “using Apple Pay to shop on my phone or tablet ….That system has lots of room for improvement. It’s limited, still buggy and seemed to result in multiple charges for some purchases—at least on Day 1.”

• The acknowledgment by the retail chain Staples that its computer systems had been compromised and its customers’ credit card information left unprotected. (This story reported on prior breaches at Target, Home Depot, Neiman Marcus, Dairy Queen and P. F. Chang, among others.)

• The levying by the European Commission of over $100 million in fines against four major banks (including—there it is again—JPMorgan Chase) for illegally manipulating interest rates.

Now that was just today. There is also, of course, the shocking example of General Motors and how it managed to ignore information about defective ignition switches for more than a decade. The death toll caused by those defects (now 29 and counting) was literally yesterday’s news.

So was the story about Trinity Industries, a “highway guardrail maker accused of selling systems that can malfunction during crashes,” that was found guilty by a Texas jury of defrauding the federal government, according to the New York Times. (Damage award: $525 million.) And the day before that, there was the story about giant drugmaker AbbVie’s calling off its so-called “inversion,” its plan to merge itself into the much smaller UK company Shire, a corporate decision that will cost AbbVie, in the form of a break-up fee to Shire, more than $1.6 billion.

Indeed, every day brings us stories of malfeasance and misfeasance in the private sector—environmental pollution, contaminated food, automobile recalls, fraudulent practices, terrible investments, and, of course, pure and simple greed. But somehow nobody gathers together those stories under headlines like “Incompetence Rampant in America’s Boardrooms” or writes editorials suggesting that we need to jettison the capitalist system because of repeated displays of ineptitude or worse by corporate bureaucrats.

Republicans repeatedly denounce the Affordable Care Act on the ground that it allegedly allows some faceless government bureaucrat to make their health care decisions for them. (How many times has the House voted to repeal Obamacare?) But is it really better to hand over our health care decisions to faceless bureaucrats at for-profit insurance companies?

The reality is that bureaucracies, public and private, are prone to error—that people are prone to error. It isn’t government that’s the problem. After all, governments and corporations don’t kill people. People kill people.

About Lawrence Peitzman

Lawrence Peitzman is a lawyer in Los Angeles.
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