Bumblers

March 20, 1995|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In this high season of government bashing, some attention should be given to a neglected reality, namely, that personal incompetence and organizational asininity are probably about evenly distributed across the public and private sectors.

A different impression arises from the corresponding political broadsides of Republicans and Democrats as they compete in denunciations of government and in adulation of business and industry. Messrs. Clinton and Gore insist that government is so bloated and inefficient that it must be reinvented. Calling for stronger remedies, Speaker Gingrich and company are smashing at major segments of the federal establishment with a wrecker's ball. From the earthquake-monitoring U.S. Geological Survey to the Departments of Energy and Commerce, termination or severe scaling down is their goal.

That's the only way, they contend, to free the private sector from the dead grip of government regulation and cruel taxes. Once liberated, free enterprise, energized by the competitive marketplace, will flourish for the benefit of all -- or so the theory goes.

The contrasting views of public bumbling and private efficiency invite some skepticism. Government organizations generally perform on a public stage, and therefore have difficulty concealing their stumbles and incompetencies from the press and Congress, often abetted by leaks from aggrieved, whistle-blowing insiders. Large categories of federal documents are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, whereas corporations maintain a tight grip on their sensitive papers.

When the Pentagon overpays for a toilet seat, we hear about it. But the private sector is indeed private, and its catastrophes usually remain in the family -- until they swell to colossal scales that defy concealment.

The Ford Edsel, firmly enshrined in the folklore of corporate folly, is perhaps the best known of such occurrences. But enough giant missteps of that nature have come to light to cast doubt on the cult of private-sector worship now running loose in Washington. The reality is that neither sector possesses unalloyed brilliance in managing complex affairs.

IBM, for decades the unassailable leader and profit-maker of the revolution in information management, guessed wrong on the irresistible advantages of the personal computer, stuck to its mainframes, and lost billions in the process. Xerox missed out on the computer age, ignoring its own researchers, though they ZTC were in the vanguard of computer innovators. General Motors is just returning to profitability after years of losses in the multi-billion-dollar range.

The Monsanto Company spent over a decade, and a billion or more dollars, to develop a bioengineered cow hormone, Posilac, to increase the output of milk -- a commodity that has long been in voluminous surplus. Despite a strong promotional push by Monsanto, consumer resistance and skepticism on the farm have held first-year sales to about $70 million, a poor return on investment, according to a recent account in the New York Times. Meanwhile, several other companies are developing their own versions of the milk-boosting hormone.

Cheerleaders for the private sector would have a carnival if government agencies were responsible for these episodes. But as corporate ventures, they're excused on the grounds that losses and other disappointments are solely the business of the companies involved.

But tell that to the retirees who saw their IBM nest eggs reduced by two thirds, or to the thousands of Big Blue employees who lost their supposedly lifetime jobs because management guessed wrong about computer trends. When a big corporation makes dumb choices, the damage is not confined to the company.

Would government decision-makers have performed any better in handling these decisions? Given their track record with big problems that require foresight and management of complex affairs, there's no reason to think so. From the U.S. Postal Service to the lack of long-range storage for nuclear waste, monuments to failure in the federal government are abundant. But that's no excuse for the wave of fantasies about the competence of the private sector. By and large, the capacity for getting it wrong appears to be evenly spread around.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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