I’m getting a little dizzy trying to process all the interrelated things going wrong these days. I’m pelted by a string of news events that fall on the hard asphalt of what seems to be structural flaws in our system. I’m left with questions that only lead to other questions, but not answers.
Let’s start with the Affordable Care Act. Speaking from Silicon Valley, I find it deplorable that some programmer looked at this application and said, “Sure, let’s make it live.” According to Bloomberg News, in two days, a grand total of 248 people were able to sign up. That’s less than a planeload. Airlines would go bankrupt if their reservations systems were that bad.
But closer to home, there’s even more government folly. I’m not sure how widely this story has been disseminated across the country, but it’s a doozy. Here in the Bay Area, the state’s Department of Social Services revoked the license of a nursing home in Castro Valley. The owners and most of the staff proceeded to depart, leaving 19 residents – elderly, demented, in need of medication – without care.
Only two staffers, a janitor and a cook, stayed behind, too good-hearted to abandon the residents, but without training or resources to offer even a minimum standard of care. They ended up calling 911 for help. Four times. But that’s not all. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, staffers from the Department of Social Services visited the facility, noted the complete breakdown in care … and then left without doing anything to alleviate the situation.
Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government isn’t the solution. Government is the problem.” He wasn’t completely wrong, but he wasn’t completely right, either. We need government oversight, exactly for people like the owners of that care facility, but we need government oversight that works. Why doesn’t it work? Those of us in the private sector know that when we fail to fulfill our duties, we’re fired.
The problem is that government services are essentially a monopoly. We have rules for governing monopolies, but it doesn’t help that those who oversee the monopolies themselves have no competition for the job. If the government doesn’t do its job, who will?
Why can’t government do its job? For me, this rolls directly into the larger canard that public sector employees are less competent because they’re paid less. Is that true? If it is, then why are municipalities and states alike bowing under the pressure of pensions? This seems to be the tradeoff for lower salaries: a magnificent retirement. (But municipal government can’t even seem to manage those: the San Francisco Chronicle noted last week that the city of Richmond, Calif., had purchased bonds to secure its outrageous pension obligations – and then increased its pension obligations.)
This is what worries me: are we looking at the incompetence of a few or structural issues that are leading us to disaster? I don’t know what will solve what looks and feels like an impenetrable cycle of incompetence, and I worry that we’ve become so lost in a thicket of confusion that we’ll never find our way out.