Two Americas

Posted: Mar 19, 2012 12:01 AM
Two Americas

There are two Americas.

No, I am not adopting occupy-style rhetoric that pits one group of Americans against another. What I am talking about is the fundamental difference between America’s entrepreneurial private sector and America’s cumbersome public sector.

Two quick anecdotes highlight the divide.

Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with an old friend who is in the private sector. He broke into the home building industry before the bubble burst, so he has seen the industry making record profits as well as businesses shuttering around him. And despite several tumultuous years, he worked hard, fought through adversity and climbed the ranks.

Rather casually, he mentioned the company was undertaking yet another round of modernization – an effort to improve inventory tracking at all of its warehouses, making it more accurate and much more efficient. It is just the latest in a series of moves by the company to become more efficient in everything from energy usage to work force management.

Recalling his early days with company, he marveled at just how much had changed. He was instrumental in pushing many of those changes, but the new emphasis on efficiency was necessitated by a changing economy. During the housing boom, efficiency was not a high priority as profits soared year after year…at times it seemed effortless.

The housing bust and subsequent economic collapse changed all of that. Market conditions forced the company to scale back; after all, it is hard to sell building supplies when no one wants to buy or build a new home. Cost savings and efficiency became the new buzzwords. Now, the company is lean, efficient and well positioned as housing starts slowly begin picking up.

I admire my friend’s ingenuity, but he was doing exactly what we would expect from a private company looking to survive in a bad economy. It was commonsense, responsible, forward looking…and very different from the public sector.

The next day – literally 15 hours later – I walked past one of the many enormous and gaudy government buildings in Washington. Outside the Federal Judicial Center, no less than four members of a landscaping crew slowly watered flowers, shrubs and trees, while another supervised.

I instantly recalled what my friend told me on the personnel side. Paraphrasing, he said all his guys are doing multiple jobs and doing them well. If he were to hire someone new, there would not be enough work to keep people busy.

It was infuriating to watch the landscapers lumber around with no sense of purpose, plodding from one tree to the next. There was not enough work to keep all four busy, let alone justify a supervisor. Even though it was a private sector company, there most certainly was not an emphasis on efficiency because it benefits from public sector largess.

For the government – and elements of the private sector that depend on government – the boom times continue. The federal bureaucracy has not come to terms with our $15.5 trillion debt and the impact it has on our economy, our quality of life and our national security.

By all accounts, market conditions should be forcing the government to scale back, operate more efficiently and prioritize. Yet, every time a modest reform is even suggested, the defenders of Big Government go on the offense, throwing out one false attack after another: war on government workers, pushing grandma off a cliff, etc. We’ve heard it all before, and for those in the private sector, it sounds like political opportunism and just cause for termination.

To be clear, the disconnect between the Washington Establishment and the American people is nothing new. For decades, politicians from both parties have sought to leverage that disconnect for political advantage.

Governor Bill Clinton promised to “streamline the federal government and change the way it works.” Governor George W. Bush promised to “restore confidence in government.” Senator Barack Obama promised to “restore the American people’s trust in their government.”

Those words ring hollow. All across the country, the private sector is retooling and retraining, trying to stay competitive in the face of growing competition abroad and outrageous regulations at home. Simultaneously, the government and its various remoras thrive, as if nothing has changed.

There are two Americas, and we have to change that before it is too late.