Saturday, November 05, 2011

There's a lesson in here, or maybe a business model

T-Mobile Sign Up Issues

You always hear about government being the problem, not the solution.  Less often do you hear about business creating problems in the course of creating solutions.

(Curt Monash knows nothing of my political opinions, or of me in general.  So do not assign approprobrium to him that rightfully belongs to me.)

I would not argue that government should take over the mobile phone industry, or regulate sign-ups, or require that CRM staff be empowered in ways they currently aren't, or even that companies should be required to use stemming in their internal search engines.

But governments have tremendously responsive feedback loops built into them.  They're not perfect, obviously, and I have friends who work in government and technology who tell me there's an inordinate amount of bureaucracy in both.  And its slow, and its cautious, and its not intellectually challenging and often-times effort is completely reversed and wasted.  But those aforementioned feedback loops would very quickly bring to the minister or secretary or executive director's attention that they weren't signing people up, and to avoid the embarassment of being accused of the kind of ineptitude editorial pages seem happy to accommodate in private business, the government would fix something like T-Mobile's sign up issues.  They might not fix them as fast as people would like, but the same people would merely roll their eyes at T-Mobile's inability to get things done.

So the net result is that the government, if forced to do something like what T-Mobile is doing, may end up doing it better than T-Mobile, with more reasonable costs.  It would do so because the organization would be forced by critical attention to listen to feedback quickly, and because all the anti-tax people would literally excoriate government for its inefficiency and waste and incompetence, which would ensure the government would do a better job, because its being watched.

Despite my intense dislike of the anti-tax excoriators, then, they perform a useful function.  Not only do they volubly demonstrate a particularly virulent form of the Dunning Kruger Effect, one that tells you as much about the business experience of the person doing the complaining as it does about the thing they're complaining about, but they also keep government working harder and better.

That's because, as every schoolchild knows, people get better when they get feedback.  T-Mobile has failed because it did not get enough feedback.  The people who think business is always better than government will tell you government gets no feedback and what's worse its a monopoly, while T-Mobile will gets its feedback in the marketplace, when people decide whether its worth switching to something better or easier.  But what if T-Mobile is the only or the best provider?  The supposition that T-Mobile will make its operations better because of feedback from the market demonstrates a stunning naivete about the modern large corporation, and if T-Mobile happens to be the only provider and there are the usual stunningly arbitrary barriers to entry for competitors, there might never ever even be feedback that makes T-Mobile work better.  So T-Mobile is a monopoly that gets no feedback, and there aren't even any smug well-funded wingnut-welfare attack dogs managing teams of earnest recent economics BAs who still hang out with their fellow Rand society alumni, armed with Lexis-Nexis accounts and chummy access to ideologically-attuned political parties, to make them look like fools or question whether, in fact, maybe Verizon or even IBM should be providing this crucial service. 

It takes, as they say, all kinds.  My intense psychological need for symmetry feels someone should be arguing the pro-government-services case with the same emotional vehemence, the same cash, and the same argument: to wit, that the failure of government to perform as expected is caused by the same large-group dynamics that cause companies that claim to be experts in their field to fail to perform as expected.

My education in logic, however, tells me that the "government can't do anything better than business" argument is probably a version of the ad hominem fallacy.  Which would drive some anti-tax crusaders I know crazy.

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