Unsolicited Musings from Some Unmotivated Bureaucrat

One of the best parts of my new workout routine is that after I complete a workout, I get ten minutes with three newspapers and some fine morning coffee before I have to head out and face the world ((I’m also working my way through all the television that I “don’t have time to watch.” But that’s a different post.)).

My gym has fresh copies of the Wall Street Journal, the Denver Post and the Coloradoan available every morning, all of which I used to scan digitally, but now I can lay hands on the old fashioned (and still my favorite) print editions.  And because I now start those workouts at a time so early as to might be considered late night by my college-aged self, I get to the papers pretty much first.

Last week, I read the Crovitz editorial in the WSJ about how business, and not the government, created the Internet.  I laughed out loud when I saw the mangling of history in an attempt to prove the power of business over the ineptitude of government, and others have done a fine job of refuting its contents, so I won’t do that here.  In yesterday’s WSJ were a couple of related letters to the editor, one co-written by Vint Cerf, who was present and hands on with much of the interesting stuff of the early Internet, but that wasn’t the letter that got me angry.

No, that was the letter from James Van Alstyne, a former engineer and professional poker player, who argued that, of course business did the important work of innovation, because, as we all know:

Capitalism, through competition, sets demands for continual yearly (sometimes quarterly) improvements which result for society in exponential progress over time. In contrast, unaccountable government bureaucrats, lacking incentive for innovation and improvement, provide only declining or stagnant “service,” and the only exponential growth occurs in the costs thereof.

As an “unaccountable government bureaucrat,” I thought I might humbly mention a couple of things in response. ((Of course, no one’s paying me to write any of this, so perhaps I’m not in a good position to respond. I don’t know where I’ll find the energy or motivation to write the rest of this post.)) Mostly, this:

I don’t get out of bed in the morning for hope of profit or further riches.  I don’t mind making money for my work, because I have a family to look after and I enjoy the benefits that come with being fairly compensated for the work that I do.  And, hey, I’ve never complained when I’ve sought out additional opportunities for income.  But I don’t believe that profit is the only incentive one needs to function in the world.  I do find that insisting cold hard cash is the only incentive worth wondering and/or worrying about to be a problem.  A big one.

I can think of plenty of instances in recent history where a monied motivation led to a significant issue for a large portion of the American population.  I bet you can think of a few, too.

I’m not in the either/or camp when it comes to talking about whether government or business is the best ally of progress.  There’s room on both sides.  But it’s a chocolate and peanut butter arrangement.  Government, when it’s working well, is a good check on our basest, freedom-loving selves. Good public sectors help good private sectors.  And vice versa.

But when we pretend that the only motivation worth wondering, measuring, considering, or thinking about is profit, well, we’ve gotten to a very bad place.

Of course, what do I know?  I’m just some unaccountable bureaucrat. ((If you want to read more about the history of the Internet – which isn’t a bad thing to do – I’d encourage that you start with Where Wizards Stay Up Late.  It’s a good and accessible read.  If you want to explore some other government/private technology partnerships, you might look at The Idea Factory – a book on Bell Labs, or Dealers of Lightning, a book on Xerox’s PARC.  Both good. For a consideration of how government and private industry all made mistakes during previous communication revolutions, I’d also recommend The Master Switch.))

10 thoughts on “Unsolicited Musings from Some Unmotivated Bureaucrat

  1. Well written. I enjoyed reading this.

  2. Suggesting that “cold hard cash” is our only motivator is an insult to mankind. It reduces us to unthinking slaves, with cash our masters. Personally, I am competitive, mostly against myself and like to be my best. I take pride in my work and love it when students are effected by it. Of course I need to get paid, and I don’t feel guilty about it. Like you say, its chocolate and peanut butter. An either or approach puts us in big trouble. Lasse Faire economics in education easily means survival of the fittest. If a lower performing student can’t keep up, he or she gets left behind. If the highest performing school gets the most money and the lowest gets the least, isn’t that counterproductive? Capitalism should not be applied to education. Students are people, not businesses.

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