Question: Name An Activity The Government is Better At Than the Private Actors It Purports to Regulate

I am serious about this.  We saw in an earlier story that the government is trying to tighten regulations on private company cyber security practices at the same time its own network security practices have been shown to be a joke.  In finance, it can never balance a budget and uses accounting techniques that would get most companies thrown in jail.  It almost never fully funds its pensions.  Anything it does is generally done more expensively than would be the same task undertaken privately.  Its various sites are among the worst superfund environmental messes.   Almost all the current threats to water quality in rivers and oceans comes from municipal sewage plants.  The government's Philadelphia naval yard single-handedly accounts for a huge number of the worst asbestos exposure cases to date.

By what alchemy does such a failing organization suddenly become such a good regulator?

Update:  On the topic of cyber security competence or lack thereof, there is this:

In mid-May, the Federal Bureau of Investigations lost control over seized domains, including, when the agency failed to renew a key domain name of its own. That domain, which hosted the name servers that redirected requests for seized sites to an FBI Web page, was purchased at auction—and then used to redirect traffic from and other sites to a malicious site serving porn ads and malware. Weeks later, those sites are still in limbo because somehow, despite a law enforcement freeze on the domain name, the name servers associated with and those other seized sites were changed to point at hosts associated with a domain registered in China.

Yep, that is the lead government agency tasked with investigating hacking and cyber security breaches.


  1. Anonymous:

    National Security (U.S. Military) > Private Contractors (Blackwater, etc)

  2. Pete Chiarizio:

    Waste would be the only thing government is better at that comes to mind, as in entropy.

  3. William Woody:

    Spending a lot of money. (Which, sometimes, can be important, such as when dealing with a monetary policy disaster or when funding massive scale disaster relief.)

  4. Sue Smith:

    Arrogance, fraud, corruption, hypocrisy, above the law, incompetence, waste. Should I go on?

  5. marque2:

    I am not sure. A lot of the spending comes long after the event. Feds come in to the area not knowing much about it and make demands for resources., and actually shit down local efforts in favor of their own. Disaster relief on average is much better at the local level.

  6. Not Sure:

    "or when funding massive scale disaster relief."

    Like this?

    During disasters, Wal-Mart puts its own nationwide response center in motion, with sophisticated communications and a state-of-the-art shipping network.

    The system is so efficient that after Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart sometimes arrived with much-needed food and supplies before the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA was widely criticized for its slow response to those in need after Katrina hit.

    But Wal-Mart's response was faster and, in one case, the company even provided stranded police officers with clothes and ammunition. Now, in areas hit by Rita, Wal-Mart has already shipped donated clothes and supplies. It has even reopened stores in places with no electricity.

    With Wal-Mart's smooth response to Katrina and Rita, some are beginning to ask why government agencies can't perform as well as a discount retailer.

  7. Matthew Slyfield:

    Please do.

  8. Robert Davidson:

    I can name two things government is better at than anyone else: stealing and killing.

  9. Jim Collins:

    I agree with Notsure. Google "Waffle House Index" sometime.

  10. vikingvista:

    Extortion, homicide, shamelessness, confirmation bias, bribery, hubris, selfishness, bullying, fearmongering, monopoly, factionalism, large scale demolition, waste.

    NOT security, migration, education, research, regulation, marriage, monetary policy, transportation, or adjudication.

  11. marque2:

    I don't think it was a suicide threat.

  12. Ward Chartier:

    Could be unfair to point at the Philadelphia naval yard about asbestos exposure. Old capital ships need to be broken up and scrapped. Any civilian ship breaker would avoid old US Navy ships for the asbestos inside them. Falls to the government naval yards to do the work.

  13. vikingvista:

    Apparently, in some cases, the US Military disagrees.

  14. Not Sure:

    "With Wal-Mart's smooth response to Katrina and Rita, some are beginning to ask why government agencies can't perform as well as a discount retailer."
    To be fair, the incentives are not the same. If you're a discount retailer and you don't perform (at least as well as your competitors), you lose business. If you're a government agency and you fail to perform (in the eyes of the public, anyway, as being the government, you have no competition), you claim you need additional funding. It works for government schools.

  15. marque2:

    Note that the Mormon Church did the same. They actually positioned 42 semis in proximity to Katrina in several loctions where the hurricane may have hit. They were first responders as well. They have a giant warehouse in Utah with emergency supplies for the whole country, and they didn't just give it to fellow Mormons. Mormons believe you should skip lunch on Sunday and donate the money you would have spent for emergency relief. The warehouse workers and truck drivers are all Mormon volunteers.

  16. obloodyhell:

    }}} Name An Activity The Government is Better At Than the Private Actors It Purports to Regulate

    Ummmm... DUH: Wasting money.

  17. obloodyhell:

    }}} Any civilian ship breaker would avoid old US Navy ships for the asbestos inside them.

    Don't be ridiculous. There are plenty of civilian businesses which deal with asbestos removal in existing buildings. If the government wasn't doing it, there'd be a demand for businesses -- at a proper price point for the risk -- to do the job of which you speak...

  18. BGThree:

    Using overt and covert advertising to scare people into demanding they be forced to fork over more money to "keep them safe" from virtually non-existent threats? The pathetic private actors in charge of Big Candle and Cambpell's Soup can't even convince people to stock up on emergency supplies because power outages of more than 1-2 hours never happen. Meanwhile Fox News programming consists of experts yelling at each other in a contest to prove who feels the least safe in the face of the imminent threat of [insert middle east terrorist group du jour]. Cowardice is now patriotism, and if you don't think we need to spend even more money on even more weapons, then you don't support our troops you blame-America-first libertarian weenie!

    (Note: should we be encouraged or discouraged that "libertarian" is increasingly replacing "liberal" or "democrat" as the go-to catch-all insult for mainstream Republicans in teevee shoutcasts (i.e.cable news programming of the genre perfected by FNC but emulated by all).)

  19. m1shu:

    I don't know if the government would be any better but how the airlines handle their luggage policy is absurd. Now they are adjusting down the size of luggage allowed in the cabin and any piece of luggage too large will be checked in at the gate for free. Now they have created this perverse incentive to have people avoid paying luggage fees by checking in their luggage at the gate instead of at the counter. Airlines could do well to just raise ticket prices and can the checked bags fee altogether. Who really travels by air and not take any luggage?

  20. markm:

    It's often said "the government is only good at death and taxes." It's not good at those, either. I've served in the military, and worked for a defense contractor; the military services are usually less effed-up than the IRS or other long-standing bureaucracies that never had to worry about being *killed* on the job, but that still leaves plenty of room for effing up. You probably know about how the IRS cannot even agree internally about how to interpret the regulations, but I know of a state of Michigan agency that can't even figure out how to mail out bills when it knows your address and how much you owe. You are supposed to call them to find out what you owe - as if answering the phone and looking you up in their database could ever be cheaper than printing letters from the database and mass-mailing them. (And of course, if the clerk screws up and reads off the wrong info, it's _your_ fault.)

    The only reason you might think the government does well at killing and taxing: there are no efficient private enterprises in similar fields to show just how poor government performance is. The closest equivalents are gangs, but you can’t run an efficient enterprise when your labor force consists mainly of guys who either couldn’t hold down a McDonald’s job or are flat-out crazy. It's hard to control costs and collect revenue when your whole labor force are thieves. And teamwork suffers when you have good reason to think your teammates are just waiting for the chance to knife you and the others in the back.

    As for contractors like Blackwater or General Dynamics, their problem is that they rely so much on government contracts that they take on many of it's characteristics. There is the same problem of the wrong incentives - they are paid by politicians and bureaucrats rather than by the people their work should benefit. Appearances are more important than reality. Paperwork is far more important than the actual work.

  21. markm:

    The first thing to realize is that a disaster massively messes up the local transportation network, so any agency coming in from outside after the disaster will need several days just to get to where it is most needed. It's impossible to travel at all during a hurricane, and after it roads are washed out or covered with downed trees and debris, airports will be unusable for weeks, and water transport is probably in even worse shape - channels clogged and docks destroyed. The one thing that can get through after the winds have died down (but definitely not _in_ a tropical storm) is a helicopter. But helicopters are fuel hogs with a short range and high maintenance requirements. Unless there just happened to be a helicopter carrier nearby - and it came through the hurricane with little damage - before much can arrive by helicopter, they have to find an operational airport within a few hundred miles, bring in the helicopters, supplies to be lifted, and huge amounts of fuel. That can get them through one day, and then they'll need maintenance crews, tools, spare parts, tents, etc. It had better be a large airport with unimpaired air traffic control.

    So for the duration of the hurricane plus three days, there will be little help other than local resources and stockpiles laid in before it hit. In Florida, that is well understood and local authorities and individuals always keep a stock of emergency supplies. In New Orleans before Katrina hit, local authorities fouled up everything they hadn't stolen long before... FEMA's response was no different than what Floridans are accustomed to, that is some help that starts trickling in 3 days after the storm is over, and eventually a vast flood of aid arriving when it is not needed so urgently. FEMA is best at paying to rebuild your house - maybe too good, when it comes to rebuilding where the next storm will wipe things out again - but that only gets you onto a contractor's waiting list. In the interim, maybe there's a trailer, if a place can be found to set it, but that trailer was purchased by a bureaucrat who will never live in one.

  22. marque2:

    I concur with your opinion, but it also seems 3 days later you start getting help, 1 week later the Feds decide to take over and local people trying to do good deeds get pushed aside, due to the Federal Master plan. And the promised funds take years to materialize. Cedar Rapids, I believe, is still trying to get money promised from the Federal government from the flood of 2008. Sandy out east, once the election was over all the promised help disappeared.
    Much better to be locally prepared and depend on local resources, and state resources, than get the Feds involved. And that is the way it used to be. The feds would let local folks do their thing, and provide money as needed through FEMA after Katrina, now the federal government is expected to take over, and the locals don't need to worry, I guess. Just be more depended on the distant Federal government which will do yet another half @$$ed job on yet another project.

  23. Matt J:

    Investing/Disincentivising activities where the Marginal Social Benefit to society doesn't align with the private cost/benefit or individuals lack the liquidity to purchase: Basic research, Preventive medicine, Catalytic converters.