Public and Private

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Many years ago, when I was in high school, I made an odd goal for myself: that every moment of my life, when viewed in retrospect, would be an embarrassment to me. Hey, so far, so good! No, seriously. That’s what I told myself. The reason was because, in my view, if I was more or less on a general path of improvement through my life, I should be able to look in the rear-view mirror and shake my head at the Tim I saw behind me.

Although I hardly view the shortcomings of my past, which are legion, with any kind of delight or achievement, I was reminded of this peculiar adolescent pact because of something I realized about myself which I’ve had wrong my entire life.

Specifically, I had for so many years had an extremely simplistic and wrong-headed notion that those in the private sector were somehow superior to those in the public. My simplistic viewpoint was that the private sector was more natural and organic, thus it was far better at ferreting out performers from laggards. Those who couldn’t cut it would slunk off to some bureaucratic job somewhere, having flunked out of Free Enterprise.

Many things, particularly over the past decade, have sent that viewpoint into the dustbin. Before I explain that, I’d like to say a few words about why I developed such a binary, capitalist-worshiping viewpoint in the first place.

I grew up in a Republican, anti-welfare, anti-union, up-from-your-bootstraps kind of household. We were middle class, but in those days, the difference between middle class and upper class was quite modest, and I’ve written many times in the past about my experiences with respect to wealth distribution.

If I did a poor job making my bed in the morning, my mother would scowl at me and say the same two words: “Union worker!” That meant I did a really crappy job. And, to this day, even if I am in the house by myself, I make up my bed neatly when I wake up.

My mother would also relate with fondness, usually around Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim mandate that “if you don’t work, you don’t eat.” I was infused with heavy doses of Social Darwinism from a very early age. I grew up with deeply-held beliefs that lazy people stayed poor, smart and industrious people got rich, and I could depend on meritocracy. (The advantage of being a white middle class male American, and the head start that gave me, wasn’t really mentioned at any point).

Fast forward to the present. I watched the impeachment hearings for the past two weeks, not missing a minute of it. Let me state loud and clear that I don’t want the comments on this post to descend into a political discussion. That isn’t my point. My point relates to the various witnesses that were brought in front of the proceedings.

They were well-educated. Degrees from Stanford, Harvard, Georgetown, and so on. They were well-spoken. They were experienced and intelligent. And – – shock of shocks – – the people that I was watching with admiration were on the payroll of the government. Bureaucrats. The public sector. The ones I was trained were the losers in life.

And it dawned on me how wrong I was. And not just mistaken. But completely, utterly, jumping-up-and-down wrong. The simple-minded cleaving of the world into honorable, hardworking private sector people and lazy, parasitic, venal public sector people was a false narrative. I had been looking up to people who didn’t always deserve it and looking down on people who didn’t deserve it either.

Instead, it’s becoming clear to me that what dominates everything is this:

Some people suck. Some people are terrific. Most people are OK. It has little to do with public sector or private sector. Or age. Or gender. Or sexual preference. Or their weight. The bell curve of human properties is fairly distributed, and my simple-minded assumption of my youth was misguided.

The global response, particularly the American response, to the financial crisis was, for me, the turning point of my unquestioning adulation of capitalism. And, frankly, that isn’t fair to capitalism, because the bailouts, the quantitative easing, the accommodations, and the endless corporate welfare aren’t capitalism at all. They are, collectively, a cancerous perversion which has shoved the assets of the world to the hard right side of the wealthy curve. Losses are socialized and profits and privatized, and a goodly portion of the population is too ignorant or uninterested to see the light of truth.

The 18 year old Tim would have held up Lloyd Blankfein and even Adam Neumann up in the highest regard. The somewhat-older-than-18 Tim certainly does not. I can perceive that the proportion of those who have achieved success honestly versus those who have cheated or shoved their way to the top is probably about the same, whether in the public or private sector.

This is not to say I view them as equal. I still hold up the private sector in higher regard, principally because, to some degree, it still has more purity by way of competition and self-sufficiency than the public sector. Here in my beloved Palo Alto, I shake my head that virtually every single city employee gets a six-figure salary, and plenty of police officers and firefighters earn more than a U.S. Senator.

But I certainly no longer embrace the public/private dichotomy that I did in years past, lifting up those in free enterprise as holier-than-thou.

The bell curve applies to our own individual lives, as well. There are moments in my life when I’ve behaved exceptionally well. I am proud of who I am, and what my natural reaction was to circumstances. I was my best self. That’s the right side of the curve. Yet there are other times of my life where I’ve utterly failed. I’ve let others down. I turned my back on my own values. I felt shame. That’s the left side of the curve. And, of course, most times are in the middle, where I’m watching Mike Tyson Mysteries on Adult Swim and neither harming not helpful. I’m just……there.

So I apologize to any of you in the public sector whom I’ve ever inadvertently offended with my point of view. I was wrong, and I’ve grown past it. On my death bed, however far in the future that may be, I can stop being embarrassed, because I’ll be done with my thinking and doing, and I’ll have no more regrets to create anew.

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