Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Government Versus Innovation

NOTE: I found five more old posts that caught my fancy, and so I am reproducing them here.

As my readers know, I suffer from some health problems. What they may not know, as I mention it rarely, thanks to my health issues, I have been working from home for some time. And as a result, I have come to realize how many jobs, especially in the technology realm, could be handled by telecommuting.  After all, at my employer, we already have employees in several locations, so a lot of work is already done remotely, conferences are always done via phone, and many employees only see their supervisor once a week or less. So working form home is not much different than working in a different office than my boss.

And the government, from time to time, does publish some paper "encouraging" telecommuting. It usually comes from some office charged with some "green" function, and emphasizes the environmental gains from not commuting. I rather wish they would take an alternate approach and emphasize to bosses the savings in office space, equipment, even office supplies, but the government doesn't have many people with real world experience, so I suppose such mundane concerns never cross their minds*.

Of course employers are somewhat resistant to telecommuting. Sometimes it is nothing more than resistance to novelty, they are used to people coming in to the office, and so they can't imagine any alternative. In other cases it is fear that employees, lacking supervision, will not perform. Of course, as we already have employees in offices without a direct supervisor, that seems a peculiar fear.

But, despite officially encouraging telecommuting, buy far the biggest impediment is the government. 

For example, fearing that a reduction in formal workplaces would lessen their power, OSHA has been pushing to expand workplace safety rules, and worker's comp scope to the homes of telecommuters. It makes sense from a bureaucratic perspective, as if more individuals telecommuted the scope of OSHA's authority would be dramatically reduced. But from the perspective of employers it is a nightmare, as they will basically be on the hook for accidents in an employee's home. Facing that sort of open ended liability, or even the potential of it (as OSHA has yet to force through this policy), it is no wonder employers are resistant.

Second, as I mentioned above, some employers worry that employees without direct supervision will not perform. Under normal circumstances there is a simple solution, firing non-performing employees. But between formal laws and  employment law precedents, this is just not possible in many states. For example, "employment at will" is still written into many contracts but it no longer means anything close to what it says. Most states have ruled that if an employer publishes an employee handbook that it forms a contract, requiring violation of those rules to support a firing. And that is but one example. In case after case, and law after law, the government has done all it can to make firing employees onerous. We are nowhere near the situation found in most of Europe, we have not yet enacted the "job for life" laws found in some nations, but we are a long way from "employment at will".

I am sure I am overlooking other pressures, in any case of government action there are always more pressures than any single individual can recall, but just those two examples should provide a good illustration.

And it is not just telecommuting, there are many areas where innovations are made more difficult thanks to the government. Even more common are cases exactly like the one above, where part of the government encourages while other branches unofficially discourage, or even make impossible, the same innovation. Not that it is a conscious policy, but with so many government agencies, covering so many areas of human endeavor, and with bureaucratic pressures tending to encourage banning things more than allowing them, it is inevitable that the government would find itself, time and time again, standing in the way of progress.

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* It is particularly absurd for my employer to resist telecommuting. As I said, we already have employees working form remote offices. In addition, thanks to land costs in the city, we have to move employees out into surrounding counties. But as several such counties have building caps, and all have experienced building booms, such office space is outrageously expensive. (By the way, expect a post on "smart growth" in the near future. That has to be one of the worst ideas in recent memory.)

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POSTSCRIPT
In some ways, I have said all of this before. In "Bureaucratic Management", "The Cost of Big Government","Government Efficiency", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises" and "Greed Versus Evil" I made many of the same points. Then again, it never hurts to repeat myself, if only for those who missed the earlier posts.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/09/18.

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