The Market's Easy Touch
Organizations Subject to Competition Must Treat Customers with Respect
APRIL 01, 1994 by JOSEPH S. FULDA
A few years back, yet another phenomenon emerged to lacerate the sensibilities of the people in the inner cities: Radios blaring at all hours of the day and night. In addition to the obvious assault on the quality of life in the poorer neighborhoods, the maximum-volume radios aggravated racial tensions for the simple reason that most of the radio-owners were minority youths in their teens and twenties. In my own neighborhood—Spanish Harlem in New York City—derogatory comments about the traditionally out-of-doors Hispanic culture abounded.
People of all persuasions, especially older folk, began to fight back. Soon the city-run subway and surface transit systems sported large red-on-white signs, “No Radio Playing.” Then, police were authorized to seize radios while they were blaring (as evidence, not civil forfeiture). Some folks took on an us-or-them attitude towards the minority youths that were typically at the center of the problem, and race relations took a giant step backwards.
Along came SONY, and with its well-known ingenuity and inventiveness, a new product was placed on the market: the Walkman. Soon, blaring radios became a thing of the past as people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds enjoyed music on trains, buses, and streets alike, while walking, riding, or simply sitting on park benches. Users of this product clearly enjoyed having their immediate surroundings suffused with music, possible before the Walkman only with the offensive maximum-volume radios. SONY did what it does best: It identified a real—need environment-suffusing music which doesn’t disturb the neighbors—and filled it with a new product.
Today, blaring radios are a rarity; youths and older folk, minorities and whites, all use Walkmans or the many imitations that the market has spawned. And, the racially tinged angry comments of yesteryear have been proven wrong. SONY’s success shows the difference between the easy touch of the market response to social problems and the heavy-handed state response to quality-of-life issues. SONY has been rewarded with profits for its genteel product. And, “Walkman” is now an entry in the 1993 (10th) edition of the Merriam- Webster dictionary—just see page 1329!
—Joseph S. Fulda
(Dr. Fulda, a contributing editor of The Freeman, is the author of Are There Too Many Lawyers? And Other Vexatious Questions, available from FEE.)
My wife and I recently had an experience that suggests problems for the much-touted attempt to reinvent government. Because my wife is a foreign national, we were required to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). If inspiring vision statements and glossy reports could make government agencies responsive to their “clients” our experience with the INS would have been far different.
A few weeks before our marriage we obtained a stack of forms with instructions on how to fill them out. The large number of barely intelligible questions attempting to determine whether my wife was a prostitute or had engaged in acts of genocide was a harbinger of the things to come. But despite these initial difficulties, we were able to complete everything in full and report as instructed to the Los Angeles INS office.
The agency’s vision statement, visible upon entering, is an impressive list of adjective-laden sentences. It begins by proclaiming the agency’s commitment to quality service and ends by stating, in large block letters that “well-trained” information officers will, above all else, “create an authentic and compassionate culture treating each person with respect and dignity.”
Judging from the information officers that “assisted” us, it seems that INS employees are working overtime to violate every edict laid out in their pledge.
Rude is far too weak a word to describe the way our officer treated us. Upon receiving the packet of paperwork we had spent several weeks completing, the agent proceeded to throw aside with unnecessary force what he considered superfluous. He refused to answer the questions I politely asked, only rebuffing me with “I’ll tell you what you don’t have and then tell you to leave.” After shuffling through the disheveled stack of forms, he grudgingly gave them his stamp of approval. At no time did our “public servant” make eye contact with us.
At yet another desk, another INS official attempted to intimidate my wife with insulting questions, such as “Are you sure you know your name?” and, “Well, why don’t you sign it then?” As we sat and waited, we watched as one “customer” after another left the interview with a deep scowl. The motives of our taxpayer-supported officials suddenly became transparent. As unaccountable members of the civil service, they could enjoy exercising petty power over those who had no choice but to submit.
Whether all government bureaus exhibit such astounding contradictions between vision and reality is a question I cannot answer. I can state with confidence, however, that it would be impossible for rudeness of the type we experienced at the INS to persist in any organization subject to competition. Such behavior would last no longer than it takes customers to walk out the door.
America’s infatuation with the idea that we can somehow reform government with the stroke of a pen ignores the role of incentives and disincentives in shaping behavior. Creating empty mission statements does nothing to motivate otherwise unmotivated personnel. A lack of accountability and proper incentives to reward diligence creates a situation in which employees have difficulty maintaining any sense of respect for their colleagues, their clients, or themselves.
I can only hope that the emptiness of the INS vision statement is not repeated on a larger scale by the “reinvention” of government. But I am not optimistic.
—Jeffrey G. Lee