AN OVERVIEW - Part 12

A government agency, however, faces no such pressure. No matter how much FEMA may be criticized or ridiculed for its failures to get aid to disaster victims in a timely fashion, there is no rival government agency that these people can turn to for the same service. Moreover, the people who run these agencies are paid according to fixed salary schedules, not by how quickly or how well they serve people hit by disaster. In rare cases where a government monopoly is forced to compete with private enterprises doing the same thing, the results are often like that of the government postal service in India:

When Mumbai Region Postmaster General A.P. Srivastava joined the postal system 27 years ago, mailmen routinely hired extra laborers to help carry bulging gunnysacks of letters they took all day to deliver.

Today, private-sector couriers such as FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. have grabbed more than half the delivery business nationwide. That means this city's thousands of postmen finish their rounds before lunch. Mr. Srivastava, who can't fire excess staffers, spends much of his time cooking up new schemes to keep his workers busy. He's ruled out selling onions at Mumbai post offices: too perishable. Instead, he's considering marketing hair oil and shampoo.

India Post, which carried 16 billion pieces of mail in 1999, carried less than 8 billion pieces by 2005, after FedEx and UPS moved in. The fact that competition means losers as well as winners may be obvious but that does not mean that its implications are widely accepted. For decades, a succession of low-price retailers have been demonized for driving higher-cost competitors out of business. The Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 was sometimes called “the anti-Sears, Roebuck Act” and Congressman Patman also denounced those who ran theA& P grocery chain. In the twenty-first century, Wal-Mart has inherited the role of villain because it too makes it harder for higher-cost competitors to survive. Where, as in India, the higher-cost competitor is a government agency, the rigidities of its rules — such as not being able to fire unneeded workers — make adjustments even harder than they would be for a private enterprise trying to survive in the face of new competition.

A New York Times reporter in 2010 found it a “paradox” that a highly efficient German manufacturer of museum display cases is “making life difficult” for manufacturers of similar products in other countries. Other German manufacturers of other products have likewise been very successful but “some of their success comes at the expense of countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal.” His all too familiar conclusion: “The problem that policy makers are wrestling with is how to correct the economic imbalances that German competitiveness creates.” Since the producer of a better or less expensive product almost invariably gains customers at the expense of other producers, the concerns of policy-makers seem to fit Adam Smith's description of politicians paying “a most unnecessary attention” to market transactions that would go better without them.

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