The other day on YouTube, President-elect Obama said that ninety percent of the jobs created with our stimulus money will be in the private sector. The remaining jobs maintained in 'vital services' -- teaching, policing, firefighting, etc -- will stay in the public sector, to the extent that they're still there after a couple decades of privatization.
What will this division of labor mean for American workers? If we're spreading the wealth around with the stimulus, does it matter anymore whether we work for Sing Sing or Corrections Corp, Andover or PS 125, New Jersey Department of Transportation or Parsons Brinkerhoff?
Is President-elect Obama soon to become CEO America, leader of a land in which the public and private sectors cohere into one giant corporation? When we talk about results and accountability, is this what we have in mind?
The foundation of a CEO Obama's authority would be a diverse group of shareholders, Us, united in a common purpose. Unlike the heyday of the dotcom bubble, when company shareholders obsessed over ticker-tape wealth, we will watch job figures, grocery bills and paychecks.
If we are evolving into a mega public-private corporation, a la WWII State or Japan Inc or Malaysia Inc (Prime Minister Mahathir referred to himself as CEO Malaysia), then we should eschew the stale discussions of public-versus-private. Grow less interested in reassurances that our public money will be privately spent. Or, the insistence that governments are the best investment vehicle.
We need to figure out what accountability means in our mega-corporation, if that's what we're moving toward. Is it more jobs, saved jobs? Is it pensions for a certain percentage of us, food stamps for others -- at least for now? What types of differential wages will be tolerated, celebrated? Is accountability the same as transparency; that is, when does knowing who got what change anything? Will we use the same ruler to measure the successes of all roads, bridges, airports, and power grids?
We should certainly leave a lot to the experts and our representatives with the stimulus. However, one economics lesson we've learned repeatedly from the dotcom bust to Iraq to banking bailouts is that accountability can't just be about cleaning up a mess. Accountability is about Us continually defining the public interest and tasking public and private entities to fulfill it and, of course, figuring out what to do when they don't.