The Apple Store is Cool, but is not a Model for Social Policy
A complexity of social policy is the need for universality. This is why pure market models are incompatible with government action.
Writing at The Corner, Kevin D. Williamson takes the opportunity of Steve Jobs’ death to critique Occupy Wall Street (and to grind some ideological axes in the process). For example, it seems to me that the day after Jobs’ death was not the time to critique a CNN piece from 2008 about philanthropy to go into an extended challenging of Gordon Gekko, (although I do agree with the notion that successful businesses can contribute to the general good). One can read the whole thing, as the saying go, if one wishes to see those issues.
The main thing that struck me, and sparked this post, was his parting shot at OWS:
Look at the phone in your hand. Look at the rat-infested subway. Visit the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, then visit a housing project in the South Bronx. Which world do you want to live in?
The piece also takes a swipe at public education.
Now, is there room to criticize public education? Oh, to borrow a catchphrase of a prominent politician, you betcha. Likewise, can subways be unpleasant places? Yes. Are Apple Stores really cool? No doubt about it at all.
However, comparing subways and housing projects to Apple Stores in some attempt to contrast the public and private sectors is more than a tad problematic. Indeed, it strikes me as a common error made in such conversations. To wit: the comparison here is between a service that has to be offered universally (or nearly so) to the public at a reasonable cost versus a luxury product that only goes to those who can afford it. Further, the former is provided by a government constrained by things like elections and a multiplicity of other demands on the public coffers.
These things are not at all comparable.
Forget for a moment the profound differences between public and private entities and just consider the problem of universality. Universality (or even broad access) is expensive and requires the casting a of a large net. Further, the more accessible things are made to a broader population, the less appealing they tend to be.
Consider: air travel is provided on a very large scale by private companies (albeit in a highly regulated industry) and it isn’t exactly like a trip to the Apple Store. Of course, if one can afford to fly first class it is a lot more pleasant. It isn’t a universal service the way public transportation is, but it requires broad access and therefore can be rather unpleasant in ways that I suspect having a private charter plane isn’t.
Or, moving away from an industry that is highly regulated to one that isn’t: shopping at a Wal*Mart is not as pleasant as shopping at a higher end supermarket. If one is willing (and able) to pay more, the shopping experience can be improved upon. Wal*Mart, however, is a lot more accessible (because of price) to the general public than is a more expensive, higher end grocery store.
The point is: the closer one gets to inexpensive and widely consumed, the less like Apple Store life gets, even in the private sector. Other examples that come to mind: large, bureaucratic entities like cable and cell phone companies.
However, size isn’t even the main issue, the main issue is universal access. A private company’s job is not to provide universal access its product. UPS can decide not to take packages to certain places (or charge more to go some places than others) while the USPS has to provide universal access, even if Grandma lives down a dirt road in the middle of Nowhere, USA. A private school can reject a child because of behavior or academic performance, but the public school cannot (indeed, they are required by law to make any number of accommodations to help students who have special needs of any number of types). The pattern is pretty clear and is utterly ignored by Williamson’s post.
I admire and respect the market. I absolutely adore my iPhone and iPad and I do not, for a moment, think that government is equipped to produce such products and innovations (not that government actions are irrelevant to innovations—just consider how these words are reaching those who are reading them for evidence). Having said that, if we are going to debate the relative merit of the marketplace and the government when it comes to debating what each can and cannot contribute to society we have to be a lot better at understanding what we are debating. Comparing the Apple Store to the NYC subway system in terms of a customer service experience is nonsense. False dichotomies of this type are not helpful, and yet they are typical in our political discourse.
Fundamentally we have to accept and confront the difficulties and challenges that exist when we are dealing with universal access to services. This factor really matters when making comparisons. Further, one has to at least acknowledge what should be an obvious point: if one has money to spend, one is likely to have a better general experience. Indeed, the unspoken (and often intellectually ignored) aspect of many conservative critiques of government is that what they are really saying is that access should be for those who can afford it. This is fair for iPhones, but not for public transportation and education. It is a fantasy to pretend like simply appealing to the market fixes these problems if universal or near universal access is a goal.
And yes: I would rather live in a world that looked like Apple Stores as opposed to housing projects. But that’s not really the choice, is it?