In Her Own Words: Commerce Secretary Makes Case for Privatization

On November 19 of last year, in the wake of the government shutdown in October and as attention was being laser-focused onto the HealthCare.gov poochscrew, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker sat down for an interview with Matt Murray of the Wall Street Journal at the publication’s annual CEO Council Meeting.

That’s the setup. But we can toss all that ugly stuff into the corner. Murray says so himself in the opening minutes of the conversation. The Department of Commerce has “no fingerprints” on the health care calamity. Awesome. One of those clean slates you hear about.

What follows is a careful, at times awkward discussion about the relationship between government and the private sector, the first two-thirds of which are laced with the Madam Secretary’s own explanations of how private industry lays the groundwork—and sets the rules—of an economy.

“Now I’m not…I know you’re not gonna wanna say anything, uh…uh…dangerous…on this topic,” stumbles Murray on the subject of what he calls the “limits of government.” What he’s referring to is the concern many were expressing that, in light of the HealthCare.gov rollout, the federal apparatus might not be the best entity to handle such large-scale technical projects. That perhaps the private sector could more effectively, more efficiently handle such operations.

And this is just a whiff of what’s really going on. What we have here is the head fed in charge of growing the economy sitting with a mouthpiece for the corporate media, both trying their best to speak positively about the United States government while the hard facts of its ineptitude are pouring out of every news outlet in the country. Forget the scandals, the spying, the wars of conquest. Put aside all the nefarious deeds—both individually and as a collective—of our so-called elected officials. We’re talking plain old incompetence here. Because that’s precisely what the Commerce Secretary and this deputy editor-in-chief are doing.

As for the concerns alluded to by Murray, Pritzker concedes that the lessons she learned from her private sector experience often lead her to ask if those in government “are the best people to do this” when it comes to certain “complicated” projects. Refreshingly candid, but nothing too outrageous.

And then she goes completely off the rails.

In a baffling attempt to (I guess) demonstrate the mutually beneficial relationship between government and the private sector, Pritzker reveals that her attitude is: “I want the private sector sitting there with me, helping me understand, one, what have we got, two, what…should we be thinking about. I don’t have enough imagination, or technical capability, nor do we within the department…”

Indeed. It’s been apparent to many of us for quite some time. But listen to her words. She fails to mention a single thing government brings to the table in this “need to partner” in order to get things done. And she goes further still.

As evidence of the global desire by governments to get input from the business community, Pritzker tells of an exchange she had with a finance minister at an APEC conference in Indonesia. According to Pritzker, when asked if listening to a room full of CEOs was valuable to him, the finance minister responded that it was “immensely valuable.” That it allowed him “to push internally in my own government to get things done that are hard to get done.”

Continuing down this road, Murray next asks the Madam Secretary about the idea of “streamlining” the Commerce Department in order to be better able to adapt to economic trends. In response, Pritzker says she thinks “it makes perfect sense to reexamine these things, and not just with the Commerce Department but in general. It seems we have a very hard time doing that as a government. And I think that’s a challenge for the government writ large, not just commerce.”

So then, the question becomes: if government is dependent upon the private sector to interpret market demands, but at the same time is slow in adapting to those demands, then why wouldn’t government simply step aside and allow the private sector to freely operate?

The logic of it is further muddled when Pritzker attempts her one and only rationalization for the existence of her department. She claims the Commerce Department is there to “facilitate the conditions by which the private sector can create jobs” because “that’s where job creation occurs.” Ignoring the puzzling notion that a governmental agency is needed to aid the private sector in job creation when the private sector is where jobs would be created anyway, let’s take a step back and look at it from a wider view.

Essentially, what Madam Secretary Pritzker is saying here is that the Commerce Department—dependent upon the private sector to help it “understand” markets—collects feedback from business leaders so as to figure out the types of programs to offer those leaders in order to help them understand markets, thus facilitating job creation.

And yes, that’s every bit as asinine as it sounds.

But only slightly more so than her answer to Murray’s question regarding the Commerce Department’s role in education. The question was prompted by Pritzker speaking of a listening tour she’d recently completed. After meeting with hundreds of CEOs, she says the issue that kept arising was that of skills. That businesses were having a hard time finding qualified workers to fill positions. And while the federal government can initiate programs to help get the ball rolling, says Pritzker, ultimately the solutions “have to be executed locally.”

“The solutions are local, they don’t sit here in Washington,” she says. “They need to be led by the business community, because the business community knows what kind of curricula they want people to know…they know what kind of credentials they want…”

So, as to the Department of Commerce’s role regarding the lack of skilled laborers in the United States? Pritzker feels that it’s, basically, to remind those in the business world that they have to work all that junk out for themselves.

As if they needed reminding. As if it wasn’t maddeningly clear to those with a stake in the game that the political machine’s intervention in trade and commerce can only amount to a hindrance. That after all the high talk by its operators, its tinkerings were but stones in a river, diverting the natural flow.

And speaking of taxes…

The real gem to be chiseled out of this discussion is found in Pritzker’s final comments before going to audience questions. Murray asks what the most frustrating aspect of corporate taxes was for her as a businesswoman. The answer is a doozy. It really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated, but I’ve done my best to bring it to the page. It was a rough one.

After what some might call a nervous laugh, she begins: “Umm…you know…it, it…it…where do I begin?” she manages, to a chuckle from Murray. “Uh…uh…you know, I probably…the number of forms, the complexity, uh…the…umm…the fact that, umm…at the end of the day it isn’t really what you want driving your decision making. What you really want driving your decision making is is there a market, is this a good product…”

It takes her just over half a minute to stammer it out, in the middle of which comes the only bit of audience laughter in the whole discussion. But after all the struggling, the searching for a safe path, what she’s ultimately saying is that the most frustrating aspect of corporate taxes is that they exist. And she’s right. Because you really don’t want tax codes and regulations driving your decision making. What you want is the same thing you wanted when you decided to make a go of it in the first place. You want to bring a quality product to market, trade for fair value, and grow your business. This is how a healthy economy functions. This is how to facilitate job creation.

Which brings us back to a word. One that speaks to a great vulnerability. A word used by Murray in asking Pritzker to comment on the subject of health care. He says he knows she wouldn’t want to say anything…dangerous.

Because the failure of Obamacare is but one of many cracks. Don’t forget about the scandals, the spying, the wars of conquest. Remember all the nefarious deeds—both individually and as their beloved collective—of our so-called elected officials. Because we’re talking about something so much more than incompetence here.

What we’re talking about, truly, is the great vulnerability of the state.