John Steele Gordon warns that Barack Obama’s plans for nationalized industries have plenty of precedents, all of which show that government-run business enterprises are a disaster.
The Obama administration is bent on becoming a major player in — if not taking over entirely — America’s health-care, automobile and banking industries. Before that happens, it might be a good idea to look at the government’s track record in running economic enterprises. It is terrible.
In 1913, for instance, thinking it was being overcharged by the steel companies for armor plate for warships, the federal government decided to build its own plant. It estimated that a plant with a 10,000-ton annual capacity could produce armor plate for only 70% of what the steel companies charged.
When the plant was finally finished, however — three years after World War I had ended — it was millions over budget and able to produce armor plate only at twice what the steel companies charged. It produced one batch and then shut down, never to reopen.
Or take Medicare. Other than the source of its premiums, Medicare is no different, economically, than a regular health-insurance company. But unlike, say, UnitedHealthcare, it is a bureaucracy-beclotted nightmare, riven with waste and fraud. Last year the Government Accountability Office estimated that no less than one-third of all Medicare disbursements for durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and hospital beds, were improper or fraudulent. Medicare was so lax in its oversight that it was approving orthopedic shoes for amputees.
These examples are not aberrations; they are typical of how governments run enterprises.
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