In which the author makes some predictions.

My wife and I have watched about the last 4 episodes of “Undercover Boss” on CBS and are now hooked. All 4 have been private-sector for-profit companies and here’s what I’ve noticed:

1. The vast majority of workers they highlight are hardworking, no-nonsense, productive people and are admirable just for that.
2. Many of the workers have their stories about whom they are working for: typically, a child in the family whom they want to have a better life than they had. And the stories are touching.
3. The boss typically messes up in various degrees in whatever job he’s put in. I’m not sure what to make of that. Did you do well for first few days on a job that had any complexity? I remember when I worked in a nickel mine in northern Manitoba and I was a complete disaster–on the first shift. Second shift: much better.
4. The boss not only develops respect for his workers but also empathizes with many of them in their struggles. He typically has the company do something nice for them or, which I like even better, writes them a check for various causes out of his own bank account.

Why do I say all this? Because tonight the undercover boss will be the mayor of Cincinnati. While my reactions to both boss and employees have so far been overwhelmingly positive, I expect to be much more torn. Why? Two reasons. First, there are things government does that I think no one should do: drug busts and preventing people from cutting trees on their own property come to mind. Second, there are things government does that are legitimate but for almost all these I think the private sector should do it: running gymnasiums, repairing roads, and running fire departments come to mind. Also, even if we take as given that government is doing a legitimate activity, union agreements and other rules mean that the government as employer is often not in a position to make good reforms. With that in mind, here are some predictions for tonight:

1. Not only I but also many people who normally have my reactions will have much less positive a reaction to both the mayor and his employees.
2. Specifically, I expect that we won’t be that impressed with the productivity of some of the government employees.
3. If the mayor wants to show empathy, I predict that he will not do it with his own bank account or even his mayor’s expense account.
4. The mayor, even if he thinks of good reforms, will have his hands tied and will make cosmetic changes.

Of course, editing can take care of a lot of this. Who knows what ends up on the cutting-room floor with the private-sector employers?

Nevertheless, what are your predictions?

UPDATE: Steve Horwitz just sent me the following interesting link about how an economist (he says an Austrian economist but I would say any economist who understands the issue of local knowledge) might do “Undercover Economist.” Great line:
“Rather than making bosses look incompetent for not knowing how things work, make them and the employees look smart by showing what can be gained by observing frontline operations.”