August 22, 2012

Big Business Is Here to Save the Day, or The New Mythology

I'm desperately wracking my brain right now to remember whom to attribute this quote:
Americans mistrust government more than Europeans even though we [Americans] have arguably had better governments than they have. And we trust companies more than Europeans even though we have arguably had worse companies.
I'm going to attribute it to Jeff Jarvis of the CUNY School of Journalism, but it looks like the original idea might have come from someone else.
In this corner...
And, in this corner...

Anyhoo, on to the real point of this post:

Does anyone else find it more than a little ironic that this notion is unquestioningly accepted today: business experience is an asset for a candidate for public office?  Or, we could flip that and say that candidates without business experience are particularly singled out for ridicule.  Stop me if you have heard this campaign mantra before. "As a small-business owner, I know how to run [insert level of government office] and create jobs in this economy."  Or this one.  "My opponent has no experience running a business, and has no idea what it means to create jobs."


It's as though we have all agreed to forget these names: Enron, WorldCom, Tyco International, Standard Oil, AT&T (the original incarnation, as well as its current), Lehman Brothers, the list is virtually endless.  They all had leadership that did damn-fine-work destroying shareholder equity while eliminating jobs by the gross.  I'm sure, positive in fact, that each of them had an exec or two with ambitions to run for public office, not to mention how much weight these guys threw around on KSt.

There is a fundamental difference between running a for-profit enterprise and a (likely) heavily in debt State.  I'm reminded of the Washington Post op-ed by Mann and Ornstein that I linked to in this post.  The government is not a enterprise that must be profitable and be sure to balance its budget annually, which is the knee-jerk reaction of most businessman-cum-candidate.  ("I could never run my business spending like Washington does.")  In times of private sector contraction, it is frequently suicidal for governments to pull back on spending in response to shrinking revenue.  Just ask every cash-strapped state Governor with a constitutionally mandated balanced budget.  I would agree with anyone who says that a government should try to stay within a rational spending plan over a span of many years, but treating the public trust as an accounting exercise is foolish.

Moreover, the same analysis needed to asses the business case for an new enterprise would surely veto any number of essential government services and agencies that are required to make a stable state.  Cost vs. benefit analysis is inadequate to decide the merits of many critical infrastructure and publicly beneficial investments.  The strictly Objectivist view that seems to be spewing out of any of the new wave of Conservatives and Tea-Baggers is no way to ensure that people have a wealth of societally beneficial assets like National Parks, breathable air, potable water, investment in basic science and R&D, transit infrastructure...the list is endless.  Not to mention the host of private enterprise that is heavily (or solely...looking at you military-industrial complex) reliant on government contracts to stay in business.

Over the years I've personally worked with some pretty smart executives that would likely make very effective public servants (it's likely to their personal credit, and not a little ironic, that these are likely the last people who would profess to run for office), but I've also worked for some really s#!*ty a$&-holes who would make incredibly disastrous political leaders.

Just think about the terminology for a minute, "public servant" and "business leader."  Which one describes someone who is looking out for the common good?  Which one describes the self-interested individual who makes decisions based on profit?

As should not surprise you, dear reader, the business world is made up of jerks, and smart people, and nice people, and hard workers, and lazy f^&kers, and...all of which are pretty evenly dispersed.  Just like everywhere else.  So, the next time someone say some like the above quotes, stop and consider your coworkers over the years.  Who among them would be worthy of your vote for Senator, let alone dog catcher?

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