In addition to being a prize-winning screenwriter and nascent creator of compelling TV, my friend Joe Acton has spent 40 years as a successful entrepreneurial businessman. Almost alone amongst my acquaintances -- almost all of us somebody's employees, though some are executive employees -- he knows the sweaty reality of performing without a net.
So when he sent me this long rant and was too lazy to put it on his own blog, I decided to rip it off for mine. You might learn something, or at least be reminded of some things you already know. You might also laugh a time or two, and that's never a bad thing.
Q: Should we run government like a business?
A; Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?
by Joe Acton
I was watching Rachel Maddow last night and watched her get sucked down the rabbit hole as to whether or not Mitt Romney was showing a net gain or loss in job creation. Then today I get a blast email from somewhere lamenting that government should be run like business and so we need to elect a businessman as president, because Obama's never run a business. Well, I have run a business and I can tell you it not about creating jobs. Anyhow, I went off my nut and wrote this:
I’m blissfully tucked away in 1941 [note: a reference to his current screenwriting project; trust me, you're gonna love it] but keep getting distracted by the Idiot Right and the Ignorant Left back here in future former present.
Romney supporters – and others equally ill-informed – are saying that inasmuch as Romney has spent his career in the private sector, and given the success of those ventures, he knows how to create jobs. The Idiot Right claims that we need to run the government like a business and the Ignorant Left’s very clever response seems to be “Oh, yeah?”
The very idea that government should be run like a business demonstrates a shocking misunderstanding of governance. And the idea that business is at all interested in creating jobs illustrates that the overwhelming answer is “No” to Jeff Foxworthy’s question, “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth-Grader?”
First up: American business is not now, nor has it ever been about creating jobs. It is about creating profits, increasing value, and expanding private ownership. Job creation is – at best – a tertiary consideration. The first thing a businessman asks himself is “What can I sell?”; the second is, “What can I charge for it?” and the third is “How much will it cost?”
EIB scholars who want the government to be run like a business had better be prepared to pay an invoice from the fire department after they show up to put out the fire which was started by the Chinese Christmas lights the scholars bought from a company owned by a Romney-esque investment. If American business was aimed at creating jobs, they’d damn sure be creating them in the United States, not shipping them overseas. Repeat after me: “American business is about creating profits, not jobs.” You might want to wander into a US tattoo parlor and get that inked onto the back of your hand, because if Mitt Romney had anything to do with it you’d be planning a trip overseas to get that tattoo, thus increasing the job base of the transportation industry at the expense of the rather fractured tattoo business.
Next up: Governments are not supposed to be run like businesses, they are supposed to control and regulate businesses while they also protect and serve the citizens. When governments run like businesses they start to act like them, cutting corners, ignoring “maintenance”, ignoring all but the big markets – the list isn’t endless, but it’s impressive. Three quick ones come to mind: the Great Depression, the thrift market crash of the 80s-90s, and the Double Dip Recession that everyone says we’re not in, just like they said we weren’t in it to begin with. But don’t take my word for the idea that governments are supposed to regulate business, not imitate it. I didn’t dream up the EPA or OSHA. Richard Nixon did.
Bring up Richard Nixon’s name, though, and you’ve pretty much defined the boundaries for the Idiot Right and the Ignorant Left because everybody wants to hate him, they’re just generally wrong as to why.
The reason Nixon signed the EPA and OSHA, like him or not, was he recognized that business and government come to the table with competing motives; they cannot serve the same master; they are not interchangeable; they are not the same thing. They are so not the same thing that they don’t even share terms. Ask a businessman where he gets capital and the answer will be “investors”; ask a politician and the answer will be the “tax base”. One is voluntary, the other is not. And the road diverges quickly and widely from that not-so-small distinction.
If I were on the search committee to help Microsoft find a new CEO – and they desperately need one – I’d want someone with relevant experience. I probably wouldn’t interview the Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services because I’m guessing that her experience isn’t as relevant as people actually in Microsoft’s industry.
But I’m not. I’m being asked to pick the head of our government. And as a criteria, I’m asked to consider skill sets that are both inapplicable and inappropriate. And worse, I’m given to understand that the people asking me to make this selection, do not themselves appreciate the distinction between government and business.
So let me climb down off my soap box before I fall off and hurt myself: government and business are not the same, cannot be run the same, and should not be run by people who believe that such skill sets are interchangeable.
Government is supposed to serve us all; businesses only a few. If the overarching question is whether I want a policy wonk who has only worked in government running the government, or do I want someone who has shown he can create jobs overseas running the government – I’m going with the policy wonk, every time. You see, I don’t live overseas, I live here – where the policies are going to apply.