Thursday, November 15, 2012

Business vs. Government

CLW has a few thoughts on why people who were really successful in running a business don’t necessarily make successful government leaders.

This article from Slate by Matthew Yglesias got me thinking.  I can answer the article fairly simply: there is a belief perpetuated by the right that everyone in government is an abject failure, and of course those incompetent boobs couldn’t run a business.  But this ignores the more important point that business and government are not the same.  At all.

What I started wondering is why is there a belief that what we need in government is more business people?  Why do people so readily believe that running a business is equivalent to running a country?  What is it about the myth of the citizen legislator that is so compelling for people?

More recently, what of Mitt Romney’s skills were applicable to the job?  He never even actually ran companies where he was responsible for balancing a budget, or trimming costs, or laying out a vision that would motivate people, or any of the possible areas where skills might be seen as transferable.  Bain had people for that.  Mitt was a financier, an investor, a gambler of the highest order.  Bain doesn’t so much run companies as merely push them around on Excel spreadsheets.  And Mitt didn’t even do the spreadsheets, he just pushed for the numbers to be the biggest they could be.

But I digress into recent politics.  It is obvious to anyone, and they even have drug ads on TV playing against the stereotype, that you don’t want your plumber in the operating room, or vice-versa.  You want and need skilled people in a variety of areas to do anything complex.  So why would we think that Joe-the-Plumber has any of the requisite skills for politics?

But this skips right past the overarching problem of comparing business and government.  There are so many ways in which they are fundamentally different.

Businesses are dedicated to a single focus: maximize the profits for the stakeholders. If doing that means listening to your customers, fine.  But the top line goal never waivers, whether it’s a donut shop or a Fortune 500.  Make money, maybe enjoy the ride while you’re at it, but make money.  Happy employees?  Only if it helps the bottom line.  ”Job create” if you must, but that’s not why they’re in business (in fact, the fewer jobs, the better).  Crush the competition?  Sure, why not, if it means more for me.  Be socially responsible?  OK, if that makes people like us.  There just are no overarching objectives other than: make money.  The rest is collateral.

Government is tugged at by many masters, and the first line of the constitution makes that clear: “…  in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”  That says is all.  Try to make a “perfect union”, establish justice, make domestic peace (emphasis mine), defend the country, promote general welfare, keep freedom alive, etc., etc.  That’s a huge laundry list, and some of them compete with each other.  Liberty and union are just two that are not natural bedfellows.

The kinds of people who can balance dozens of competing priorities, who can adroitly be welcomed by many competing factions, who can negotiate win-win results (as opposed to win at all costs), who can be strong as the commander in chief, yet warm and welcoming as the promoter of the general welfare, are a wholly different animal from those who succeed in business.  Witness the success of Steve Jobs, or Steve Sinofsky, or any of the parade of business rock stars.  They are single minded and intensely focused, are often jerks, and are frequently ruthless with few considerations other than their business and themselves.  They often have numerous enemies who drive their success just by being the enemy — it’s us against them.  They abhor dependency on others, and what alliances they do form are narrow, intense, fragile, and volatile.  In short, the very opposite of what we want government leaders to be.

It’s not clear why anyone would want these guys to run the country, or state, or city.  And that’s fine with them, because outside of a few egomaniacs, it seems they don’t want the job.

I think that perhaps one reason business people think they can run government is because they look at the surface and see so many similarities: a chain of command, office processes, employees (Miami-Dade County Public Schools is the largest employer in Miami-Dade County); the trappings of what they see in their world.  There’s even the cash-flow system; budgeting, accounting, etc.  But the difference is the product and the bottom line.  Yes, government has to work within a budget (at least the entity that I work for does), but the product we create isn’t something you see on a store shelf.  Neither are most of the government services you see: police, fire, utilities, schools, road maintenance, and so on.  And providing them isn’t something that is driven by a profit motive or a competitive urge to beat the other guy to the best sales record and the biggest bonus.  Our results aren’t something you see on a balance sheet (unless you count the NCLB state-required tests).  That’s what comes with being both the source of all of the things CLW mentions: defense, welfare, and all the things people rely from so many different things; and also being a monopoly.

It requires a different mindset.  It doesn’t mean that people can’t be turned from business to government – a lot of them have joined up and done a good job – but they knew what they were getting into, and they knew there was a big difference.  I also know that I can tell instantly among my colleagues who has been in the classroom and knows why they went into teaching, and those who thought they landed a job that would be really hard to be fired from.