The Dawn of the Donald Gives Government the Business

And we’re off. Inauguration means the dawn of the Donald is officially underway and so we begin an unpresidented four-year experiment in indulging our collective tweet-truth.  What does that mean? Well, according to the president’s supporters it’s a have-cake-and-eat-it sort of deal. With Trump delivering the civic confectionary we can forget about all that eat-your-veggies compromise and dig straight into the gooey satisfaction of a populist dessert. Sweet.

Sugary metaphors aside, the ascension of Donald John Trump to the office of president really is about to give us an empirical test of a hypothesis fervently held by many Americans. It’s anchored in the theory that the problem with politics is politicians, and the solution is to get some outsider titan of commerce into the POTUS position. Someone untainted by, you know, any actual experience with government. A guy like that will fix things, bang heads, cut deals, slap some sense into the poltroons of the ruling class and, yada, yada, yada, American will be great again.

Americans, bless ‘em, have this unshakable faith that if only government was run more like a business, or at least run by business-types, things would be better. This leaves a lot of us who earn a crust studying government scratching our heads. For one thing, businesses and business-types do not exactly boast sterling reputations of administrative probity and competence. There’s the Bernie Madoffs, the Enrons, the BPs, the Wells Fargos and hundreds of other easily located examples of MBA-equipped mountebanks and maladroits.  Indeed, watching Wall Street carnivores feeding off the carcasses of middle class bank accounts leaves us unclear on what exactly is supposed to ooze out of the self-interested vacuum of money grubbing and magically salve the ills of governance. Well, whatever it is, judging by the wake of bankruptcies, lawsuits and unpaid vendors the Engulf and Devour Trump empire has left in its wake, the prez clearly has it spades. Plus, given that his cabinet is dominated by billionaire commerce marauders, we can safely say the entire government is about to get slathered with the stuff.

Anyway, near as I can tell the general idea that government is better run as a business and by business people is anchored in the notion that the private sector is the source of all prosperity, wealth and happiness, while government is just a sucker-fish parasite that sits leech-like on the market’s invisible hand, siphoning off the good stuff to fund handouts for free riders and welfare soaks. So the trick is to chase off the sponging affluence extractors skulking around DC looking for taxpayers to scam, and replace them with some can-do job generators. This business-good, government-bad conviction is remarkably resistant to contradictory evidence. You know, like Wall Street periodically chucking us all into the economic crapper, an event usually followed by CEOs covering up their good government decoder rings and blubbering for public bailouts.

Never mind all that, though. The big reason us government scholars are puzzled by the resolute faith citizens place in business acumen as a public sector operating model is this: Government isn’t a business. Indeed, from a business perspective running a representative democratic government must look loony. Imagine if the heads of GM or Apple couldn’t do a damn thing unless a pretty random collection of 435 busybodies with no particularly relevant expertise first had to okay it. Then another 100 buttinksies had to have a blowhard kerfuffle and take a vote. Then a sub-set of both flocks of fussbudgets had to come together to iron out any differences, draft some middle-ground accord that papered over a lot of dissent, and then get that contract to kvetch some minimal level of majority support from both sets of meddlesome mobs.

And, on top of that, imagine there’s fifty sub-divisions of this commercial enterprise that are critical to corporate prosperity, all with similar decision-making mechanisms and, like as not, deciding they most certainly are not going along with directives from dimwits at the head office. Honestly, if business were run like a democracy we’d still be driving Chevy Vegas and Steve Jobs would have spent a lot less time pushing his iPads and a lot more pulling his iPud.

Running a democracy is simply different from running a business because they are designed to do very different things. Businesses exist to make dough, and if they don’t they won’t exist for very long. A democratic government is established to give any old Donald, Dick or Obama a chance to stick their oar in on stuff they probably know very little about, and do it pretty much forever regardless of what dumb things they come up with. Yes, that’s a ludicrous basis for governance, but somewhat surprisingly it has repeatedly proven itself to be a less ludicrous basis for governance than any other system tried. Unsurprisingly, democratic government and commerce require different administrative skill sets and have very different yardsticks for judging success. In business a good CEO is someone with a strong bottom line. In government, a good CEO is someone with a strong bottom, something that can be booted hard by the electorate and absorb the kicker’s intentions to start a mob or set fire to disagreeable constitutional codicils.

Which brings me back to Trump. I haven’t the foggiest what sort of businessman he is. Opinion seems to be pretty divided. The two basic viewpoints are that he’s either a business genius (this certainly seems to be his evaluation), or a gimcrack flim-flam merchant with a savant gift for gab. Regardless, here’s what I do know: his acuity for commerce is going to have minimal relevance for his ability to govern. Being good at making money doesn’t have much to do with making good public policy. Herbert Hoover was a boffo businessman and a bush-league president. Harry Truman was a serial failure in business, but a White House major leaguer.

So having government slurp down the sugary soda of Trump’s incontinent populism might whizz out a worthy program or two (anything’s possible), but those vesting any faith in the idea that his business cred will help him hit the sweet spot as a policymaker are likely to be disappointed.  Trump has never had to deal with the sorts of decision making processes that define representative democracy, i.e. processes that by deliberate design are colossally inefficient, decentralized, have vague goals, murky bottom lines and, above all, are much more suited to doing nothing than something.  That’s not something business really prepares you for and no amount of 140-character gossip grenades is going to cover that up. Those candy-covered tweets might taste good, but neither they nor a business record are likely to provide balanced nourishment for the republic.