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Giving Government the Business

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

It’s the season for campaign vows.  In this week’s Centre Square commentary, Chris Satullo dissects a frequent political pledge that may be less impressive than it sounds.

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It’s election time, and the economy is stumbling around like a drunk trying to find his way home.

Yet the hills are alive with the sound of a common cliché: “I pledge to run government more like a business.”

Democrats use this line. So do Republicans.   Then they  pause for an ovation.

This is a wonderment.  On two counts.

The first is exemplified by a candidate for Florida governor who makes this pledge frequently.  Before he was fired, the health care company where he was CEO paid a fine of $1.7 billion for defrauding Medicare and Medicaid. In others words, he cheated the very government he now vows to make run like a Ferrari.

These days, you’d think the “run government like a business line” would spur more guffaws than  applause. Look at the corrupt, inept, damaging run our corporate titans have had.   Enron. GM.   Lehman Brothers.  I could go on, but time is wasting.

Now, don’t mistake me for some anti-business Michael Moore.  America is full of entrepreneurs who risk their all to build a better mouse pad.  I admire them.

But “business” is a catchall, just like “government.’  Each comes in multiple flavors; some are agile and admirable, others bumbling or conniving.

That’s point one. Here’s point two.

Saying you want to run government more like a business is like saying you want to run your toaster oven more like a vacuum cleaner.   The two appliances have a few similarities – they have electric cords- but they operate differently, to different ends.

Business exists to make a profit, for the benefit of a limited group of owners.  It serves customers only so far as doing that furthers its primary goal.

Government’s goal is to break even, while promoting the public good .  And in government, your shareholders – the voters – are the same people as your customers.  That makes it a lot harder to please the boss by cutting costs.

Plus, thanks to checks and balances, a government CEO has less leeway to call the shots. Running government is in fact a harder gig.  That’s why for every successful Mike Bloomberg, there are several floundering Jon Corzines.

And that’s why candidates who tell me they’ll run business more like a government lose my vote.

They don’t understand the job they’re applying for.


  • Mitchell Swann says:

    Mr. Satullo,

    I GREATLY appreciated your piece this morning (30 Aug 2010)! I have had that discussion on several ocassions with presumably enlightened friends who have fallen for the “run it like a business” rhetoric.

    Government is not a business. It can be improved and informed by SOME aspects of sound business practice but its objectives are different and its metrics of success are different. Citizens as shareholders cannot liquidate their holdings and cash out. Thank you so much for putting such an fine point on snuffing out that overworn schtick!

    Next take on the “I will end waste and corruption!” mantra. If only the wasteful and corrupt would put a sign on their office or wear lapel pins so we could more easily fire them.

  • Michael B says:

    I may not agree with everything you say, Chris, but this was the best piece you’ve come up with.

    You can add Detroit as an example of how biug business destroys cities. I wish this BBC documentary would make it to US Public Broadcasting:

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