Giving Government the Business

    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.

    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.

    [audio: satullo20100829.mp3]

    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.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.