Running the Nation Like a Business – A Modest Proposal

During the campaign, candidate Trump vowed to “run government like a business,” and in March, he tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner to lead an office that would apply business ideas to government.

Déjà vu! That announcement reminded me of a publishing gig where I discovered the company’s nepotism only after the editor-in-chief abruptly and mysteriously “stepped down”. I was stunned; the editor had worked for the company for seven years and seemed to be the only manager who actually knew the publishing trade. Privately, I learned that she was not only the sole person in management with a journalism background, she was also the only one not related by birth or marriage! She was pushed aside in favor of someone’s wife, a recent grad who had about as much qualification for editing as Ivanka Trump has for international diplomacy.

From the get-go, Trump has skirted federal nepotism laws by appointing (but not paying) family members. Although Eric Trump recently called nepotism “a beautiful thing”, the family-run businesses I have known have usually been far from models of efficiency, competence or legal compliance. Unqualified employees who score jobs via “pull”, rather than by pushing themselves to master a professional discipline, fall prey not only to conflict-of-interest misfeasance, they can also commit nonfeasance and malfeasance out of sheer ignorance. Consider, for example, a son who fails to see the loyalty conflict inherent in meeting with a Russian lawyer, or how failing to report that meeting could compromise one’s security clearance.

Last week, when Sean Spicer resigned, I was reminded of yet another company I worked for, the one where my boss proved to be a pathological liar. Although I have wondered how and why any journalist would choose to work as Trump’s press secretary—an obvious career-endangering move—I have felt sorry for Spicer due to having worked for a similarly deceitful leader.

I remember walking out of a cabinet meeting and minutes later having my boss, the university’s president, say, “Don’t do what we just agreed to. Put out a notice that says this instead.” I obeyed. Moments later, my phone rang. It was the university’s lawyer. “Why did you just email the whole university contradicting the plan?” she fumed. I explained. She sighed and said, “Welcome to my world.”

Having worked for a passive/aggressive exec who lied and couldn’t remember major plans—like whether she had, or had not, instructed staff to close a money-losing campus—I think I know how Spicey’s world must have felt during these past six months.

Frankly, my work experiences haven’t made me a fan of running government like a business. In addition to the bosses above, I have also worked for a groper, a fraud, an embezzler, and several execs who thought the law didn’t apply to them. (Sound familiar?)

But even the good businesses I have worked for—and there have been quite a few—make bad models when it comes to government. For one thing, must focus on profits, valuing short-term stock prices over long-term investments. Short-term thinking would never have gotten the Grand Coulee Dam built or put a man on the moon. Then too, how would one measure the profit in preventing terrorism? The number of people deported? The number of attacks that don’t happen?

Many tasks wind up in the public sphere precisely because their results are difficult to measure or because their work doesn’t (or shouldn’t) lend itself to making a profit.

Then too, many profitable businesses were built by ruthless tycoons, buccaneers who skirted or scrapped inconveniences like fair pay, safety conditions, pensions, overtime, and child labor laws. A corporate raider like Carl Icahn, who stripped the assets of TWA, would provide a case in point.

Looking at Trump’s cabinet appointments, perhaps the hostile takeover is the true underlying model?

If that’s the case, we should take USA Today columnist Steven Strauss’ advice, following his modest proposal for stopping the “hemorrhage of cash in money-draining operations” by selling the low-performing states. Starting with Kentucky.

In 2017, WalletHub identified Kentucky as the state most dependent on the federal government. In fiscal 2016, the feds collected $33 billion in taxes there but spent $89 billion, giving Kentucky a subsidy of $56 billion. (By contrast, Massachusetts paid in $109 billion and took back $62 billion.)

I say, if Kentucky goes, Mitch McConnell should go too.

Nothing personal of course. No competent corporate exec would promote a manager who lost money on that scale. But of course, we’re talking Trump here as the US CEO, and I have never understood how six bankruptcies and 3,500 business lawsuits counted as qualifications for the job in the first place.

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The Long Shadow of World War I

Martha Downer Slusser, who stayed home with four children while her husband, Thomas Harry Slusser, went off to fight WW1. T.H. Slusser saved his letters home and later published them in a book called “Letters to Her”.

One hundred years ago, my grandfather was leaving his wife, his four small children and his law firm to join the “war to end all wars”.

The trenches where he would soon serve had been dug nearly two years earlier. On July 12 and 13, 1917, the Germans began bombarding allied troops there with mustard gas. Nearly one million French soldiers had already been killed. Conditions were so horrific that several French Army mutinies had already occurred.

Thomas Harry Slusser didn’t have to go to France. At 36, he was too old for the first draft, and his children, aged two to nine, entitled him to defer military service even after that. Still, he signed up, spent four months at the Fort Sheridan officer’s training camp, then sailed overseas on Jan. 7, 1918.

T.H. Slusser’s 1907 law school graduation photo.

Seven months later, the Chicago Evening American printed a front-page story calling him a hero and running his photo under the headline, “Wife and Four Children Couldn’t Keep this Soldier at Home.”

A century later, one might wonder why not?

The T.H. Slusser I knew was patriotic, iron-willed, and high-minded, rather like President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had won the 1916 election vowing to maintain neutrality, but Germany’s actions — atrocities in Belgium, the sinking of the Lusitania, unrestricted submarine warfare — dragged him inexorably toward war. Duty and honor must have similarly pulled my grandfather toward Europe’s eddy of blood, but I suspect that there was more to it.

By the time the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Wilson and his administration were openly questioning the loyalty of German-Americans. The attorney general approved a plan to use volunteers to gather information on German immigrants and native-born German-Americans suspected of disloyalty. From that volunteer group grew the American Protective League, a vast network of 200,000 untrained, amateur detectives. The APL functioned as a semi-official, but often uncontrolled, branch of the FBI’s forerunner, the Bureau of Investigation.

Although my grandfather was a fifth-generation American, sometimes having a German name could be enough to prompt the APL to investigate one’s private affairs.

Chicago, where my grandfather’s law firm was located, was also home to Chicago ad executive A. M. Briggs, the man who created the APL. The town was a hotbed of anti-German sentiment: Lubeck, Frankfort, and Hamburg streets were renamed Dickens, Charleston, and Shakespeare. German Hospital became Grant Hospital. Famed conductor Frederick Stock, who was born in Germany, was forced to step down from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra until he finalized his naturalization papers.

Across the nation, German-Americans were dragged out of their homes at night and forced to kiss the flag or sing the national anthem. Thousands were forced to buy war bonds. Fearing sabotage, the Red Cross barred those with German surnames. Churches were vandalized. Employers received telephone calls asking if they still had “that German spy” on the payroll.

Like the African-American Buffalo soldiers and the Japanese-Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, German-Americans were subjected to “friendly fire” from fellow citizens. Having sworn to uphold the constitution when he was admitted to the bar, my attorney grandfather must have keenly felt a need not just to profess loyalty, but to prove it.

By June 1917, the first American division reached France. By year’s end, 175,000 Americans were serving there; 18 months later, the American Expeditionary Force numbered nearly two million men.

 T.H. Slusser was among them. He became a commander in the First Light Infantry on November 27, 1917. His unit joined the 126th Infantry in the Aisne-Marne offensive in Alsace, then marched with Army of Occupation in Germany after the armistice on November 11, the day that would become my birthday 33 years later.

In its 1918 article, quoting an army field dispatch sent from “somewhere in France”, the Chicago Evening American reported that “Lieutenant Thomas Harry Slusser and Lieutenant Otto H. Buder of Kalamazoo, Michigan “distinguished themselves by charging across an open field swept by machine gun fire.”

As PBS has aired “The Great War”, I have reflected on how much WWI shaped the world we live in today. Bellicose leadership and conflict abroad can still inspire hatred and violence at home. Today, while our allies have reason to question our nation’s commitment to live up to Woodrow Wilson’s call to “make the world safe for democracy,” I believe that most Americans still aspire to that noble goal.

WWI had an important effect on me too. Had my grandfather not survived his machine gun charge 100 years ago, I wouldn’t be writing this column today. My father wasn’t born until 1925, six years after Thomas Harry Slusser returned from the trenches of France.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on July 20, 2017