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.