One thing should be deader than Trumpcare — the idea that you can (or should try to) run government like a business

By Michael Vadon via Flickr

By Michael Vadon via Flickr

Maybe Trumpcare — or Ryancare or, more accurately, Don’tcare — is dead. But I know of one thing that should be even deader: The absurd notion, which too many people cling to as an article of faith, that government can and should be “run like a business.”

And even deader than that (if, you know, you can be deader than something that’s deader than dead) should be the laughable idea that the best person to run a government is a businessman with zero experience in government — especially if that businessman is Donald J. Trump.

Remember all the silliness about how Trump was going to be so awesome because he’s such a great deal-maker (just ask him; he’ll tell you — over and over)?

Well, so much for that. The one deal he had to close to meet minimum expectations of the base — repeal that “awful” Obamacare — was so far beyond his abilities, it would be hard to find a better case study of how the skills involved in accumulating a bunch of money in real estate have nothing to do with the skills involved in corralling votes in Congress.

And yet… in spite of all the above… we read this this morning:

Trump taps Kushner to lead a SWAT team to fix government with business ideas

President Trump plans to unveil a new White House office on Monday with sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises — such as reforming care for veterans and fighting opioid addiction — by harvesting ideas from the business world and, potentially, privatizing some government functions.

The White House Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump. Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington, float above the daily political grind and create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements….

Wow! He’s still spouting that stuff! You’d think that, after it was all proved to be nonsense on Friday, he’d give it a little time before repeating it!

But when you live in a fact-free universe, I guess this is how it goes…

47 thoughts on “One thing should be deader than Trumpcare — the idea that you can (or should try to) run government like a business

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, and for those of you who still need it explained… government cannot, and should not, be run like a business… and vice versa.

    Often, when people say, “run government like a business,” they’re thinking in terms of having some savvy, no-nonsense businessman saying “Do this,” and it gets done, ASAP. That is certainly what the folks who thought Trump’s resume recommended him were looking for — a ramrod, a doer, someone who would make short work of fulfilling all those unkept promises the GOP has been making over the last decade or two.

    After all, he’s a straight-shooter! He says what he thinks! No one can say him nay (or if they do, he refuses to hear it)! This is a guy with contempt for government, whose only heroes in the political sphere are git-er-done dictators like Putin.

    But here’s the thing, folks — our system of government is set up precisely to keep one person, or one branch of government, from rolling over dissenters. It’s not broken when those who disagree — from the Democrats to the “Freedom Caucus” — get a say in what happens. It was set up this way deliberately.

    That’s why all you impatient fans of the private sector get so disgusted with it. Hey, I get frustrated, too. We all do, because the government doesn’t exist to do one person’s bidding.

    And when we talk about the genius of Madison and Hamilton and the rest of those guys who set the system up, to a large extent it’s the restraints on the smooth functioning of the whole that we’re talking about…

    1. Richard

      And that in a nutshell is what is wrong with our government. It’s all if you do this for me I’ll do this for you, and the cost of both projects just doubled the cost of doing maybe one that we can afford to do. Nothing but a building full of back slappers.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        If by “back-slappers,” you mean people who are willing and able to work with other people, yes. That’s what you need in government. Not egomaniacs who think everything has to be done THEIR way…

        1. Richard

          So there are no egomaniacs at the State House? I realize these are the people you look up to, but I view them as something I need to scrape off the bottom of my shoe.

          “back slappers” as in you do me a favor, I’ll do you a favor. They’re there to push their agenda and will do whatever is needed to get the votes to get their bill passed. If you haven’t heard, politicians don’t have the best image by the public and SC is full of career politicians.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            “They’re there to push their agenda and will do whatever is needed to get the votes to get their bill passed.”

            Isn’t that what we elect them to do? I thought one of the reasons for both the Tea Party rise (including the Freedom Caucus) and the election of Trump was that people were fed up with electing people who don’t do what they run on…

  2. Doug Ross

    Yeah it would be terrible to run a government entity like a business: having a real focus on fiscal stewardship, encouraging innovation, providing opportunities to people based on skills instead of tenure, using competition to drive efficiency. But then you’re solution to any problem is raise taxes and spend more. It’s so easy when you can do that. MEDICARE FOR ALL!! Meanwhile because it’s NOT run like a business, the level of waste, fraud, and abuse is measure in billions of dollars.

    No, you keep doing what your doing with government now. It’s working GREAT! VA, TSA, IRS, FEMA, DOT… all running like a well oiled machine.

    It’s interesting that nobody ever has said “We should run our business more like the government”.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That would be just as crazy as running government like a business.

      It makes zero sense, either way.

      I’m not even going to address the exaggerations, non sequiturs, misstatements of my views, and straw men in your first two paragraphs…

      1. Doug Ross

        You won’t address them because you can’t. Pick any one and tell me how government does a better job than business. Fiscal stewardship? Never. Innovation. Have you been to the DMV lately?

        1. bud

          Have you been to the DMV lately?

          Actually I have. It was a model of efficiency. I went to the supposedly busiest DMV in the state on Shop Road. There was ample, free parking. I walked in and stood in a short line to talk to someone at a screening kiosk about my particular issue. In my case I needed to renew my drivers license. I was given a ticket with a letter code indicating what service I needed. After a short wait my number was called and I headed to the counter where a friendly, efficient DMV employee handled my need quickly (without any annoying upselling crap which is a standard feature of any business). I then headed to the camera location where a new photo was taken. Within about 5 minutes I was handed my new license and off I went. The whole process took about 30 minutes.

          A few weeks later I decided to get a new Iphone. So I went to Best Buy where they advertised a deal. After an interminable wait I finally talked to someone who scrambled around looking for the phone I wanted only to be told that the deal I wanted was no longer valid. After they tried to up-sell me I stormed out and headed to the phone store down the street. After driving around trying to find a parking place I walked in and tried to find someone to help and this annoyed looking employee took my information and put me in the system. And then the loooooooong wait began. Eventually I got to talk to someone who gave me this never-ending speil about how much more wonderful the far more expensive phone and incomprehensible plan would be. Eventually I got a close facsimile of the phone I actually wanted without ever really knowing how much I’d be paying. All the untold fees and add ons without really getting an intelligible answer. The first bill was quite the shock. Of course that made no damn sense in relation to what I was hearing from Ms. Up sell. Bottom line, I probably spent 3 hours getting a new phone. I never really understood what I was getting. And I ended up spending more than I wanted.

          So Doug here’s your lesson for the day. As any good lawyer can tell you never ask a question that you don’t know the answer. In this case you asked a stereotypical question and didn’t get the answer you were certain was the ONLY possible answer – Of course service at the DMV is awful.

          I could also give similar stories about the oil change place, the burger joint or the tree service guy I needed. Suffice it to say this whole fairy tale of fast, efficient, friendly service from a business enterprise is just a load of crap.

            1. bud

              Full disclosure. The DMV changes were in the works for a long time but held by the restructuring debacle.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                There was no restructuring — at least, not in the sense of reform, the kind of restructuring I’ve advocated for more than two decades.

                The only “debacle” is the way the Legislature, and particularly the Senate, have resisted reform for all that time…

  3. Claus2

    So what Brad is saying is run a government like a government… don’t worry about little things like budgets, if you run out of money we’ll print more.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Actually, I’m saying nothing of the kind. As everyone knows, both governments and businesses are frequently run on debt. Not good in either case, but sometimes necessary — when you’re at war or need a stimulus, or when you need for strategic reasons to expand the business.

      Yes, a government can do so longer-term, even though it should not. And you know why it can do that? Because there has to be a government. This or that business does not have to survive.

      And the people who are concerned that the federal government keeps going further into debt are right to be concerned. Both parties keep kicking the can down the road. What’s inexcusable is when people think the answer is electing someone like Trump. That’s the opposite of a solution…

  4. Claus2

    “What’s inexcusable is when people think the answer is electing someone like Trump. ”

    Yes, Hillary would have been the answer to all this country’s problems.. everything from balancing the budget to childhood obesity.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No one said she would be. What you’ve done is change the subject.

      I’m talking about who you vote for if you want things to change for the better. And that most definitely is not Donald Trump.

      Hillary wasn’t anybody’s “change” candidate, except among those people who think it’s a big deal she’s a woman. Democrats who wanted change voted for Bernie.

  5. Karen Pearson

    A business is run for one primary purpose: to make money for its investors/owners. A government must answer to all the people it governs. It should not favor any one group over another. Many of those people don’t agree with each other. For example, Brad may think we need more military spending, while Bud deplores the excesses of the military, and believes we should spend much more on social programs. And I bet I can come up with a lot more diverse opinions just in this group. However, we are all members of this country, and it is the government’s reponsibility to try to parse these many divergencies for the greater good of all, while protecting us from each other (Pogo had it right). The system we have of checks and balances was designed to force compromise so that it did only those things that most people could stomach. It ensures that everyone gets something, while no one gets everything. The less it works like that, the greater danger we all are in.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I agree with everything Karen said, with a tiny edit. Where she said, “Brad may think,” I’m sure she meant, “Brad may KNOW…”


    2. Doug Ross

      So the right solution apparently is to do everything. I’ll trade you a huge military budget if you give me entitlements. It’s so easy to do when you can run up twenty trillion in deficits.

  6. Juan Caruso

    Someday in the not very distant future, Brad must either become an outright apologist for ever bigger centralized government (very unlikely, we know) remain what he is today, pro lawyer-“controlled” government.

    The U.S. government has become since 2008 totally unaccountable, unlike a business, because the hordes of excess bureaucrats who break laws (lawyers like Lois L.) make convenient fall guys for both executive department chieftains (like John Koskinen) and the largely – lawyer Congress which says it is no longer able to oversee the vast detauils of such a large bureaucracy.


    Any businessman would love to enjoy such cover for critical lapses of sound judgement and illegalities by underling incompetences no business, much less the SEC could long tolerate.

  7. Karen Pearson

    No, Doug, that happens when people refuse to compromise. Then each party fully funds what they want while ignoring the others’ want. Then the opposition gets in,and does the same. Compromise allows both sides to get something for the available budget.

  8. Burl Burlingame

    Here’s another: Children in school contribute nothing to the economy. Take them out of the classroom and put them to work. Maybe building a giant wall.

  9. Burl Burlingame

    Yep. Turn public service over to the likes of Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling and Bernie Madoff. Genius.

  10. bud

    Probably the best example of how you can’t run government like a business is what happened in Michigan. The people of MI elected a governor who promised to run the state like a business. He came from a successful business background as a vulture, I mean venture capitalist, and made an effective pitch to the voters. Consequently he made the “business” decision to try to save the taxpayers money on the water system for Flint. For many decades Flint paid Detroit for their water but it was a bit expensive. But also clean. Then when Czar, I mean Governor Snyder and his henchmen got into power they saw what seemed like an opportunity to save some money. They could do this because Flint was in trouble from the Bush recession and needed a bailout.

    Well the rest is a sad and disturbing history of how a business man is woefully unsuited to becoming an effective chief executive in government. And the people of Flint still don’t have clean water.

  11. Bob Amundson

    Civil-service reform is central to efforts to improve government, largely because government employees are more inclined than their private-sector counterparts. In government agencies there often exists a culture of compliance and risk avoidance that is incompatible with efforts to improve performance. Governments should expand the use of individual performance goals, build a greater capacity to reward performance and make it easier to terminate employees that continually under-perform.

    In the end, we should all have a common goal: improving the performance of government. In pursuit of this, it is not reasonable to assume that private-sector success can always be seamlessly translated to government or that government cannot learn any lessons from successful business practices.

  12. Bob Amundson

    Sorry about the bad grammar and lack of clarity; “Civil-service reform is central to efforts to improve government, largely because government employees are more inclined than their private-sector counterparts to work in a culture of compliance and risk avoidance that is incompatible with efforts to improve performance.”

    Perhaps Brad will edit this for me.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Risk-avoidance is a big problem among government employees. They tend to fear drawing attention (particularly media attention, I can tell you with confidence).

      Private-sector employees don’t fear the media that much, because it wouldn’t be a realistic fear. Journalists are FAR more likely to scrutinize public employees.

      But there’s plenty of risk-avoidance in the private sector.

      Most private employees have too much good sense to, for instance, start a political blog using their real names…

      1. bud

        Yep. Since we have these over zealous watchdog outfits like Fits and The Nerve who tend to cow government agencies much more than is beneficial.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Bud, I wasn’t talking about ax-to-grind antigovernment sites. I’m talking mainstream media.

          My favorite anecdote along those lines is my experience in the Executive Institute.

          It was a leadership program run out of the Budget and Control Board. Over the course of a year in two or three-day monthly sessions, senior managers from state government agencies AND the private sector met to discuss managerial issues.

          The faculty was from the Kennedy School at Harvard, and the teaching was done through group discussion of case studies.

          For the first few months, a lot of the state agency people were super-reluctant to open their minds and speak from their own experience in front of me. And when they were talking about options for solving the problems in the case studies, they would sometimes say something like, “Well, you can’t do THAT, because the media would be all over you” and turn to look daggers at me.

          It was pretty uncomfortable, until they got used to me being there among them…

          1. bud

            Interesting. The vast majority of government workers, especially at the grunt level, try hard to do right by the taxpayers. I’ll match a DOT maintenance worker or DMV counter clerk with any comparable worker in the private sector. At the other end of the pay scale the top tier managers make a tenth of what a corporat CEO makes with comparable experience and education. Not sure I get this hyperbolic disrespect for government workers.

      2. Claus2

        And if you have a bad employee in a business you get rid of him. In government you promote him or transfer him, because you can’t get rid of a government employee without him retiring first is almost impossible.

          1. Claus2

            Depends, if it’s an Admin, Asst. I doubt they’d care, if it’s an elected official then the media picks up on it.

        1. bud

          I personally had to fire 2 people when I was a supervisor. I’ve seen others get fired. However, it is more difficult to fire someone in a government job. But that may not be altogether a bad thing.

  13. Karen Pearson

    BTW, Trump has gone bankrupt many times and saved himself a bundle. Is this the way we want our got run?

  14. Phillip

    Today’s executive order to roll back Obama-era greenhouse gas regulations (ensuring we will not meet Paris Accord goals) is a perfect example of one way in which running a government (or a nation) like a business is obviously flawed. Shorter-term profit for this or that industry (a bird in the hand) is always going to win out against the more amorphous threat that lies in the future, mostly in a time when everybody in Trump’s administration and all of us will be gone.

  15. Bart

    Nothing to do with running the government like a business but the latest from our illustrious elected leaders inside the Beltway is interesting to say the least.

    Apparently Democrats have mustered enough votes, 41, to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination to the SCOTUS. And apparently Republicans are preparing to invoke the nuclear option and remove the 60 vote agreement to a simple up or down vote. And it is becoming apparent Republicans will have the necessary 51 votes to confirm Gorsuch.

    What does this mean for the immediate future? It means that there are at least two members of the SCOTUS bench who will be up for replacement before the next election and if this is the case, Trump will be able to load the bench with conservatives and the SCOTUS will have a conservative bent for years if not decades. I don’t want the SCOTUS loaded for liberals or conservatives, it should be balanced the way it has been for decades.

    It is always wise to pick and choose your battles and IMHO, this is the wrong time for Democrats to force the issue and push Republicans into a corner that will result in following Harry Reid’s precedent and invoke the nuclear option. All confirmation of Gorsuch will do is return balance to the SCOTUS and there will still be the one swing vote to keep the other eight honest. Unless Ginsberg and Kennedy can be turned into zombies, it is very likely neither one will last until Trump no longer has a majority in the Senate and particularly when one considers the political landscape that still favors Republicans in the next election, especially in the Senate. The House is another matter because they are the ones who screwed up royally with the fantasy about replacing ACA.

    Democrats, be careful what you wish for and take a serious look at what has transpired after Reid made an unwise move. Trump can nominate anyone he wants to the federal bench and Democrats can do not one damn thing about it other than make a lot of noise.

    Sometimes I wonder exactly how these jerks on both sides are able to get out of bed each day, get dressed on their own, find their way to their respective chambers, and conduct anything resembling the business for this country. They have completely forgotten their reason for being in Washington in favor or identity politics.

    This is truly madness manifest from Trump down to the most junior member of Congress. What world will they leave behind for our children and generations to come? This is truly one of the worst chapters in the history of our country and the inmates in charge of the Beltway asylum have thrown off their straight jackets and are ruining our country.

    If you are not a believer, it might be time to seriously consider becoming one and praying for the future of America, they, prayers, will be needed.

  16. Doug Ross

    As I watched the video on the news this morning of a 14 year old boy with Sensory Disorder getting a vigorous two minute patdown from a TSA agent, I had to wonder what business could get away with that?
    People who work in these type of government jobs only know one thing: the rule book. A rule book created by idiots (remember no nail clippers after 9/11?) They patdown people with a zero point zero chance of being terrorists. Their advanced technology generates false warnings 99% of the time. And when tested by the Office of Inspector General, a very high percentage of banned items were undetected.

    This is exactly one agency that SHOULD be run as a business. Carnival Cruise lines does a better job of getting passengers through screening than the TSA. Go through the Charlotte airport sometime and count the number of agents just standing around…

  17. Bill

    This article points to some of the problems with attempting to run government like a business – as well as how the ”run government like a business“ meme sometimes doesn’t even amount to good business practices:

    More generally, though, what I think most folks are thinking of when they call for government to be run like a business is simply: cut stuff – usually stuff that doesn’t affect them as much as it does other people. So it’s effectively nothing more than selfishness disguised as efficiency.

    1. Bob Amundson

      Perhaps you’re correct that “most folks are thinking of when they call for government to be run like a business is simply: cut stuff – usually stuff that doesn’t affect them as much as it does other people.” However, this public administrator thinks that moving government towards terminating non-performers “at will” as in businesses should be an important area of reform.

      However, context and caution: move towards “at will” hiring and firing, synthesizing two almost binary systems. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (1883) established that positions within the federal government should be awarded on the basis of merit instead of political affiliation. The act provided selection of government employees by competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation. This reform was a result of the assassination of President Garfield by a supporter who felt wronged when the current (at the time) “spoils” system (i.e., political patronage) did not result in a job in Garfield’s administration.

      Government reform is a complex problem, with the discussion of solutions perhaps not best done in a blog format. I do know how hard it is the fire government employees once they achieve merit status by completing a probationary period, even when there is clear cause.

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