Tuesday, August 02, 2016

August 2, 2016--Run the Government Like A Business?

A friend said, "It's just another Republican scheme designed to fool people. I'm tired of hearing about it."

"You mean those people who say they want to see the government run like a business?"

"Exactly. It's a crazy idea born out of frustration. Which I understand. The frustration. But businesses are all about making profits. Governments aren't."

"True," I said, "But let's take a step back to see what they really might mean. I agree with you on at least two counts--people are fed up with what they see to be failures of government to do legitimate and high quality work and, also, claim to want to see them work more like businesses to stick it to people like us who they feel are anti-business socialists. That we want a nanny state where government takes over roles more appropriately carried out by individuals, families, charities, and churches. Spending hard-earned taxpayers' money as if it's their own."

"Well put," my friend said, signaling to get his coffee cup refilled. "That's exactly what's going on. Can you imagine the country being run like a business? Especially by a Donald Trump who it appears more every day isn't really that good a businessman? Too much of what he apparently did was based more on scams than the result of more honest competition."

"Can we agree that as hard as it is to do, let's try to talk about this without making reference to him because, theoretically at least, it could be interesting to think about what a legitimate, big-time CEO from business might do as president. For example, Google's Eric Schmidt, General Dynamics CEO Phebe Novakovic, or Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg."

"Seeking to make a profit? That's the bottom line. Literally. And so . . . ?"

"Let's also try to deal with the profit business, to get it out of the way and hopefully, for the sake of this discussion, put it in a better context."

"Lot's of luck with that," he said.

"Of course, in capitalism, in business the focus is on P&L and at the end of the day making money. But more thoughtful people who think about what it would it be like to run the government more like a business know that though a government obviously wouldn't be seeking profits, it could benefit by running more according to well-established business methods and practices."

"Keep going," my friend said, seemingly at least a little interested. Or maybe the coffee was going down well.

"They look more at the methods than the bottom line. Accepting the fact that governments at their best also have bottom lines--not profits but the quality and efficiency of their services and even their goods. With goods usually thought of as all the manufactured goods the government procures (weapons systems front and center) and the services it supplies, among others, in education, health care, sponsored research, food and housing assistance, drug quality control, a strong military, intelligence gathering, and environmental protection."

"This is worth thinking about. I can see how certain so-called business practices might help with some of these."

"In big picture terms, without getting into too many specifics, one thing that frustrates business-inclined people is the fact that among government workers--appointed as well as Civil Service--there seems to be little value placed on efficiency or accountability. Both things at their best are characteristic of businesses. If you do well, you're rewarded with promotions, salary increases, and bonuses. If you do poorly, you're let go. There's a little of that in government but very little. Proponents of business applications to government work claim--and I think with some credibility when they're not just being mean spirited--that we have too many redundant and under-performing, unaccountable government workers with too many of the good ones discouraged by an indolent work culture and, as a consequence, either move on to private industry or essentially sit around counting the days until they can collect their pensions."

My friend said, "There is undoubtedly some truth to that, especially in regard to redundant and obsolete programs, but I think the extent of this is greatly exaggerated. Though I'll grant you there are too many $500 toilet seats."

"What's your evidence that the critique is exaggerated?"

"What's yours regarding the case about governmental incompetence and goldbricking?"

"Fair enough. This kind of argument on both sides is usually based on impression, anecdote, or ideology. So here are a couple of statistics--excluding the military, back in 1940, seven years after Roosevelt took over during the Great Depression and after there was a leap in the number on the federal payroll, there were about 700,000 federal workers. Now we have nearly 2.1 million. Also, the 1940 numbers are after years of new government hires to stimulate the economy. Back in 1930 there were only tens of thousand of government employees."

I paused to take a breath. My friend said, "I have to think about this. But don't forget that the country's population doubled during those years."

"It actually more than tripled. From about 100 million to more than 325 million. But I'll have to think about what you're saying. While doing so, while we're talking about the size of the government workforce, when was the last time--again applying business methods--that we took a truly objective look at the increased and expanded rolls government now plays? I can't believe that X percent of that couldn't be eliminated and in some cases even privatized. Any efficiently run business would do that, does that routinely. And by the way," I added, "shouldn't we liberals who see a large and essential role for government be the ones clamoring for efficiency and accountability? Why do we leave that political plum to conservatives?"

"I'm still stuck on profit being the bottom line for business and how that focus would be applied to not-for-profit government. Wouldn't it lead to harmful and cruel cuts to safety-net programs beyond what would, in pruning terms, be healthy or acceptable?"

"This is a necessary concern and caution. One final thing then," I said, "During the Bill Clinton years, especially during his second term, the government, after cutting 'welfare as we know it,' as they said, and other programs, plus of course a relatively booming economy, generated substantial budget surpluses. Trillions. Sort of like profits," I winked, "which, if George W. Bush hadn't taken us into war in Iraq and Afghanistan and had paid for his prescription drug plan and hadn't insisted on multi-trillion dollar tax cuts, that surplus would have eliminated the national debt in a decade. That sounds like good business practice to me."

"As I promised," my friend said, "I'll give this some more thought. That is, assuming you also agree to do so." He winked.

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