Thursday, July 6, 2017

An old delusion

You've probably heard remarks to the effect that government should be run more like a business - or, similarly, that we need an accomplished business executive to step in and bring their experience at "getting things done," as opposed to those useless politicians who've never had a real job in their lives and who just care about getting re-elected, rather than doing what's right for the country.

At a facile level, you might hope that the election of Trump would dispel the notion that success in business is any sort of voucher for being effective at actually running government.

(Then again, there's a strong argument to be made that Trump is a successful showman, hardly a successful businessman, so his incompetence in the Oval Office shouldn't have any bearing on the potential efficacy of someone who's actually run a business profitably.)

But beyond the easy knocks on Trump, there are various reasons why the yearning for a successful businessman is misguided.

First, government by its nature isn't a business. In a sense, government exists to do the things that for-profit businesses won't; if private businesses did a good job with everything society needs and wants, there would be no need for government.

So the tasks facing government are different from the tasks facing a business, and while business success is hardly disqualifying for government service, it's hardly a guarantee of fitness.

Second, as a related matter, the way of working in government - and in politics - is fundamentally different from how things get done in business. A company's CEO is a little like a dictator. He (or she) can't lock people up, but to a large extent they get their way. Everyone down the chain answers directly or indirectly to the CEO.

A president has to work in a system where many other people have some degree of authority and - more importantly - a degree of support independent of the president. A president can't fire a senator, a member of congress, a governor, a mayor, a sheriff. All those people have some degree of independence of action and can, in certain spheres, ignore what a president wants.

The most a president can do is urge people to vote against a particular senator, congressman, etc., and support an opponent, and if the president is popular that might have some effect. But if the senator, congressman, or governor is also popular, he or she has a fine chance of withstanding presidential efforts.

So a successful politician, by the nature of the job, has to build coalitions, gauge the strength of others' support, find mutually acceptable deals, and so on. It's a different skill set from that of the stereotypical CEO. (And it is easily caricatured as not having any convictions.)

I had assumed that this cult of the CEO was a new misconception, gathering strength starting in the 1980's with the new denigration of government under Reagan and simultaneous exaltation of skill at making money.

But I shouldn't have been surprised that it has still older roots.

I've been dipping into David McCullough's The path between the seas, about the construction of the Panama Canal.

In 1907 the new Chief Engineer supervising the construction of the canal was George Washington Goethals, an Army man.

He replaced John Stevens, a tremendously skilled engineer who had worked for James J. Hill's Great Northern Railroad and then moved to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. He was well loved by the people who worked for him in Panama, and the warm send-off for him when he left was simultaneously a chilly reception for Goethals:
That the railroad men around Stevens had scant regard for Army engineers seem also abundantly plain to Goethals. "Army engineers, as a rule, were said to be, from their very training dictatorial and many of them martinets," he would write, "and it was predicted that if they ... were placed in charge of actual construction the canal project was doomed to failure." The Army men had only technical training, it was said; they had never "made a success as executive heads of great enterprises." (McCullough, p. 532)
But of course, it was Goethals and his team of Army engineers (with some civilians in the structure as well) who eventually oversaw the completion of the canal.

We have long been infected with the meme that success in business is some unique marker of competence.

Perhaps one of these centuries we can shed that idea.


  1. Interesting reflections. I agree with you that the business/government comparison is quite old. When I was doing fieldwork in Colombia, people would contrast what they called "tecnicos" (basically engineers) from "politicos" (you know, politicians), and were trying to import (neoliberal style) more of the tecnico and less of the politico. I used a book in my dissertation that is super-unknown called Roads to Reason: Transportation, Administration, and Rationality in Colombia. Yeah, not the catchiest theme. But it's about different forms of rationality in business and government. The author argues that the whole idea that you can find "efficiencies" or "rationality" in government such as in business is misguided. Because government encompasses everyone in the population (or should), it operates on a very different rationality than that of the consumer.

    1. That looks like an interesting book, as is the underlying work of Paul Diesing.

      I started a short response here, but it got longer:

    2. Awesome, and great response! I think this is really important, especially if we ever (ahem) get back to talking about that big big infrastructure project we were supposed to get. Hartwig and Diesing may need to be revisited.