Monday, November 01, 2010

The Business of Governing

Michael Hiltzig's latest column hits at one of my pet peeves: the idea that government should be run like a business. That notion is just dead wrong, and Hiltzig very patiently and very sensibly explains why.

It would be obvious to any business person who had spent a day in public administration that government and business are antithetical. That's not a flaw in the system. Government exists to take on precisely those tasks the private sector can't or won't do.

These include caring for the penniless; maintaining common amenities such as parks, schools, and universities; and creating infrastructure with broad value but unspecific beneficiaries, such as freeways and the Internet (which in coming days undoubtedly will be used by many readers to inform me by e-mail that they don't see how government serves any purpose).

Most of these functions can't be made to "pay" in the sense that a business strategy does. But they can be neglected or privatized only at great cost to society.

That's not to say there aren't efficiencies to be extracted from existing public services, but that these almost always prove to be marginal. Moreover, the candidates who bleat loudest about uncovering "waste, fraud and abuse" are often the rankest novices at governing. That includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his stillborn "blow up the boxes" campaign to reorganize state government, and Whitman, who has pledged to fire 40,000 state employees. Since California currently has the fourth-lowest ratio of state employees to population in the country, that sounds like a formula for less efficiency rather than more.

Once again, class: the purpose of business, any business, is to make money for its owners; the purpose of government is to provide for the general welfare of its citizens, all of them. They are complementary only insofar as business provide jobs, which enables people to pay taxes so that their welfare can be ensured. Clean and safe water, air, and food; education; security: all are supposed to be provided by the government for the benefit of all.

This election cycle California has two candidates who tout their experience in business as credentials for the posts they are running for. Neither has any government experience. Neither has served on any commissions or advisory boards for any government entity. Hell, both have the kind of spotty voting records which seem to indicate that they had absolutely no time for democracy, much less governing. So why are Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina running for governor and senator respectively?

Both obviously entered their races believing they could win, primarily because they were high profile CEOs of major companies and because they were wealthy and could finance their own elections. As Hiltzig points out, running for office in California is extraordinarily expensive. The problems arose when it became clear that neither had any political expertise, and the staffers they hired were clearly not much help.

At this point, the polls seem to be pointing in the direction of disappointment for both, and I certainly hope those polls are borne out on Tuesday. California has suffered long enough with a businessman-wannabe political leader at the helm, a man who couldn't get things done because he had absolutely no clue how Sacramento works.

We need elected officials who know the proper function of government and know how to get the government to function that way.

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Anonymous Jamie said...

well I'd agree thatgoverning is not a business, but we should also remeber running for office is not governing either

7:17 PM  

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