Greed isn’t good for the government

Mitt Romney wants to run America like a business. That's a disastrous idea

Topics: 2012 Elections, Mitt Romney, Republican Party, Colorado,

Greed isn't good for the government (Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Among the most insulting memes in the national debate about government are those about leadership — in particular, the three-pronged notion that assumes that 1) running a public institution requires no public-sector experience at all, 2) public sector experience is something inherently bad, and 3) a public institution will actually benefit from an infiltration of business executives, because those bare-knuckled suits will “run government like a business.”

Bizarre as it sounds in the post-financial-meltdown era — how can anyone want a Wall Street executive running anything? — the idea persists, and with few real challenges to its fundamental premises. Indeed, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney, is a guy with just four years of experience in government (far less than even President Barack Obama had when he ran for president) — a guy whose entire candidacy is predicated on the notion that only the ruthlessness and know-how of a private equity barbarian can get the government to start doing what needs to be done.

The unasked question, of course, is whether there is any truth to those assumptions. That question raises other uncomfortable ones, such as: What actually happens when corporate executives with zero relevant experience run public institutions? And what do those institutions do when said executives run them “like private businesses”?

While there’s no single answer for every case, three archetypal stories from my home state of Colorado underscore the typical — and predictable — results.

This is a state whose political culture so loathes the notion of public service and so deifies the Heroic Corporate Executive that a virtual unknown — Bush family member Walker Stapleton — was recently elected to the State Treasurer’s office on the basis of a television ad campaign that featured the candidate bragging: “I haven’t spent a day of my career inside of government and my opponent hasn’t spent a day of her career outside of government.” Not surprisingly, Stapleton has brought corporate greed-is-good narcissism and ethics-free mentality into state government, making early headlines with a precedent-setting plan to simultaneously run the Treasurer’s office — which oversees public investments — and keep his job as a private real estate investment executive. In other words, Stapleton has shown that bringing the cutthroat, profit-focused mission of business into government often means forcing the public to accept potentially huge conflicts of interests that could cost taxpayers dearly.



Likewise, the Denver Public School system will be struggling for years to clean up the financial disaster wrought by two corporate executives, Michael Bennet and Thomas Boasberg, who were granted school leadership positions despite having no experience running education institutions.

Bennet became superintendent in 2005, after previously serving as a Clinton administration lawyer, a corporate raider for right-wing billionaire Philip Anschutz and a political aide to Denver’s mayor. Boasberg, a telecom lawyer and Bennet’s lifelong friend from their days at St. Albans in Washington, was appointed deputy superintendent. Within a few years, the pair had brought Corporate America’s fast-and-loose accounting tricks into the schools, cutting a pension refinancing deal with major Wall Street banks — one that used complex interest-rate swaps to enrich those banks, while putting the school system’s long-term finances in serious jeopardy.

Then there is Colorado’s public university system, now run by oilman and former Republican Party Chairman Bruce Benson. Having no experience running a public higher education system, Benson’s tenure has been marked by callous “let them eat cake” declarations and financial scandals.

These last few months have been illustrative. With U.S. News and World Report noting the comparatively high cost of attending the University of Colorado, and with pressure building to make CU more affordable, Benson callously declared, “I’ve never heard a complaint from parents that tuition at CU is too high.” Then, like a CEO quietly juking an earnings report to hide big giveaways to executives, Benson tried to ram through a massive 15 percent tuition increase as quickly as possible, explicitly to avoid media attention — all after using the previous year’s tuition hike to finance huge bonuses to already-wealthy CU administrators.

Of course, recounting this trio of cautionary tales is not to argue that prior public-sector experience is always a prerequisite for effective stewardship of public institutions. But it is to suggest that the dominant “run government like a business” sloganeering obscures an important truth: namely, that public administration is a professional expertise unto itself — one whose nonprofit mission, obligation to taxpayers, and responsibilities to the common good are fundamentally different from the private sector’s objectives.

This is why putting public power in the hands of those who have no experience using it always brings a risk – and, as these events prove, those risks are much greater than the standard concerns that corporate human resources departments fret over when hiring an employee with no relevant experience. And yet, from electing governors with no public-sector experience to voting the Tea Party’s businessmen-turned-politicians into Congress, the zeal to corporatize the government is somehow intensifying. Even at the most local level, we see its pernicious effects. As Joanne Barkan previously reported in Dissent magazine, corporate-financed foundations are now working to replace experienced public servants with employees who have no relevant experience whatsoever:

The mission of both is to move professionals from their current careers in business, the military, law, government, and so on into jobs as superintendents and upper-level managers of urban public school districts. In their new jobs, they can implement the foundation’s agenda…

According to the Web site, “graduates of the program currently work as superintendents or school district executives in 53 cities across 28 states. In 2009, 43 percent of all large urban superintendent openings were filled by Broad Academy graduates.”

The second project, the Broad Residency, places professionals with master’s degrees and several years of work experience into full-time managerial jobs in school districts, charter school management organizations, and federal and state education departments…It’s another success story for Broad, which has placed more than two hundred residents in more than fifty education institutions.

After the collapse of Enron, the accounting industry scandals, the disastrous effects of Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney’s vice presidency, and the Wall Street implosion, you’d think we’d be moving in the other direction — you’d think we’d be more wary about putting businesspeople in government, and more focused on valuing those with public sector experience. But, instead, the era of polarized politics has created a bizarre psychology in which America now sees the public servant as a Public Enemy, and the corporate executive as the government savior.

Until we recognize the paradox in that thinking, we should expect the same horrifying results from the public sector that we’ve lately seen in the private sector.

David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>