Every time I go out for a run, I can’t help but see all those goofy yard signs that say we should “hire” Rick Snyder to be our next governor.
Frankly, I don’t want to “hire” any one for governor – I want to elect someone. So can we please stop this whole nonsense that running a successful business gives you special insights into how to govern that non-business people lack?
During his run for governor, Snyder has been touting his business experience at Gateway as a key qualification for his ability to be governor. In doing so, Snyder joins a long line of entrepreneurs that have run for elected office on the basis of their business leadership. In this election cycle alone, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat in California while ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman is vying for the governor’s mansion there. Former CEOs have made similar bids in Florida with Democrat Jeff Greene unsuccessfully challenging for the open Senate seat and while for CEO Republican Rick Scott winning his party’s nomination for governor.
The flip side to touting your candidate’s CEO experience is the demonization of your opponent as a professional politician. For example, last week the Republican Governor’s Association aired an advertisement denouncing Democratic candidate Virgil Bernero as a career politician. And the implication of the advertisement was simple: Businessmen are out in the real world creating jobs and making the economy work and have the ability to clean up the wasteful government that the incompetent “politicians” created in pursuit of an ego trip.
The first problem is that some of these business people running for office aren’t all that competent at business, let alone at government.
Take Fiorina for example. She’s famous for her rocky tenure as the head of Hewlett-Packard, during which she forced through a disastrous merger with Compaq Computer, presided over a 50-percent drop in HP’s share price and left the company with a $42 million severance package. Based on that record alone, I’d have seriously considered voting for her primary opponent Tom Campbell or incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer — both career politicians.
Scott’s business expertise consisted of founding and running Columbia/HCA, the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain. The company grew quite profitable, in part because it engaged in rampant fraud. HCA overbilled Medicare — a taxpayer-funded program — so egregiously that the company agreed to pay a $1.7 billion fine to the government in 2001, a dubious record that still stands today. Scott’s primary opponent, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, might have been a career politician, but at least he sent criminals to jail instead of installing them in the executive boardroom.
But I don’t merely wish to keep incompetent business people out of political office (nor to hint that Snyder is incompetent — all indications are that he’s quite the opposite), but rather to question the idea that business experience somehow provides brilliant insight into running a government that the rest of us mere mortals don’t have.
At its core, the goal of business is to make profits. The goal of democratic government is to provide for the common good with the consent and input of the governed. There’s a difference there.
Often the profit incentive does line up with the common good. A background as a business executive can help efficiently manage public resources. But a business background is neither necessary nor sufficient to be a good financial manager.
Nor is efficiency the only criterion of good democratic government. Academics often get derided for not living in the real world. But they generally have a superior grasp of broad policy problems from taxation and health care to infrastructure and ecology. Though many entrepreneurs have experience in these issues, it’s often only in the narrow context of running their business. Yet you never hear a groundswell of support to get more professors into elected offices.
The point is that business people do bring some relevant skills and knowledge that are useful to governing and some might be quite capable in office — but so do people in other professions like teaching, social work, medicine, law, economics and the arts.
That brings me to my final point that power can corrupt anyone — and CEO’s are just as vulnerable as the rest of us. Whitman by most accounts did an exemplary job running eBay, but numerous allegations of shady stock dealings involving Goldman-Sachs and abuse of employees dog her record. Similar problems followed Greene into his unsuccessful race.
That’s a sobering point for Snyder to think about as he contemplates his likely victory in November. He certainly has plenty of skills as a businessman that might translate into a successful governorship. But he can drastically increase his effectiveness if he remembers that he doesn’t know everything and incorporates the skill sets of people from outside of the business world as well.
Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at email@example.com.