A series of unrelated events last week— including the first presidential debate— put me in mind of the shortcomings of both government and business, and helped clarify for me the ridiculous nature of the notion that a President of the United States equates with the CEO of a Blue Chip Corporation, along with the idea that a country should be run like a business.
There are a large number of Americans who sincerely believe that a government of, by, and for the people should function under the same conventions that govern business, and who equate the forms themselves as being interchangeable, with POTUS as the hypothetical CEO, and Congress functioning as a Board of Directors.
Even that most well-groomed Captain of Industry, Mitt Romney, doesn’t believe this analogy. The trouble with trying to run a country like a business is that the “customer” base is different for each one. In a country, we are one another’s customer (as fellow citizens), and we contribute to one another’s common welfare. That is why when a tornado strikes a town in Kansas, the federal government sends money or material aid, just as it will if a hurricane ravages South Florida. That is, as Republican Oliver Wendell Holmes said, both “the price we pay for living in a civilized society,” and its benifit.
But if that scenario played like it does in “business”—which counts “customers” as well as “investors”—there would be a profitand- loss reckoning as to how many resources went to New Orleans, versus how much was sent to South Beach: A nation with a debt (which includes all the successful ones) has the “luxury” of not having to decide between those choices (just as—when push comes to shove—we don’t have to “choose” between fighting one war or two; “sadly,” wehave the resources —in the form of deficits—to do both, something employed by both Democrats and Republicans). In a nation, we are all customers and investors.
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, the Bush Administration’s handling of the federal emergency response was unworthy of a great nation. The post- Katrina cleanup was handled like a business—one that enriched large contractors who had longstanding relationships with high-ranking officials. My purpose here is not to Bush Bash: It is to draw attention to the disastrous consequences of trying to manage a nation as a profit center.
Another dramatic example of the stark difference between the way a government and the way a business operate occurred in the hours immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Following the attacks, the New York City Municipal Credit Union, which is headquartered across from ground zero, lost its computer link to the network that controls its automated teller machines. Because of this, the network had no way to check accounts to verify that sufficient funds existed to cover ATM withdrawals.
Rather than shut down its ATM operation—and looking after the interests of its 300,000 members during a time of crisis—credit union officials allowed customers to make withdrawals from their accounts without knowing if the money was there to cover them.
The Municipal Credit Union, whose members include city, state, and federal employees, as well as health care workers, is a nonprofit financial institution with $1 billion in assets. As a credit union—of, by, and for its members—it functions much like a governmental body, providing financial services to those members, who in turn contribute to a pool used by other members (yes, this smacks of communism). In the months following 9/11, $15 million dollars was looted by credit unions members, and 118 individuals were charged by prosecutors in the thefts.
Ironically, I think their bad example is the exception that proves both the rule and my point. Those members who took advantage of the goodwill of the credit union officials after 9/11 were scoundrels in their actions, and we don’t know how many honest members were helped during those months. But the fact that the “bottom line” wasn’t the bottom-line for those officials in a time of trauma is very much to their credit.