Monday, September 05, 2005

Why running a government is not like running a business

Conservatives' eyes gleam when they talk about luring a business executive into government to clean up the mess. But this disaster underscores how different both systems are and why that doesn't work.

When a corporation experiences an increase in demand, revenues go up. It goes without saying that Katrina has dramatically increased demand on government, but this one risks bankrupting us.

There is also a pervasive view within the managerial class that bbusiness executives can work magic without needing to understand the product. I would argue that it's a tremendous blind spot in the kind of business model taught in the United States, but it becomes deadly when it's allowed to infect government.

Allow me a moment to illustrate what I mean with a personal story. My dad began work as an assistant sweeper in a factory in Cleveland right after World War II. Over the years, he rose through the ranks and was General Works Mananger for a similar forge shop in upstate New York when he was bought out by a conglomerate and his job evaporated in 1961.

Dad sent out 135 resumes in an era when most people didn't even know what they were. He got eight reponses -- five polite rejections and three positive responses, two job possibilities at forge shops (including the one in Jackson, Michigan, that brought me here) and one solid job offer with the highest pay from a plastics plant in Arizona.

My anxious mother wanted Dad to take the sure thing in Arizona, but my father wouldn't even consider it. "I don't know the product," he said.

So now we see FEMA run by Michael Brown, who previously worked for the Arabian Horse Association. Clearly, he doesn't know the product.

The dangerous blinders we see in business and in government is there is some magic handed out in business school that automatically confers competence in a specific field.

It simply isn't true. Yes, a talented and bright person can learn a new field, but they had better listen to the people within the organization who know the ropes. As Willie Loman said in Death of a Salesman, "You gotta know the territory."

Conservatives believe that executive skills alone are enough to carry the day and we can see the deadly consequences of this fallacy unfolding before us on TV even today as people continue to die in New Orleans.

Even Donald Trump, who believes in a business education, would be quick to call the two Mikes, Chertoff and Brown, into his office today to say, "You're fired." It's time to bombard Congress with e-mails and letters demanding that Colin Powell take over.

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