Satullo: The business of government

Joe Lingle of Yardley with his Volkswagen Passat TDI. Is this the business model Republicans want government to emulate?

Ahhh, so this is what it looks like when you run government more like a business.

That of course has long been a mantra of conservatives.

Again and again: We need to run government more like a business.

To which my reaction, again and again, has been two questions:

But what if government isn't actually like a business?

And which businesses, exactly, are you proposing to emulate?

Let's look at the second question first.

Which businesses is government supposed to be more like?

Would it be Wells Fargo, relentlessly defrauding its way across the American heartland, cheating one working-class victim after another?

Or Volkswagen, using its technological prowess to fake compliance with environmental rules meant to keep the planet from baking in its own heat?

Or perhaps BP, whose fatal penny-pinching gave the Gulf Coast a gooey coating of oil?

Or how about Lehman Brothers, whose risk-blind greed nearly cratered the global economy while destroying the firm?

Let's not dwell solely on spectacular examples of malfeasance. At any water cooler or backyard barbecue, you can hear ritual complaints about the cable service guy who never showed or the hour spent in "Please click 9" voicemail hell while trying to resolve a simple consumer issue.

Given all the ways business has disappointed, cheated, and battered the average American in the last decade, you'd think the clarion call would be for government to be as little like such businesses as possible.

OK, deep breath. Time for balance: Not all businesses commit such sins. Many obsess about good customer service, promote innovation, use data to drive decisions, and seek to avoid sclerotic bureaucracy.

And yes, if government did more to mimic these best practices of the business world, it would be a good thing, indeed.

But, all that granted, government still ain't the same as business.

First off, name me one business whose shareholders include every adult citizen of the United States. Or one where every shareholder (i.e. voter) is also and equally a customer.

Find me one business whose charter states its mission as "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Ask any business executive whether his bonus depends on meeting those goals - and brace for laughter. Properly so. Those simply aren't appropriate business goals, just as the phrase "maximizing shareholder value" is nowhere to be found in our nation's founding document.

(At least not yet.)

Even the noblest businesses hew to narrower goals: make profit; provide useful goods and services; enable workers to make a living.

No, the loftier job of upholding the preamble to the Constitution belongs to government, the practical embodiment of a sovereign people.

Even upstanding businesses do things in pursuit of profit that can damage these constitutional goals. An example: If you can replace 50 clerks or assembly-line workers with one digital machine, you do it. It's basic business logic.

Still, by that move, you've worsened the "general welfare" problems of income inequality, lost health care, family stress, and so on. That's not the business' problem. Business logic is remorseless. Pursued, it can produce societal gain, societal woe, or complicated blends of both. But it's not paid to care which.

Again, it's government's job to deal with such outcomes for the public welfare.

Yet people keep getting snowed that the job of government is to help business pursue profit. Actually, that's a great way to be incompetent at governing.

Government can and should deploy business insights and enlist business partners to pursue solutions - but the ultimate accountability for the general welfare rests not with Ford or Facebook or Apple, but with the people who work in oval offices and domed buildings.

They have to be clear-eyed about ways the pursuit of profit can come into conflict with the general welfare. It's not always just incidental, as with automation. A lust for lower costs and larger margins regularly tempts companies to seek to "externalize" - economist-speak for "pawn off on others" - certain intrinsic costs of their operations.

For example: Why not dump the pollutants our operations generate into the communal air and water, so those costs can be "externalized" to taxpayers' wallets - or their bodies?

Try to insist such costs properly belong to business and some business chieftains will emit well-practiced whines about choking regulation and red tape. In this, they are like middle-schoolers stamping their feet about homework. Sadly, aided by our Supreme Court, they've become adept at buying politicians who will treat their selfish squawks as the purest voice of liberty.

To sum up: Government is not the same as business. The more that government is controlled by people devoted to that delusion, the worse government becomes at its constitutionally mandated job.

We are embarked on an experiment of turning our Capitol over to such people. We can only hope the coming ugliness will teach us a lasting lesson we can put to use before it's too late.

Chris Satullo is a former Inquirer editor. @chrissatullo centersquarephl@gmail.com