Here we go again. Meg Whitman, the latest in a long line of corporate chieftains promising to “run government like a business,” has formally announced her candidacy for California governor.
The conceit of America’s business elite is striking. Even after our entire financial system was nearly scuttled last year through the incompetence and greed of so many “brilliant” executives, they continue to peddle the myth that they are better qualified to run the country than anyone else.
Their attitude stems from the worn out “government/bad, private sector/good” argument. By this logic, we are supposed to believe that a billionaire CEO will run California better than a career civil servant or another qualified candidate.
Ronald Reagan crystallized the argument in his inaugural address, attacking government as America’s biggest problem. But Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently turned that mantra on its head, gently reminding us that during last year’s financial meltdown, business was the problem and government was the solution.
In the halls of power, business lobbyists love to contrast the mythological competence of corporate executives to the abject ignorance of elected politicians. They tout the private sector’s efficiency over the public sector’s profligate wastefulness. But the credibility of these clichés has been sorely eroded by the near-death experience of our free enterprise system.
Has Whitman unwittingly issued a promise that Sacramento will become even more dysfunctional than during the darkest days of the most recent budget meltdown?
Will her brochure claim the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy as a benchmark for the financial acumen she intends to bring to Sacramento?
Will her primetime TV spots call upon voters to remember the imminent collapse of the world’s biggest insurance company – AIG – before the federal government stepped in to rescue it?
Does the billionaire former CEO intend to send mailings reminding voters about corporate America’s multi-million dollar pay packages, which became universal symbols of greed and selfishness?
Or will Whitman’s speeches explain that last year’s trillion-dollar government bailout of big business is simply a model for what the private sector can do to breathe new life into a nearly bankrupt state government?
Come on Meg! Get real.
The widespread corruption and financial malfeasance that brought about last year’s crisis has sullied the collective reputation of corporate America. The “private sector knows best” adage simply no longer holds true.
But there is a more egregious fallacy at work in Whitman’s candidacy, the idea that corporate management and political leadership are the same thing.
Great leaders don’t wear green eye shades; they hire the people who do. And while watching the bottom line is an important skill, negotiating with the multiple factions in the public sector is far different than sending an executive edict to a corporate division head.
Corporations and the military have command structures and a strict hierarchy of authority. Democracy does not. Change depends on a leader’s ability to inspire, cajole and intimidate in an arena where almost no one is dependent on the leader for their livelihood and where a leader has no direct authority over an interest group or even a citizen.
In a democracy, the leader works for the people. In a corporation, the people work for the leader.
These are the attributes of successful political leadership:
First, leaders must have the charisma to marshal public opinion around an agenda. Second, they must be willing to confront the opposition without condemning their motives. Third, they must tirelessly court allies. Fourth, they must have insight into the motivations and constraints of opposition factions and their leaders. Fifth, they must be willing to fashion reasonable compromises in order to bring about incremental reform of a complex system.
Finally, a leader must be an active participant in the democracy. That means voting. Whitman’s failure to vote in elections throughout most of her adult life is bewildering, if not disqualifying.
There are more than 35 million citizens in California. Let’s abandon the preposterous pretense that managing eBay – an auction website – requires the same skills as leading a state larger than most nations in the world.