The GOP's cult of the businessman
Republican skepticism of experts — especially economists, climatologists, and Ivy League professors — has its limits. Military experts get a pass. So do supposed experts in running a business.
You can see that latter point in the CEO-heavy Trump administration, which features a rather novel combination of business acumen and government amateurism. If every Trump nominee gets congressional approval, notes Pew Research, his team will have more "businesspeople with no public-sector experience than have ever served in the Cabinet at any one time."
You see, much as GOPopulists hate elites in general, they're very willing to tolerate (or even celebrate) multi-billionaire elites as long as they've cut a paycheck. Cultural elites bad. Financial elites good.
It wasn't always this way, of course. Many Republicans — including House Speaker Paul Ryan — found their way into right-wing politics through their exposure to thinkers such as Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell. Republicans used to say they belonged to the "party of ideas." Some still call themselves "Constitutional conservatives," signaling deep allegiance to the notion that the American Project is based on a particular set of universal ideas, as manifested in its founding documents.
But for many of today's Trumpublicans, America's best and brightest are found almost exclusively in the private sector, such as the Wall Street "killers" whom Trump argues are needed to negotiate better trade deals on behalf of the U.S. The practical knowledge that big business bosses supposedly have is what's needed to turn around America. Only they — and Trump most of all, of course — understand the deep magic that made America great in the past and surely will again soon.
I'll gladly concede that there is some truth here. Despite Democratic complaints of plutocracy, a business background can provide policymakers with a valuable skill set, including financial acumen, knowledge of economic trends, and an understanding of how public policy actually behaves once set free in the wild. It's a shame President Obama didn't consult more with his jobs council, filled with some of America's top CEOs.
But GOP appreciation for the private sector risks turning into something unhealthy when business acumen is seen as the only true source of policy wisdom, and we start believing only business people can solve our problems. Perhaps the purest distillation of this view comes (ironically) from a conservative think-tank economist. In a recent op-ed, the Manhattan Institute's Diana Furchtgott-Roth advises President Trump to ignore critics who say his administration lacks economists. Her argument is no more complicated than this: Trump's CEOs are richer than economists, so listen to the former, not the latter. As Furchtgott-Roth writes in her piece, "Trump doesn't need economists":
Trump has named a talented team to improve the economy. These individuals have been successful in their own fields — far more successful than the average economist. … Take Wilbur Ross, for example, who has been nominated for commerce secretary. Ross has turned around many companies, and has a net worth of about $2.5 billion to show for it. Practically no economist is a multi-billionaire. That's the kind of person that is needed to turn around the American economy, not someone who writes academic articles in scholarly journals. ["Trump doesn't need economists"]
It's debatable whether a top economist would make a better treasury secretary or Federal Reserve chair than a Wall Street banker. But saying economists have little to offer policymakers — or at least much, much less than businesspeople — because they're not super-wealthy is intellectually unserious. Should the worth of someone adding to the stock of human knowledge be gauged by their personal wealth? The mere suggestion is nonsensical. Plus, many top businesses employ lots and lots of economists. Google has a chief economist. Many of the fastest-growing technology firms have been scooping up economists left and right. That would seem a pretty important market test of economist value!
Some of Trump's CEOs could do with a little more economic expertise. Ross, for instance, seems to misunderstand some very basic, non-controversial concepts regarding international trade. But more importantly, what's good for big business isn't necessarily what's best for America. Tax breaks and regulations may help incumbent companies by giving them an unfair advantage over startups and other new competitors. But consider that approach nationwide: It's obviously bad for innovation and economic growth.
Rather than being pro-business — which smells of crony capitalism subsidies and bailouts — Republicans should be pro-market and support a competitive, dynamic economy where businesses of all sorts must constantly innovate to survive. Likewise, a belief in the importance of the private sector and the power of free enterprise shouldn't mean automatically approving everything that happens in the business world or ignoring misdeeds like Wall Street's role in the financial crisis. Republicans shouldn't counter the Cult of Government with their own Cult of Business.