One of the most consistent tropes of conservative political rhetoric in America is that Businessmen Do It Better. They insist that private enterprise is the wellspring of all political wisdom, whether that means privatizing state-run programs, outsourcing key government capacities to rapacious corporations, or above all simply electing business leaders to high office.
Well, now we have the purest example in American history of a businessman president. Donald J. Trump is the richest president in decades, and unlike every one of his predecessors, he has precisely zero political experience. Instead he constantly touts his business acumen as being more than enough qualification for being president.
The result: absolute disaster, and not just because he's advancing disastrous policies (though he is doing that). President Trump is also an atrocious manager, precisely because his business instincts are catastrophically ill-suited to the presidency.
The latest in the rolling tsunami of Trump-bungling stories comes from an investigation into executive branch staffing by The New York Times. They find that he is far, far behind the average in filling appointed executive branch jobs, with only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of open positions filled — and no sign the backlog is going to be eased anytime soon.
Why? Last month, Trump insisted that many of those positions are "unnecessary." Now, this is surely in part to cover up the fact that the backlog is due to Trump's instability, his insistence on slavish personal loyalty, and his sheer incompetence. The Trump team apparently does intend to fill most of those posts.
However, the administration is also proposing large cuts to many government agencies. And what's more, this general style is a signature Trump business tactic. He made his money by borrowing hugely to exploit a housing bubble, by structuring contracts to enrich himself at the expense of his creditors, and by straight-up looting his business investments. Neglecting to hire nine-tenths of the executive staff smacks of the many times that he deliberately refused to pay his construction laborers. Though he obviously wasn't planning to cut workers so as to increase his own salary, a man focused with laser precision on getting more for himself and less for everyone else will naturally struggle to grasp the necessity of compiling a big roster of qualified bureaucrats. Indeed, one gets the very strong sense that Trump didn't have the first clue about these staffing needs until just now, much less how to make government do what he wants.
A probable rejoinder to this argument is that Trump is not actually much of a traditional businessman, unlike, say, Jeff Bezos. He never actually built the sort of canonical business where you sell something at a profit. Surely running Amazon would be better preparation for the presidency than Trump's career?
On the one hand, I do imagine that President Bezos would at least be able to round up enough people to staff out the executive branch. He probably would not have Trump's level of egomania or chaotic pettiness. But on the other, Trump also shares many misunderstandings that are practically universally espoused by the business class — believing that the government is chock-full of wasteful spending, or failing to grasp the implication of borrowing in one's own sovereign currency.
But more fundamentally, Trump's style of business is far more representative of modern American capitalism than Henry Ford. Smash and grab business, coordinated by Wall Street — where corporations are bled dry for quick profits and competitive markets are rolled up into stagnant oligopolies — is far, far more standard today than the plucky start-up entrepreneur. As economist J.W. Mason has shown, corporate profits and borrowing are mostly no longer sunk back into the business — instead they are immediately kicked out to shareholders in the form of dividends and share buybacks. The 2012 Republican presidential nominee was a specialist in just this sort of bloodsucking financial chicanery.
Even Amazon — which does not disgorge the cash like this, at least not yet — has lost much of its traditional business form. Instead it acts more and more like a platform monopolist, using its strategic position as the route by which other online business is conducted to extract payment.
Indeed, it's hard to see how anyone could possibly swallow the conservative business-worship line in the first place, in an age when most large businesses are incompetent price-gouging oligopolists. There are probably more socialists created on the customer service line with Comcast or Aetna than socialist organizers have ever converted.
But at any rate, the government is not a business, and not simply because its basic structure and function are dissimilar to that of a corporation. The really bedrock difference, as Charles Peters writes in his new book We Do Our Part, is that quality government requires a sense of public spiritedness and a moral conscience. Sociopathic pursuit of profit at all costs — the defining characteristic of the modern American businessman — is a route to corruption and disaster.