Thursday, September 25, 2014

ON THE AVENUES: The same tired "run government like a business" mantra.

ON THE AVENUES: The same tired "run government like a business" mantra.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

It would be refreshing to hear a candidate for public office concede that the anticipated pay package for serving as an elected official would far exceed rates of remuneration at his or her current job, with this prospective increase constituting a prime reason for seeking office in the first place.

Some of those few bothering to vote these days undoubtedly would reply that public service is supposed to be about noble ideals and selfless sacrifice. I’d counter by waiting to see if the aspiring candidate puts forth the proposition that a lifetime of business experience has provided a unique opportunity to “run” government in precisely the same fashion as a taco stand, foundry or jewelry store -- at a considerable pay cut to the chief executive officer whose capitalist expertise in making money is his or her main recommendation.

Something about this equation doesn’t add up, but then again, I’ve never been very adept at mathematics.

While we were away, merrily partying in European locales where folks really can have nice things, David White made a pilgrimage to the Scribner House, and amid the swooning of resident DAR stalwarts, announced his campaign for mayor … as a Democrat.

For those just tuning in, this means that an incumbent mayor (Jeff Gahan) who garnered 64% of the vote in the 2011 general election is viewed as vulnerable within his very own party. Not unexpectedly, White revealed very little about his platform in terms of detail, although the rudiments were summarized in Daniel Suddeath's newspaper account of White's debut:

The four cornerstones of (White’s) Advance New Albany 2016 plan are: Unifying city-county government, job creation, generating a budget surplus and “exceptionalism.”

Judging from the scant content of White’s web site, we are to believe he is capable of executing this plan by virtue of his successful business background – or, as Suddeath reports:

White said he views government as a small business, and that the residents of New Albany are the customers.

The last time we heard this “government as business” argument from a mayoral candidate, the speaker was Irv Stumler, former mayor Doug England’s hand-picked successor, and Jeff Gahan’s first victim in route to a desk somewhere near Hauss Square.

At least White is younger than his predecessor.

All of which reminded me of something I wrote in March of 2011 during my city council at-large campaign. Let’s see how well it has survived the intervening three years.


Last week, I was asked how it’s been possible for me to survive in business for 20 years with a lowly BA in philosophy, rather than a degree in business.

My response: Because serendipity rules our planet, and thinking trumps rote … and I doubt they teach any of this at business school.

In fact, I went into business because (a) I love beer, and (b), an opportunity was presented for me to love beer for pay while sharing my love with others. It was nothing more, it is nothing less, and it remains nothing to build a business school curriculum around. An autobiography is still possible, although if it ever comes to fruition, there’ll be precious little in it about spreadsheets.

Yesterday afternoon at Steinert’s, as I was listening for the second time this week to mayoral hopeful Irv Stumler read aloud his extensive and admittedly admirable Curriculum Vitae, it suddenly occurred to me how America’s weird indigenous cult of business achievement has almost never captured my fancy, but instead, over long decades, mostly repelled me.

Rather, my personal heroes have always been artists, baristas, musicians, chefs, writers, actors, dancers, sportsmen, brewers and other practitioners moving within the less easily quantifiable realm of creativity. How and why they’re paid is far less interesting to me than how they create, and what they produce in an aesthetic sense. How do their physical skills capture the output of their brains?

If the business of America truly is business, then it causes me to openly shudder, and if so, my personal “business” encompasses looking elsewhere – anywhere will do – for a higher order of inspiration, as opposed to worshipping techniques to amass and maintain wealth. While it’s true that Bruce Springsteen is handsomely rewarded for creating music, give me the Boss over Donald Trump, any day. I can whistle along with music, but only wince at avarice.

As a matter of convenience, I accept the term “businessman,” but prefer to think of myself as a beer entrepreneur.

The very word “entrepreneur” strikes me as more applicable. For one thing, it’s suitably French. There’s also an element of daring and risk contained in it, contrasting with “businessman”, which sounds far too numerically vocational and conservative for my blood. Entrepreneurs sweat to create; businessmen merely manage.

The prime reason for my violent, lifelong allergic reaction to the trappings of chambers of commerce and like-minded business idolatry societies is their vacuously obnoxious glorification of business for the sake of business, in the form of endless rounds of symbolic pom-pom waving, mysterious networking rites, totemic seminars and expense account driven re-education junkets, the sum total of which is the perpetuation of eager, grasping and typically greedy cadres of business “elites”, each dressed alike, refusing to travel in steerage, wholly ignorant of the universe beyond their sales strategies, but perfectly capable of exchanging indecipherable business lingo and colloquialisms that surely would have inspired Sinclair Lewis to update the saga ofBabbitt – or in the case of Reclaim Our Culture Kentuckiana (ROCK), which uses the same sad tools in the context of God's inscrutable instructions – Elmer Gantry.

(How’s that for a paragraph, ma?)

That's why I generally refuse to wear a suit. I waited a long time to find a line of honest work that would permit me to dress like a normal human being on a daily basis. My uniform is different from yours, just as a football player’s is different from mine. Having found such a pursuit, and permitted to be both comfortable and unhesitant to dribble hot sauce down my chin, I’m hesitant to surrender the autonomy.

I’m a craft beer kind of guy, and there’s a saying in the craft beer business: We brew beer, we drink beer, and we sell what’s left. At the end of the day, if there still are a few farthings lying around, then we made a profit, and while I readily acknowledge the imperative of making a few bucks, it’s worth repeating that love of beer is what drew me to my business.

History, geography, lore and storytelling about beer are my fortes. The actual brewers can explain the enzymes. I’d rather let the finished liquid in the glass do the talking, and translate the testimony for our consumers.


The preceding digression is brought to you by my perpetual annoyance whenever I hear a businessman-turned-politician proclaim that government should be run like a business.

That’s fine with me, in the sense that if I’m elected to city council, and if wisdom like this is accepted at face value, there’ll be quite a lot of craft beer served at meetings – and other times, too.

In an effort to explain, and at the risk of oversimplifying, usually when we’re told to run government like a business, the speaker is referring to expense reduction alone, first by means of greater efficiencies, and if necessary, by making all the cuts required to balance the budget. These infamous days, the state of Indiana looks at it the same way, and will mold its ideologically-derived budget directives to cities in such a manner as to focus attention on one side of the ledger to the exclusion, and at times impossibility, of the other.

The casual, pants-down "businessman" in me responds to all this with a simple question: Okay, but what about revenues?

Generally a pudgy tea partier's finger is wagged. I'm told not to ask, and this juncture, the “government as business” fallacy loses it wheels. If government cannot address revenues as well as expenses, it’s nothing whatsoever “like” a business and should not pretend to be one.

During the hard times in 2010, my company tried mightily to increase efficiencies and reduce expenses, while at the same time improving customer count and increasing volume. One without the other makes no sense to a business, does it? We never stopped trying to make the pie bigger even as we reduced expenditures to make it through the lean period. There was no choice except to address both.

If government is to be run like a business, doesn't it have an imperative to bring in money even as less is spent? It might charge higher prices to its consumers (taxes and fees), or if unable to charge higher prices, it might increase the number of consumers paying lower prices.

Businesses balance these considerations every single day: Will the consumer pay the same price for the lowered quality of good and services? Can the quality be maintained when expenses are cut? Are there intangibles that might justify higher prices in their minds? How do we get more of them to come in and sample what we have to offer?

But beyond that, considering what government does, how are goods and services even to be measured?

In America, we have a mission statement and business plan of sorts, known as the Constitution, from which emanates numerous other mission statements and business plans for governance from the grassroots up. To be specific, how do we calculate the price of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the playing field for which it is government’s job to keep level?

Or do we abandon the mission statement because we’ve decided that human rights are too expensive for consumer/citizens who’d rather opt out of the compact, and can be out-sourced, half-assed and winked at? Need a cop? Just phone the call center in Bangalore ... and take a number.

I’ll not belabor the point. Government is not the same thing as business, and even if it might be in some obscure way, any Democratic candidate urging us to run government like a business needs to come equipped with ideas for making the pie bigger, or introducing a whole new kind of pie (sustainability and the grassroots localization of the economy spring to mind), not just coping in servile fashion with the dubious physiological “benefits” of devouring civil society’s remaining muscle in the interest of certifying the diktats of theocratic Republican ideology.

By any standard of attainment, Irv Stumler has enjoyed a solid career in business. Is he ready to discuss the other side of the ledger?

Let’s hear those ideas, too.


mollybloom said...

"Run like a business" is not and never has been a Democratic platform plank. I smell a DINO. Where are the Dems? Roger, you have posed numerous ideas for solidifying New Albany's economic footing in your post during recent years. I regret that we can't find someone to run for Mayor who improves upon Mr. White's views in a Democratic way.

The New Albanian said...

Very good point. There is nothing in White's platform to mark it as Democratic in any discernable way, although we await clarification on what the frightening word "exceptionalism" means in this context. Your DINO point is spot on. I'm afraid that if new ideas are the objective, neither the local Demos nor White will be the source.

The New Albanian said...

Oops - discernible.