by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
Donald Trump’s wildly uncontrolled mouth has made him a laughingstock to some and a hero to others. His frequent off-the-cuff and off-the-wall comments have kept him in the headlines, and he has enough money in his personal bank accounts to keep doing that for as long as he wants to. The success or failure of his political ambitions is not restricted by his ability to raise outside funding, because he doesn’t need it. If he cannot achieve the nomination of the Republican Party, he could – like Ross Perot in 1992 – create electoral havoc by paying his own way to a third-party candidacy.
Image credit: blog.timesunion.com
In the world of politics, being a say-what-you-mean, shoot-from-the-hip gunslinger has been out of fashion for quite a while. Since the advent of reliable polling, mass data collection, and focus groups, politicians have nuanced and massaged their positions on issues into a nebulous fluff that will sell to voters without alienating any significant constituency. Potential candidates are careful to say only things that are unassailable, coded, and can be walked back if the public’s response is unexpectedly harsh.
Presidents of our past have often been outspoken and untamed. Theodore Roosevelt – one of the few presidents considered by historians to be both widely popular and administratively effective – would today be unelectable. If an energetic “Yeeeah!” in a speech trying to rally supporters after a defeat in the Iowa caucuses could effectively end the political career of Howard Dean, TR would have been sent to the sidelines long before anybody knew he was a serious candidate. He’d have “pulled a Howard Dean” about ten times a week. Part of that is because speaking to modern television audiences requires a different presentation than an unamplified stump speech to a large room full of listeners, but even mastering the use of modern media would not have changed Roosevelt’s personality.
This is not to say that Donald Trump is this century’s Teddy Roosevelt – far from it. In foreign policy, Trump’s positions are similar to TR’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick” (well, maybe not the “speak softly” part), but his domestic and economic policy positions are a long way from Roosevelt’s progressive/reformist views. And that’s the real problem with Trump.
Trump is the apotheosis of the “run-government-like-a-business” shills. That crowd is large and loud, including numerous governors and senators and a host of lower-level office-holders. If pressed, the other Republican candidates would almost certainly play the same tune. And – historically, anyway – it’s not just the Republicans.
The problem is that you can’t run government like a business for the same reason you can’t run a business like government. The reason is not only because a representative government with three branches is messy and cannot be directed from the office of a controlling CEO with a compliant board of directors. Simply put, the public and private sectors have different purposes. Government is not a business; it’s a service. It is the nature of businesses that they make money. They must make money. A business works for its own financial benefit. In government working for financial benefit is against the law.
John T. Harvey expressed it succinctly in an essay in Forbes magazine: “The problem in a nutshell, is that not everything that is profitable is of social value and not everything of social value is profitable.”
Public health administration, such as the licensing of doctors to protect the public from dangerous quacks or the inspecting of restaurants to ensure food safety, is not something that can turn a profit. A local police force is not a profitable venture, nor is a national military force. You can’t make money running an Environmental Protection Agency or a local/national parks system. Some public entities started out as businesses (e.g., fire departments and mass transit) but could not make money and still provide necessary levels of service. Sometimes it works the other way, as in the controversial privatization of initially-public prison services.
Not only that, but government is not allowed to make a profit by the systemic structure it must exist in, namely, that if someone in the private sector can make money doing something, the government is not permitted to do it. If the functions described above could be provided at a profit, do you think the government would be allowed to perform them? Of course not. They’d be private-sector businesses, and somebody would be getting rich from owning them. Somebody like Donald Trump.
Being rich – even as rich as Trump – should not ipso facto disqualify a person from public office. There have certainly been rich American presidents. George Washington was the richest man in Virginia, and possibly in the whole country. The two Roosevelts were from a wealthy extended family, as were Kennedy and the two Bushes. Likewise, just having money, whether inherited or earned, does not automatically mean an understanding of or ability in government service operations. Neither does business success. The last two men who became president by touting their business credentials were George Bush the Younger and Herbert Hoover, if that tells you anything.
Like a Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Bush, Trump made his money the old-fashioned way – he inherited it. Trump was given tens (maybe hundreds) of millions of dollars and turned it into (supposedly) a billion or more. Mostly he did it by real-estate investment and development, but in that line you have an advantage that government doesn’t have. Trump has numerous bankruptcies on his record – evidence of capital ventures that were unsuccessful as businesses. It was not Trump himself, however, who declared bankruptcy and stiffed the people he owed money to. It was his businesses, which are set up as independent entities.
A government can’t put everything in the name of some invented corporation, take all the profit for itself while the corporation incurs all the debt, and then declare the corporation bankrupt and walk away. A national government with a fiat currency is not allowed to just declare bankruptcy and start all over again with its debt erased. For more on the function of a National Debt, see my earlier post here.
Donald Trump is a character; there is no denying that. His bombastic crowing is entertaining stuff, but the downside is that his lack of verbal filters has become the story of Trump, eclipsing the real problem, which is that his political and economic ideas are ill-informed, ill-constructed, and impossible to implement. The focus of any critique of Trump should not be that his words keep him from being fit for office, but that his ideas do.