Run It Like A Business, Part 1: The Myth of Valuable “Business Experience”
My sincerest hope for the eventual aftermath of the Trumpist era is that we can finally put to bed the ludicrous notion that career businessmen make good statesmen for no other reason than their business experience.
I imagine far-off future students of history chuckling at our era, when a big chunk of the country lost its goddamned mind and came to believe that wealth and self-serving dealing alone were the most desirable traits in a political leader; when people who were knowledgeable about their jobs were scoffed at; when the prior President’s experience in public service was invoked as a slur, as if being an actual public servant is a character flaw that should irreparably disqualify one from the Presidency.
The idea has always been preposterous on its face. Running a nation-state, particularly one with such deep geopolitical involvements as the United States, isn’t even remotely like horse trading, or selling overpriced real estate, or operating a slum rental “empire”, or making a buck by stiffing one’s creditors, or taking a company inherited from daddy repeatedly bankrupt. Plutocrats do not make good statesmen.
As I search my memory, I cannot think of a single example from history of a rich businessman of Trump’s type, with no experience in public service, ever successfully governing anything. It’s true that many well-regarded politicians of the past have had some business experience, and it’s also true that there have been some successful and long-running merchant republics. But, neither furnishes an example of a lifelong trader becoming a successful political and social administrator, especially in the context of a democracy.
In fact, only two examples of businessmen transitioning to statesmanship in their advanced years comes to my mind as I am typing this.
One is, of course, Silvio Berlusconi, whose four terms as Prime Minister of Italy represented one long string of embarrassments for his country, and whose corruption and self-dealing were astounding even for a region which is — rightly or wrongly — notorious for such practices.
The other is Nicias, a 5th century BC Athenian businessman-turned-politician. Nicias was a fabulously wealthy silver heir who entered politics at forty — quite an advanced age for that sort of thing by standards of the time. Public service in ancient Athens was inseparable from military service, and so when Nicias essentially bought himself an office, he also bought himself a generalship, bringing the desperately needed business experience to matters military. Athens was then at the height of its power and magnificence, and about to embark on the greatest military adventure of its history. The Athenians readied themselves for war as if for a parade; they expected a glorious campaign and an easy victory. Reality would prove very different.
As a general, Nicias is remembered chiefly for his, uh, caution. Make of it what you will; historians have cited Nicias’ meticulous avoidance of committing his troops both in condemnation and in defense. Still, after years of his army weaving and meandering about the countryside, avoiding the enemy at all costs, push eventually came to shove, and Nicias at last found himself having to do war stuff. Spoiler: he fucked it up. (In fairness, though, he wasn’t the only one.) His life ended ignominiously in Sicily, where he was taken prisoner and then executed by the Syracusans. To his credit, the silver man did try to negotiate at least somewhat charitable surrender terms for his men; to the discredit of his business experience, he failed at that too. Athenian survivors, numbering around 7,000, were enslaved and worked to death almost to the last man in the stone quarries of Syracuse, which you can still visit today, overgrown with lush vegetation.
The magnificent Syracusan amphitheater, partially built with stones quarried by Nicias’ enslaved soldiers, is nearby.
I digress a bit, of course. Still, the point I am trying to make is that I cannot think of a single instance of a businessman governing competently, or of business principles being successfully applied to politics.
One thing that terrifies me about Trump is how flippant he is about the implications of radical government policies. Governing a nation-state like the United States means condemning people to die, both abroad and at home. Whether you like it or not, and whatever your political persuasion, being in charge conceivably involves sending troops to their deaths, ordering military operations that inevitably involve civilian deaths and promoting domestic policies likely to hurt at least some people, even to the point of killing them. Nothing about commercial transactions prepares a person for the grave moral responsibility of deciding life-and-death questions on a mass scale. Meanwhile, characterizing governing a country as akin to running a business reveals both a lack of moral understanding and a moral shallowness disturbing to a degree that should disqualify a candidate from office (and, in the ideal world, disqualify a citizen from voting, but we don’t live in an ideal world).
The logic behind so many Americans’ adulation of rich businessmen is based on the idea that businesses are built, grown and run by virtue of extraordinary powers of negotiation, which can then be applied to government. This reasoning is flawed on many levels, but the most glaring error is the assumptions it contains about the lives of people like Trump and his gaggle of industry executives.
In reality, these people — white males either born into wealth or children of the middle class who became wealthy mostly through luck and connections — go through life encountering virtually no resistance (unless, of course, they become President, as Trump is finding out now). As children, adolescents and young adults, rich men get into the best schools pretty much automatically, with no pressure to stand out in academics, no nail-biting suspense over the fateful decisions Ivy League admissions officers make.
In school, they have to do only the barest minimum to pass. They are practically encouraged to be mediocre — since there is no cost to mediocrity, and no reward for excellence. They are guaranteed cushy jobs upon graduation, and funds with which to build their own wealth. I started my career nearly $100K in the red from my school loans. Trump started out his career with a $1 million “loan” from from his dad.
Should they happen, in their youth, to commit “a little mistake”, such as assault, rape, or homicide, they are almost never prosecuted for it. When, in rare cases, they are prosecuted and convicted, they are virtually guaranteed not to serve any prison time. At least not in an actual prison. Any reasonably well-off mom and dad can find a dozen acquaintances to write saccharine letters imploring the Law not to send junior to prison for “twenty minutes of action” — but as meaningless as those things are, they carry a surprising lot of water with courts. Rich young kids’ socio-economic status is almost explicitly invoked as a reason not to incarcerate, even when they commit incarceration-worthy crimes.
In their business careers, they are almost completely insulated from facing consequences of failure. There are very concrete reasons for this, but enumerating them would take long and be very boring, so suffice it to say: our entire socio-financial-legal System is constructed in such a way that it is virtually impossible for someone of Trump’s background to go broke, no matter how stupid, irrational or ill-advised his business decisions are. When I say “virtually” impossible, I mean a rich person in this country can go broke if he converts all his assets into cash and just gives it away on the street. Short of that: a rich man like Trump can lose billions, he can become considerably less rich, even to the point of being an upper-class version of “poor”, but he can never become poor in the sense of having to work as a Walmart greeter in order to pay the rent on a grimy walk-up next to the el. It’s impossible. The System will never let something like that happen. In fact, the law happily throws hundreds, thousands, and even millions of ordinary people under the bus — obliterating savings, pensions and equity, rewriting contracts and canceling legal obligations willy-nilly — just so that those who brought about the day’s financial apocalypse can remain in the lap of luxury.
People like Trump enjoy outrageous public subsidies, to the point that they never even have to pay for their leisure: taxpayers shoulder a big portion of corporate fat cat playtime, and their shareholders pick up the rest of the tab. They get used to having their gains largely shielded from taxation, and their losses transferred to the taxpayers.
They abuse the legal system to gain advantage over competitors, but are rarely punished for frivolous litigation and even outright fraud-on-the-court. Judges, after all, have their own careers to worry about, and in a system where high public officials can’t make it without rich friends, they generally avoid making enemies among the 1%.
They brag about doing things for which men of color from poor neighborhoods routinely get life sentences. Just look at Jordan Belfort. Forget the securities fraud, forget the fact that the Law doesn’t care that he hasn’t paid one red cent of the restitution which was the condition of his laughably light prison sentence. There are more mundane crimes there. The man, for many years, functioned as a pimp and a drug dealer. When a resident of the ghetto does this, we shake our heads disapprovingly and agree it merits permanent incarceration. When a rich white guy does it, it’s just amusing bad boy Wall Street hijinks, and we laugh, and pay him money to regale us with his tales of caddish heroism.
For all the talk of “corporate democracy”, no such thing exists. Chief executives give orders, and those orders are carried out. People who overstep their bounds by questioning their superiors are fired. There is no in-house criticism, only unquestioning obedience. And, since billionaires rarely suffer for having made bad management decisions, they thus live in a bubble where they receive virtually no negative feedback, from anyone, ever.
They are praised for their acumen, even if they have none. They have ghostwriters write self-aggrandizing books lecturing the hoi-polloi on how to kill it in business, full of meaningless platitudes, and the hoi-polloi, it must be said, eat it up. They really come to believe that they are unique, special, extraordinarily talented, and that they’ve overcome great adversity to get to the top. “Who’s to say what’s normal in a king?” muses the character of Dr. Willis in The Madness of King George, “Deferred to, agreed with, acquiesced in. Who can flourish on such a daily diet of compliance? To be curbed, stood up to — in a word, thwarted — exercises the character, elasticates the spirit, makes it more pliant. It’s the want of such exercise that makes rulers rigid.” Not just rigid, I would say, but deluded about themselves. And that’s how you get, for instance, Ivanka Trump, publishing a book Women Who Work, in which she describes her privileged upbringing as disadvantaged and lauds herself for the inventiveness of hustling her father’s servants — maids, bodyguards — for pocket change with her lemonade stand. What does that bitch know about having to work for a living? And yet, our society tolerates this shit, and often applauds it; I assume the publisher who picked it knows what it’s doing, at any rate.
Donald Trump was born into a wealthy family. His parents’ mansion was in Queens, and for the benefit of people unfamiliar with New York City’s geography, Trump has used that fact to portray himself as a scrappy Outer Boroughs working-class guy who spent his early years trying to break into snobby Manhattan. In reality, he came from a chichi neighborhood of ancestral mansions and had all the good things in life served to him on a gold platter. He went to an elite business school, despite the obvious fact that he is incoherent and borderline illiterate. As a businessman, with companies funded by his father’s wealth, he made his money primarily by stiffing creditors, contractors and customers. I worked for a man like that (though not Trump himself), and I learned first-hand that this is actually a perfectly legal and effective way to make money if you have a sizeable start-up capital and no soul; you can use the legal system to bleed little guys dry — and Trump was nothing if not litigious. The man created nothing of value; he increased his wealth and stature through legalized theft.
Despite the fact that, like other billionaires, he existed in a parallel universe where he was coddled and accommodated in every conceivable way, he proved colossally inept, fending off countless lawsuits and going through multiple bankruptcies. He managed to lose money even in the casino business, at a time when the economy was good and doubloons rained down on Las Vegas and Atlantic City in a downpour. Through all this, he maintained his savvy billionaire celebrity persona, writing books about making smart deals and dressing down contestants on reality TV shows.
Nothing about this life prepared him for a job of complicated decision making under constant scrutiny. Nothing about being a businessman prepared him to deal with detractors who can’t just be fired, or sued, or bought off. Nothing about living a life of no responsibility prepared him for an endeavor of such great responsibilities as the Presidency.
This is not to say that it’s impossible for a businessman to also make a good statesman — I just know of no such examples from history, and in any event, such a person would have to be a good statesman in spite of his business experience, not because of it. Contrary to popular belief, being a rich businessman rarely involves brilliance, especially on the part of already-rich white guys who inherit their standing as a birthright. The world of business is full of devastatingly mediocre white men who screw up repeatedly and get rewarded with more money and higher positions. There is no magic of business beyond that which attends the accident of birth. Be born white and male, inherit a boodle from your old man, and you’ll never have to accomplish a damned thing in your life.
Thank you for this article. You’ve articulated perfectly the differences between being a businessman and being a statesman. Hopefully some of my family members, peers and acquaintances read this blog entry (I will share the link) and rethink their position about businessmen in the White House.
We can understand why Trump was voted into office, but we (US citizens) should also understand why we should feel embarrassed about this fiasco, almost as if we should apologize to the people hurt by this nightmare, apologize to those future students of history that you mentioned. But, someone could write a book–a lengthy book–about the dummies who sat in the White House and spewed nonsensical policies that would then hurt huge amounts of people. Anyway…
Just wanted to say thank you, great stuff. I love reading your blog!
Thanks for reading, ergozen! As for your family members, I can’t hope to change minds, but if I succeed in just making people reflect, that alone would be fantastic.
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