Politics & Policy

A Country Can’t Be Run Like a Business

Henry Ford, c. 1934 (Library of Congress)
Trump’s rise is the latest in a series of related errors.

For about ten minutes in the 1990s, there was a movement (more notional than real) among some economically oriented conservatives to draft Bill Gates as a Republican presidential candidate.

That seems preposterous now, knowing what we know about Gates’s politics, but at the time his political views weren’t front-and-center. The Cult of Chairman Bill thought of Gates, the man who made being a nerd paradoxically cool, as being somehow beyond politics, an emissary from the near future who would be focused on empirically measureable results and pragmatic problem-solving, as though the organic entity that is the American people, their culture, and their economy were just an engineering problem in need of some creative thinking.

Gates was attractive to a certain kind of libertarian-ish conservative because they believed at the time, as many still do, that one of the Republican party’s great challenges is cultural, that it is mired in an aggressive Evangelical fundamentalism that is off-putting outside of a few relatively narrow precincts in the South and the West. People familiar with the actual conservative movement and the realities of Republican politics, where such Christian fervor rarely is encountered (even where one expects it), must be mystified by how large it looms in the minds of many, but it does: Barry Goldwater complained of it from time to time.

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The heroic businessman, for whom Management is a boundlessly transferable talent, is free of such problems. Asked about his religious views some years ago, Gates demurred: “I don’t have any evidence about that.” Evidence! Everybody loves evidence, except when Mitt Romney talks about it, saying things like “I really like data.” Romney wasn’t the right kind of tycoon.

Trump has been successful in politics, and as a game-show host, because he is the opposite of boring. But in government, boring is good.

Henry Ford was “the people’s tycoon,” and some in the business world swooned at the news he would run for the Democratic nomination in the 1924 election. No one knew much about Ford’s beliefs, either—he might have fit in rather well at a Ron Paul rally—but the arguments were familiar, as the New York Times summarized: “Ford understands the psychology of the masses better than any man in America,” according to the Peoria Star, and he’d run the government (familiar and odious cliché) like a business, the Brooklyn Eagle affirmed. Others went on in the same style. In the event, the scandal-plagued President Harding died, and Ford declared for Calvin Coolidge. That didn’t stop him from winning the Michigan primary, after which he withdrew from the race.

If it isn’t Bill Gates or Henry Ford, it’s fast-food magnate Herman Cain, who had only a light grasp of public affairs, or Ross Perot, who had only a light grasp of reality. (The fearful Vietcong in his front yard and Lee Atwater’s plot to crash his daughter’s wedding with lesbian-porn pictures of the young lady—both products of Perot’s unhinged imagination—counseled strongly against giving the man access to nuclear weapons.) And if it isn’t Perot having a Queegesque fit over sweaty Mexicans and wily Chinamen conspiring against the decent and hard-working gentlemen of the UAW and the Teamsters, it is Donald Trump.

We never learn.

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And here I must include myself in that “we.” When Trump first announced his candidacy, I joked that the feckless casino operator who had been forced into bankruptcy court so often might be just the man to oversee the U.S. federal government, the most indebted institution in the history of humankind. Note to self: It is impossible to joke about American politics.

In an interview on Thursday, Trump suggested that the best way to deal with the U.S. national debt would be the way he dealt with those embarrassing junk bonds financing the Trump Taj Mahal when he couldn’t afford to make the interest payments: default.

Trump’s apologists, who are legion and illiterate, insisted that this isn’t what he meant, that he simply intended to “renegotiate” a portion of our national debt, or to “restructure” the debt. What does not seem to have occurred to them is that in the context of a sovereign debtor, “renegotiation” and “restructuring” effectively are synonyms for “default.”

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In spite of his having been so bad at the gambling business, Trump clings to his casino mentality: “I would borrow,” he said, “knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal. And if the economy was good, it was good. So, therefore, you can’t lose.” One suspects that he told investors in the Trump Taj Mahal, that money-hemorrhaging Atlantic City eyesore, roughly the same thing.

Governments are not casinos. They are not hotels. They are not condominia built on foundations of corruptly purchased political favoritism in New York. They are not businesses at all.

You can’t lose? Don’t bet on it.

#share#Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times, reporting Trump’s daft comments on public finance, archly observed: “Trump’s statement might show the limits of translating his business acumen into the world of government finance.” One suspects he would have written the same thing if Trump had explained his debt plan in some other way: “Plastics,” maybe, or “Strawberries!”

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Junk bonds get a bad rap: If those Reagan-era investors had held onto their Michael Milken portfolios, they’d have ended up doing pretty well, provided they had the wherewithal to ride out the volatility that inescapably is associated with high-risk/high-yield debt. (Trump’s junk-bond buyers, alas, did not make out so well.) But the instruments issued by the United States Treasury are not — not just yet — junk bonds.

Trump has been successful in politics, and as a game-show host, because he is the opposite of boring. But in government, boring is good. It is an especially excellent quality in chief executives. Regular political order, peaceful succession of governments, open and stable courts applying the law in a predictable fashion, steady economic conditions, boring bourgeois society: These are the building blocks of which happy nations are made.

#related#Henry Ford probably understood that, which probably was a large part (but not the only part) of his anti-interventionism and his suspicion of international business interests. Bill Gates seems to understand that too, which is why his philanthropic work concentrates so heavily on unsexy endeavors such as vaccinations, agricultural development, and malaria eradication. (The managerial progressive mind is in evidence in his tragic enthusiasm for what is euphemistically called “family planning.”) Ross Perot is a cracked and a low-grade megalomaniac (Texas gazillionaires are a distinct type; cf. T. Boone Pickens), but even his eccentric enthusiasms were rooted in old-fashioned notions such as thrift.

Donald Trump? He’s a guy standing in front of the roulette table promising: “You can’t lose.”

Republicans apparently intend to test that hypothesis.

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