Why Conservatives Don't Really Want the U.S. to Run Like a Business

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Earlier this week, Florida timeshare mogul David Siegel sent an email to his company's 7,000 employees imploring them to vote for Mitt Romney. He didn't quite threaten their jobs; instead, Siegel argued that if Obama raised taxes on the wealthy any time in the next four years, it would be so devastating that'd he'd be forced to start laying people off. The letter was published on Gawker, and now Siegel, never a bashful sort -- he and his wife are building a 90,000-square-foo house they've nicknamed Versailles, after all -- has explained himself to Bloomberg Businessweek.  

"If only businessmen voted in the election, Romney would win 99 to 1," he told the magazine. "The United States is like a big company, and we need a CEO to run it."

This is a curious metaphor that's worth pondering for a bit. Republicans are fond of saying government should run more like a business, which presumably means it should keep an eye on costs and strive to balance its budget, even if that means cutting services we all like. They repeat this nostrum often enough that "The Daily Show" dedicated a whole segment to skewering the idea. (Spoiler: we're firing Wyoming.)  

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But running the whole country as a business? That's a different notion altogether, and one that would probably require abandoning some very dear conservative principles.  

Think, for a moment, about what corporations are. They exist to make a return for shareholders and are generally managed from the top down. Every few months, a CEO has to ask themselves: "Are my investors richer than they were four quarters ago?" If the answer is yes, chances are they've done their job. If the answer is no, it's their obligation to cut costs and boost revenue. Once the boss comes up with a strategy for making it happen, it's everybody else's task to implement it. 

Upshot: They're dictatorships that turn a profit. 

This is not how most people envision the United States, thankfully, and especially not conservatives. We're a messy democracy that leaves much in our economy up to chance (or, if you prefer, the market). There's no official growth target for the economy. The Federal Reserve can set all the employment benchmarks it wants, and nobody else is required to play along. Congress can tell the president to take his jobs plan and shove it. Corporations can take tax cuts designed to spur hiring and spend them on fat dividend checks for shareholders instead. 

Tim Cook, by contrast, doesn't have to worry about Apple's R&D department using its design budget on catering.     

There are countries out there that do run themselves more like businesses. We just don't emulate them. They have heavy-handed industrial policies geared at cultivating individual sectors of the economy while keeping employment and trade surpluses high. China sets explicit targets on everything from GDP to education to the number of movie screens around the country, then helps make it happen by directing banks to hand out low interest loans to state-owned enterprises. Once upon a time, Japan's powerful government bureaucrats helped transform their country into the world's most fearsome exporter. We started calling their corporate giants "Japan, Inc."

This all may sound vaguely familiar to you. With his clean energy programs and proposals to subsidize manufacturing, President Obama has pursued a diet version of these industrial policies. But even those relatively modest stabs at industrial policy have gotten push-back, most of all from Republicans. The majority Americans, for better or worse, don't really seem to want the Untied States to run like a business. Nor, I imagine, does David Siegel. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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